Standing up for Science

Standing up for Science

It is so important that scientific research is carried out in a sound way, that it is communicated to the media clearly and effectively, and that it’s reported by the media accurately. It doesn’t always happen! From time-to-time ‘fake news’ circulates, and that’s not good. Yesterday I attended the Voice of Young Science “Standing up for Science” workshop hosted by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. It was absolutely brilliant!

Science communication is extremely important. As science is government-funded I feel that it’s only right we give back to society through engaging the public with research by communicating the intricacies in a digestible format for anyone to understand. Communicating our science effectively builds trust between the public and researchers, plus who doesn’t love to learn something new?!

As an aspiring science communicator, standing up for science and dealing with the media, journalists and ‘fake news’ could be of great relevance.  The idea of speaking about research to the media can seem daunting. What happens if you say something foolish and it will stick with you forever?! Well, the workshop provided us with the opportunity to meet scientists who’ve engaged with the media, as well as hearing from the journalists themselves about how the media works and what they want from scientists.

Here’s my summary of the day and what I learnt from the workshop.

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Session 1: Science and the media

Each panellists retold stories of their experiences with dealing with the media which were fascinating. We heard about the positives and the negatives and they dished out some useful tips.

Panel 1
Photo: Voice of Young Science

Panellists:

Prof. Johnathan Napier: leading pioneer in plant biotechnology and GM field trials at Rothamsted Research.

“What’s the point in doing the science if you aren’t going to tell anyone about it?”

Dr Helen O’Neil: molecular geneticist working in embryology and IVF at the Institute for Women’s Health, UCL.

If you don’t know the answer, you can turn it around and say your key message in a different way – “it’s a second chance of getting the message across.”

Nataliya Tkachenko: PhD student at the Warwick Institute for the Science of Cities.

“Remember, it is your interview so it is your choice what information you give out.”

Take-home messages:

  • It’s better to get media training in advance.
  • The media will take you word-for-word.
  • Certain words have a bad reputation (e.g. designer babies), so be wary!
  • Ask for the questions before the interview – but it’s not guaranteed they’ll ask those and only those! Anything can happen with the media.
  • If it’s a pre-recorded interview or a written article, ask to hear/read the final version before it’s sent out.
  • Think about the message you want to get across. Your mind will go blank so remember the overall message. You have the power to turn the conversation back round.
  • A lot of news is online so if there are any inaccuracies you can ask for them to be changed.
  • Go to science festivals, and any opportunities to engage with the public is great experience.

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Session 2: What journalists are looking for

The two panellists both spoke about how they work as a journalist, what their typical work day looks like and what they expect from scientists. The media can get a bad reputation, but it was nice to see that scientists and journalists have not-so-dissimilar perspectives.

Panel 2
Photo: Voice of Young Science

Panellists:

Jane Symons: freelance health writer and contributor to national newspapers. Dislikes nutritional nonsense and debunked homeopathy.

“Journalism is high stress but you get instant gratification.”

Oliver Moody: science correspondent at The Times.

“Journalists do go out of their way to get a well-rounded story.”

Take-home messages:

  • Journalists have tight time deadlines – 4-5 stories a day and writing might not start until the afternoon.
  • Clarity and simple explanations is vital – journalists are not always from a science background and so they can misinterpret, but it’s not intentional!
  • The story has to be entertaining – journalists are there to engage the reader.
  • Scientists can be just as guilty at ‘over-egging’ a story as journalists are.
  • It is okay to ask to check quotes before print.
  • Scientists and journalists work to different time frames. If you want to engage with the media, respond quickly! Knowing you respond quickly means it’s more likely they’ll contact you again.
  • Talk with your institute’s press office before speaking to the media. They’re there to help.
  • Journalism is very competitive, it is not always a collaborative field

 

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Session 3: Standing up for Science – the nut and bolts

This session was all about us being able to get practical guidance in getting our voices heard in debates about science and evidence. We learnt about how to respond to bad science if we see it, and top tips when coming face-to-face with a journalist.

Panellists:

Hilary Jones – senior press officer at the Medical Research Council.

“Speak to your press officer about any bad experiences.”

Leah Fitzsimmons – postdoctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. Very proactive public engagement volunteer.

“There’s a risk of controversial issues being misinterpreted by media and public but we need the scientific voice in those debates most of all.”

Martin Smith – specialist for the House of Commons Science and Technology.

“Scientists should be active in making policy decisions. If you don’t, someone else will.”

  • Tell your institute’s press office about your paper when it’s just been accepted – don’t have to wait until publication.
  • Send the press office an image or video to go with the paper, they help to promote it!
  • Provide nice quotes. Again, helps the press office in producing a good press release.
  • Don’t have to be a public engagement specialist – small bits of training add up.
  • Be clear on what you want to communicate.
  • Practice communicating science through university magazines and blogs!
  • Get involved in social media. Check whether your institute has a social media policy.
  • If you go to the committee about a science issue, they’ll talk you through it and strive for a positive experience.
  • All scientists can be involved in committee meetings and what policy issues should be looked into.
  • Start in a ‘safe’ place. Sense about Science and their ‘Ask for evidence’ campaign is a great place to go.
  • Be an ambassador of the thing you love!

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The workshop was incredibly inspiring and thought-provoking. There was definitely a lot of information to take away from the day, and I highly encourage any other early career researchers/scientists to attend this workshop!

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To top the whole day off we attended the 2017 John Maddox Prize ceremony, an award given to a scientist who has promoted sound science and evidence on a matter of public interest with perseverance and courage. Dr Riko Muranaka won the award for her efforts in countering HPV vaccine misinformation. A truly inspiring talk. You can read more about why she won the prize here.

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