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Getting Started with Science Communication

Guest Author, 15th February 2018

The following guest post was written by Sam Illingworth, Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Communicating your science with different audiences is a vital part of academic research. As well as being a requirement for most doctoral training programmes and grant applications, it is also an altruistic responsibility of scientists to ensure that the wider society is aware of the research that is being conducted and how it might impact on them and their communities. However, science communication is a vast landscape and knowing where to start and how to be effective can be quite daunting. As such, I have put together this Top 5 Science Communication Tips based on my own experiences, successes and numerous failures:

1. Don’t be intimidated. Science communication means many things to many people, and it is easy to get bogged down in the nomenclature. The best advice I can give you is to brush up on some of the literature, take note of effective practitioners, and to not be afraid of getting a few things ‘wrong’ when you first start out. There will always be people that disagree with what you do, but as long as you are able to defend your approach (as you would be expected to do when submitting your research for peer review) then you should have nothing to worry about. A great starting point in terms of academic research is this recent special issue on Science communication in the field of fundamental biomedical research that I co-edited for Seminars in Cell and Developmental Biology. Even if you are not a biologist, many of the articles still provide practical advice, with the editorial providing a useful introduction to further academic research in the field of science communication.

2. Work out what your Unique Selling Point (USP) is. When I first started communicating my research to a wider public I was guilty of a rather scattergun approach. Since then I have realised that it is far more effective to focus my efforts into science communication initiatives that are aligned with specific topics; for me these are poetry and tabletop games. By focussing on science communication initiatives that incorporate either (or both) of these disciplines I have been able to carve out my own niche and ‘brand identity’. It has also meant that it is much easier for me to…

3. Learn how to say no. I still say ‘yes’ to far more projects than I probably should, but I am definitely much more selective than I used to be. Whilst there is an argument that saying yes to everything will lead to further opportunities, especially when you are starting off, it is also true that it can very quickly lead to you becoming overcommitted. Instead, ask yourself ‘is this activity fully aligned with my USP or personal belief system, and if not will it be of direct benefit to me?’ If the answer is no then it probably means that you should give it a miss. Doing so will also present an opportunity for someone else, somebody no doubt far better suited to making the most out of the opportunity.

4. Be patient. It takes time to hone your craft as a science communicator; whether that be improving your oratory skills, building confidence, or increasing the number of followers that you have on your social media site(s). It has taken me almost three years to build up a regular stream of traffic to my Poetry of Science blog, and for the first few months I was getting about 30 views a month. This has since increased by two orders of magnitude, but I know that there is still a lot of room for improvement. However, I also know that as long as I continue to post regular content (at least weekly), engage with other online communities, and promote my website at every available opportunity, these numbers will continue to creep up.

5. Be scientific. One of the easiest traps to fall into when first developing and delivering your own science communication initiatives is to lose sight of the scientific method. Far too many of these initiatives (including many of mine) are guilty of delivering what seems like a ‘cool’ idea without sufficient engagement with why it has been developed or how its effectiveness will be measured. Adopting a rigorous scientific approach in which you define a hypothesis (e.g. this series of classroom activities will raise awareness of ocean acidification amongst children aged 10-12), test it (carry out the activities and then follow up with the schoolchildren both immediately after and six months on from the activities), and then either reject or accept the hypothesis based on the results of the test will ensure that you maximise the effectiveness of your approach. Such an approach will also serve to benefit the wider scientific community, and will mean that you are well placed to start writing up your initiative as a piece of academic research.

I hope that this short blog post has been of interest, and of use to those of you who are starting your own journeys into the world of science communication. If you have any questions, thoughts, or useful tips then please do share them below the line.  🙂

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Dr Sam Illingworth is a Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University, where as well as being the co-director of the Games Research Network he also uses poetry to explore the potential for interdisciplinarity to solve ‘wicked’ problems. You can find out more about his research, and even read some of his poetry, by visiting his website, or following him on Twitter (@samillingworth).

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