Standing up for Science

Last week I was lucky enough to be able to attend a media workshop “Standing up for Science” organised by the “Voice of Young Science” network, run by the charity “Sense about Science”. The event was held on Friday 22nd of September, and hosted by the University of Edinburgh. Sense about Science are a charity who focus on the misrepresentation and public understanding of science, dealing particularly with controversial issues, such as the MMR vaccine, GM crops and climate change. Their main area of work is helping the public understand the science around these kinds of issues specifically, and also the scientific method more generally.


I’d been made aware of the event through the IGMM communications team, who circulated a promotional flyer, and the day sounded right up my street, due to my own (possibly slightly geeky?) passion for science communication. Admittedly the flyer very nearly put me off attending, as it stated the event was “Free for STEM early career researchers (PhDs, post-docs or equivalent)” and little old me with no postgraduate training beyond my BSc (Hons) and in the infancy of my technical career wasn’t sure if it would be suitable for me. But shy bairns get nowt; so I got in touch with the “Sense about Science” team and they replied positively, saying that although the event was primarily aimed at PhD and post-docs, if I applied I would definitely be considered. I think the lesson here is don’t feel limited (particularly when it comes to science communication) because you are a technician.

The event itself took for the form of three fairly informal panels; covering “Science and the media,” “what journalists are looking for,” and “standing up for science – the nuts and bolts;” with small amounts of group work between the panels. A lot of ground was covered in all of the panels so this post is more a quick look at some of the points that I found especially interesting, rather than a thorough overview at the day. For the “science and the media” panel there was Prof. Claire Halpin, dean of research at the school of life science at the University of Dundee, and a plant scientist who previously worked as part of a GM poplar field trial, which was destroyed by GM activists; plant evolution scientist, Dr. Mario Vallejo-Marin, associate professor in Biological and Environmental sciences at University of Stirling; and Prof. Sergio Della Sala, a cognitive neurobiologist at the University of Edinburgh, who in true Italian style decided boundaries exist only to be pushed, brought a short power point presentation (which opened with the cat picture above) to a day when panellists were asked not to bring slides. There were lots of interesting points so I’m just going to focus on what I thought were the key messages of the day. Sergio’s main theme of the day was that journalists are not the ‘bad guys’, if scientists over-hype their results, journalists will write an over-hyped piece. Quite a few points came up around how do we get people excited about more basic science, which may not be glamorous, sexy or likely to imminently cure cancer? Mario told us a story about meeting a journalist at a party, and Mario’s passion for his subject helped spark the journalist’s interest in a plant Mario’s lab was studying, which led to media coverage of his research. A common topic which came up from all members of the panel was the question of whether we as scientists are responsible to debunking bad science where we can. I think most people present agreed we do have a responsibility, but debunking can be very difficult as you may reinforce the misinformation by bring their attention back to the false or misleading stories. In the final round up from our panellists, I particularly liked Claire’s most pressing take home of just get out there and communicate your science, because it is (or at least should be) fun!

Before lunch there was a bit of group work to be done (got to earn that catered lunch), four points on what the media does well when it comes to reporting on STEM topics, and four areas where we felt they needed to improve. This prompted a bit of debate within the group, and true to form as scientists we ended up being quite cagey and broad when trying to draw our conclusions. Although I think the general proximity to the waiting lunch may have hampered some of our capabilities for reasonable thought. Over lunch there was socialising and the always awkward networking, (I think I said “sample to insight” at least once Lee. ;)) There was a fairly eclectic mix of lunch time conversation topics, which included the MMR controversy; challenges women feel exist to their career progression in STEM; and a little bit about some of the barriers that may stop working class individuals pursuing a career in academia. After lunch it was time for the next panel, which with powers of thought restored, it became clear the group work was meant to prime us for. The “what journalists are looking for panellists” were Jane Feinmann, a freelance journalist who specialises in health reporting ; Wendy Grossman, a freelance journalist and founder of the Skeptic; and Kevin Keane, BBC Scotland’s environment, energy and rural affairs correspondent. This panel opened with each group feeding back their four good and not so good points about “the media” after the panel were introduced. Kevin admitted that journalists have spent so much of their training being told to present a balanced story, even when the two sides are not balanced in terms of amount and quality of evidence, and admitted this is maybe something journalists need to be better at, using debates around climate change as an example where the BBC were potentially hindering public understanding by “putting up lobbyists against top scientists as though their arguments on the science carry equal weight.” Regarding press releases the opinion of the panel was that they personally will not read anything that is obviously sent to a general list of journalists, and are likely to be looking for an exclusive rather than a press release which has gone to every major news organisation. Another important point that was made is that journalists are typically generalists, and will be covering a science story one day, and a police incident the next, so they rely on us to give them an accurate account of our research and the scientific method, as this is often not their area of expertise. Also worth bearing in mind that in the media, what counts as newsworthy is often an interesting story, rather than the science behind the story. Overall a really interesting panel, and it was great to get the inside view from journalists.

Another group activity over tea and biscuits, this time discussing some of the barriers that prevent us getting out there and communicating our science. Once again this helped focus our minds on the kinds of practical guidance we could hopefully get from the next session “Standing up for science – the nuts and bolts.” Panellists were Beatriz Goulão, a PhD student at the University of Aberdeen and a keen science communicator; Jen Middleton, media and PR manager for the University of Edinburgh press office; and Lindsay Murphy, founder of “Be Experimental,” a science entertainment company, who organise kids parties and events with a scientific twist. Some key points from this session included the importance of being available (a common theme from the day involved most of the panellists having an experience of finding a really interesting paper, getting in touch with the researcher to find out more, only to find out the researcher went on holiday immediately after the paper was published.) A lot of practical information was given out in this session, but one of the most important points was just to make yourself available. Jen also advised us not to be snobby about tabloids, as often they are quite good are explaining research in more simple terms and de-jargoning, something scientists struggle more with. A common issue raised by the group as something that limits our ability to communicate science is a lack of confidence, but confidence comes with experience so it’s important to get out there and just do it!

Day over it was time to head to the pub. A couple of drinks down and some scientific and some sociable chat out of the way I decided to call it quits and head home. It definitely took a bit of adjusting when I got home to remember not everyone gets quite as excited about science communication as me, spending an hour boring my poor partner to tears catching him up on my day’s highlights. Overall I thought it was a really interesting day and would recommend it to anyone who is passionate about science communication. To finish off my top three take home points from the day, in no particular order:

  1. Have an elevator pitch, that sums up your area of research in 1-2 minutes, this can be a great way to pique the public’s interest and open the door to provide more details.
  2. Scientists have a duty to inform the public about our research, particularly because as taxpayers they fund that research.
  3. Enthusiasm is infectious. If you are excited and passionate about your research, it’s much easier to get other people excited by it.

Sarah McCafferty is a Research Technician in the ECRF Genetics core, primarily working in sample processing. She is passionate about science communication, spends too much time looking at cat gifs and can be found on twitter @ScienceSaz


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