Communicating Science to Society

I attended a workshop on Communicating Science to Society at Evolution Ottawa 2012. The workshop was hosted by two science writers, Peter Calamai and Richard Webster and there were about one hundred people at the session.

The goal was ...
Whether you need to learn the basics or fine tune the dark art of science communication, this half day workshop is for you. Come for insider advice from a group of North America’s top science communicators. The session will open with evolutionary ecologist Tom Sherratt talking about his experience with the media and why he does it. The panellists will introduce an area of journalism and discuss their experiences with interviewing researchers. Then the panel discussion will expand on some of the challenges scientists face and the practical communication solutions. Finally a break-out session will allow for an interactive round table letting participants choose a topic of particular interest (how to give an interview, how to pitch a science book to a publisher, 101 for scientists using social media). The workshop will conclude with a networking session between fellow science communicators and the panellists. By the end, delegates can expect to have built a strategy as to how to effectively approach and handle different media opportunities (such as TV, radio, print & social media) and also leave with a handout of useful tips.
The panelists were ....
  • Carl Zimmer (NYT columnist & author of A Planet of Viruses and many other best sellers)
  • Penny Park ( Producer of CBC’s Quirks & Quarks and Discovery Channel’s The Daily Planet. Now Executive Director of the Science Media Centre of Canada)
  • Elizabeth Howell Ottawa Business Journal, freelance science journalist and social media expert
  • Tim Lougheed Freelance science journalist
I've been to half a dozen of these meetings at various conferences. The main theme is always the same. It consists of a bunch of science journalists telling scientists how we should help them (the journalists) make a living at science writing. We are told repeatedly that they have deadlines and editors and that they have to write about science in a way that appeals to the general public. We are told that if we want our research to be publicized then it has to to be cool and sexy and if it isn't then the science writers will help us "frame" it in a way that appeals to the public.

At this meeting, the emphasis was all about deadlines and writing about the latest papers from your labs. The science writers thought that we all wanted to get our latest hot results on the front pages of the newspapers. That's just not true. It's not what science is all about and it's not what we need in order to increase public awareness of science. (To his credit, Carl Zimmer seems to understand this better than other science journalists.)

What we need is not more splash about the latest Nature paper on the evolution of mimicry in insects. What we need is more articles on what evolution is and why it's so important. If science writers were really in the business of communicating science to the public then that's what they would be writing about. That, and topics like; what is DNA, how do genes work, what's in your genome, what causes speciation, why bacteria are important etc. etc.

The public needs to know the basics and they need to appreciate excitement of understanding what life is all about. They need Biology 101, not some senior level course that focuses on the latest research. That kind of science writing doesn't have to be done in a hurry before the embargo expires and it would be a much more useful way of communicating science to society.

Just once, I'd like to attend a meeting like this where the science journalists admit that they have been remarkably unsuccessful at educating the general public about science. Instead of telling us how to fit into the current failed system, I'd like them to ask us how they can change the way they write about science in order to advance science literacy.

I don't think that's ever going to happen. As a general rule, science writers seem to think that they are the experts on communicating science to the general public and all they need to do is teach us scientists how to work the system and tell people what they want to hear. It never occurs to them that the system is broken and that's why we have a scientifically illiterate society.

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