Science Communication: What it takes

01 January 2017 Categories: Communication, Science

Science achieves little if it stays in the lab. Here’s what you need to get it out to the world, says Jessica Eise

Communicating about science is a noble profession, and one that’s becoming increasingly and ever more popular. Yet it isn’t the right fit for everyone. I got started in this field about five years ago, and was surprised by many of the things I needed that no one had ever mentioned. Here’s what no one ever tells you you’ll need.

Passion for science

If you don’t care about science, you’re going to burn out fast. Science is hard, so science communication is hard, too. You’re going to have to delve into complicated issues quickly. I’ve worked on projects ranging from solar panel taxes to integrated imaging, from public perceptions of pork to international trade databases. You really have to care about good science communication to get a message across. The only thing worse than no science communicator is a science communicator who hates their job.

I didn’t have an immediate interest in food and agricultural topics when I started my job. But I audited a course on food security, read tons on the subject and sat down with my colleagues to figure out why these topics are so critically important. It made all the difference.

Ability to interact with scientists and subject-matter experts

Ever been on the receiving end of one of those monologues where you’ve exhausted your full repertoire of subtle-then-not-so-subtle conversation-ending cues (check your watch, glance at the door, mention you have another meeting, yawn, fall asleep, wake up, fall asleep again)? Well that’s half the life of a journalist; in science or elsewhere. Gain patience. And a good sense of humour.

Willingness to convince others of the importance of communication

In most cases you won’t necessarily be surrounded by people who intrinsically understand and support what you’re doing — you will have to convince them of your value. Researchers have to reach the broader public with their research. If they want public funding for research to increase, they need to start investing in outreach. That’s what you’re there for. Tell them that.

After I started to lead every meeting with a justification of why communication was important, my results started to really change. If someone isn’t buying into what you’re doing, they won’t give it the time of day. You’ve got to sell it.

Creativity

Breaking down dense, dull and technical matters into engaging and attractive packages of information requires a lot of creativity. I’ve been confronted with all manner of seemingly dull topics — think tilling, corn residue, land rights, the hydrologic cycle. But if you scratch a little under the surface, you can figure out how and why this matters to people. Example: Who likes clean water? I do!

Confidence

Scientists, researchers, academics and subject-matter experts are often the most brilliant minds in the world. You’re going to have to go toe-to-toe with them on a lot of issues. You won’t always agree on the best path forward. It’s important to be able to stand your ground and have confidence in yourself and your abilities.

If you disagree with or don’t understand something a researcher says, feel free to question them, but do it with good humour. They’re subject matter experts and if you get anyone’s face with the wrong attitude, they won’t appreciate it. Where you can put your foot down, though, is when you question how they’re promoting their science, and if it’s going to the appropriate audiences. When it comes to your area of expertise, have the confidence to tell them why you think they’re wrong, and try to guide them towards the right method of communication.

When I came onboard in my current role, I felt really nervous around my colleagues. They used tons of words I didn’t understand and seemed to know all manner of things that appeared ‘obvious’ to them but weren’t to me. But I soon realized they know their subject, and I know mine. They don’t expect me to be an expert in their area. So be fearless in saying when you don’t know what a word means. If you don’t know it, the public won’t either, and that’s a great thing to catch.

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