Friday, August 7, 2009

science communicator career?!?

tonight i went to a nice dinner gathering, with various people involved in science communication and public outreach organizations from around the UK in attendance. i got a bit dressed up and walked across town in the rain in my fancy shoes, only to notice that i wasnt as dressed up as everyone else. oh well.

the more official discussions that occurred over dinner were quite enlightening to someone who has been bottled up in academia and has only recently broken out into the realm of public outreach! there isnt really a defined career path for "science communicator" it seems, and i find that rather unfortunate. the overwhelming opinion was that it is best for science professionals to communicate with schools and the public, because they are the most knowledgeable about the cutting-edge science being conducted. but its also true that there are many people eager to communicate science to the masses who lack direct avenues to pursue this goal. i agree that it is excellent for scientists to communicate directly with schools and the public at large, but its not great that most professional scientists have had no proper training in media relations or public communications.

in the US, we spend some time during our graduate student careers as teaching assistants, but for the most part this is not mandatory. in the UK, the time spent in graduate school is so short, and the financial resources are so limited, that most students dont get in front of a classroom until they are lecturers or professors. by that time in a career, one is so busy advising students, preparing lectures, grading tests, doing science, and participating in committees, that the lack of recognition for public outreach activities makes the exercise more work than its worth - unless an individual is naturally enthusiastic about the pursuit.

so - i think universities should put in a little more effort in training students and staff in public and *media* communication. this is beneficial because professors and lecturers might be more willing to engage the public if they get some sort of professional credit for their efforts, and its also positive considering the types of stories often picked up by media outlets.

one example i can think of right now is the large hadron collider (LHC). popular news media outlets necessarily try to appeal to the masses thru catchy headlines. things like "Black Holes Created by LHC Will Destroy Earth!" can get decent newspaper attention, even though the reality of that happening is ridiculously unlikely and only a couple people amid all of humanity are spouting off such silly things to the media. unfortunately, those headlines seem to be a lot more exciting than the majority of stories coming from scientists involved who are talking about quantum mechanics and fundamental particles. scientists make a huge effort to be completely accurate in all information disseminated, of course! but sometimes in an effort to be absolutely "correct," they will sacrifice flashy language that might otherwise appeal to the media and the public. hence the need for media training for current and upcoming scientists!

in my opinion, its not always about being absolutely, positively accurate in every word that comes out of your mouth... its about engaging people with the simple and exciting information that will get them curious enough to think about the subject more!!!

yet, in a time of facebook, youtube, twitter, and other sources of immediate (and not always accurate) online news... what will be the future of traditional media sources in 5, 10, 20, 40 years?? will we bother printing newspapers? will anyone be able to sift thru all the junk to get to the "real" information? will the appeal of the unobstructed internet eventually extinguish, leading us to a renaissance of tangible reading materials? after all, i think most people that still read novels like to read real books with paper pages.

with how quickly media sources and internet fads are changing, and how unexpectedly certain websites are gaining popularity, i hesitate to predict anything about how information will be distributed by today's youth in even a few years time.

these are my late night ramblings... i'm curious about the thoughts from my media-savvy audience.

12 comments:

Steve Hall said...

I found out about you purely by accident, through the 60 Symbols project (and I can't even remember how I found out about that--Lifehacker, maybe?).

As someone who's been fascinated by science (although not very apt at it), especially astronomy (50 years ago, I really thought I might have a chance at being one of the first people on Mars!), but has let that fascination lie dormant for decades, you have done so much to reopen this fascinating universe for me.

Through your blog, through Twitter, and through 60 Symbols, you are a science communicator.

I'd love nothing more than to see you and Neil DeGrasse Tyson doing NOVA together! :)

Arun Rahul said...

it seems the original ppl r too busy planning so they need somebody to pass the message on. not a bad one. the LHC example is nice one. ppl when stated facts or shared with true knowledge they may either get too much excited or too much disappointed as they don't knw the value of those. ppl have to be enhanced and that career seems to be perfect.

astropixie said...

thanks, steve! i would *love* to work with neil and be able to speak to larger audiences about how cool our universe is on its own, without having to make anything up about it! but... i have no idea how to make that opportunity happen!

we'll see where the future leads me....

mmfiore said...

As an alternative to Quantum Theory there is a new theory that describes and explains the mysteries of physical reality. While not disrespecting the value of Quantum Mechanics as a tool to explain the role of quanta in our universe. This theory states that there is also a classical explanation for the paradoxes such as EPR and the Wave-Particle Duality. The Theory is called the Theory of Super Relativity and is located at: Visit our site The Theory of Super Relativity: Super Relativity
This theory is a philosophical attempt to reconnect the physical universe to realism and deterministic concepts. It explains the mysterious.

Sarah said...

I love watching you on 60 symbols and as a consequence following you on twitter and reading your blog. Whilst I personally agree with you about the use of scientific jargon/language in my experience the general public don't seem to like it. I can't work out why. Is it intimidating? Does it make science seem harder? Personally I do have problems myself explaining science without using too much flashy language. Have a nice weekend
SarahScientist in Manchester

Meghan said...

Hi Amanda,

There are several formal programs that astronomy staff, postdocs and PhD students can access to get training on media and outreach through STFC and other organizations. A few examples:

Media training:
http://www.scitech.ac.uk/pands/courses/media_doc.aspx
(I did this and found it very useful.)

BA Media fellowships:
http://www.britishscienceassociation.org/web/scienceinsociety/MediaFellowships/

For postgrad students, there's
http://www.researchersinresidence.ac.uk/
which is more classroom-based.

astropixie said...

thanks meghan! those are useful. now that you mention it, i remember hearing about the BA media fellowships, but decided i was too busy this summer to participate. maybe i'll try for next year!?

Bucko (a.k.a., Ken) said...

A pox on the stupid media that cannot report true science with a eye to the awe and wonder of the situation versus the uninformed dribble they spout.

heroineworshipper said...

The trick is we already have plenty of science communicators at spaceflightnow.com, flightglobal.com, space.com,
nasa.gov,
nasawatch.com, wikipedia.org, The Goog, & universetoday.com.

To make a career out of it, U can't just show up & repeat the same thing everyone else is saying. You have to write your own material.

astropixie said...

heroineworshipper - i agree with you regarding the amount of material available online, but there are always more schools to visit!

fbg said...

Even though I don't think that every researcher should be versed in the ways of publicity and "spin", I do think that it might pay off for major projects to invest a little cash into these areas. Major universities can have a dedicated publicity expert, or a part-time one, someone who is/was a researcher and who enjoys talking about it. These people do exist, but as you and others have pointed out, there is no title for this position.

Astropixie, if you're looking for advice on how to become a science communicator, I would start looking at conference presentations. Some of the best talks I have seen present complicated ideas in layman's terms, even if the reasearch isn't cutting edge. Sometimes putting an old idea in perspective is more valuable than a new idea. Although the internet is a great medium for this, I think the best way to gain traction in this area is to give a damn good talk at a few conferences, and hope for some further invitations. After a while, you'd then have to write a book. That's the way I see it.

Rik Gern said...

I'm late to this party, but here's my two cents worth:

As a layman, I really appreciate your desire to communicate. The two questions I always ask are, "What are the stories science has to tell?", and "How did they learn that?" The stories are fascinating, but the answers to the second question are what differentiates scientific knowledge from myth or just-so stories. I thought Bill Bryson's "A Brief History of Nearly Everything" did a good job of that.

I don't know if you follow P.Z. Myers' blog "Pharyngula", but he just had an interesting post on the same subject, and it's got some valuable links...

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/08/dont_be_such_a_scientist_talki.php

You already are a good science communicator, and I suspect you'll keep getting better at it. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and enthusiasm. Keep up the good work.