It can be a challenge to convince your supervisor about the importance of science communication. A recent event for journalism students in Erice, Italy, offered some guidance.
If you are a scientist, you probably feel uncomfortable at those embarrassing moments when people ask what you do for a living.
It’s like during Christmas lunch. Your relatives trigger the conversation, then decide to steer away from it after your first two sentences. It seems too complicated, too long, for an explanation.
On the other hand, your Organization insists that staff should get involved in outreach programmes, and you are increasingly confronted with the need to devote time and resources to science communication.
You are aware that you contribute positively to society, and passionate about the wider impact of your work. Still, you feel that the general public does not appreciate your work to the extent they should.
This brief text aims to suggest scientists how to take the first steps in science communication. But it is also an encouragement to step out of the laboratory for a moment, head to your supervisor’s office and explain why she should do more to help you in reaching out.
In fact, she could be the key in getting started with science communication.
Of course, she must first understand that doing this is no longer a plus, a nice-to-have but not necessary (especially if it requires the allocation of some funding).
We at QUEST had the great chance to meet some thirty young talents in science communication, who participated in the International School of Science Journalism this year.
The school was organized by the Italian National Institute of Nuclear Physics (INFN), with the support of Scientific American, Italian edition (Le Scienze). It was attended by a mix of students from all over Europe and as far as from Mexico. There were scientific journalists, media officers from organizations such as universities or funding organizations, copywriters and editors of natural museums, explainers from Science Festivals, editors working at charities.
We asked them what they would suggest to scientists who want to open windows and talk, loud and clear, to the general public.
The first step, according to most participants, is to get a proper training. Yes, go back to school.
The first thing is “[getting] training from professional communicators, particularly to know how much detail is needed for different audiences,” said one of the Summer School attendees.
And I liked it because it went to a key point: paying attention to your (very different) audiences. We often forget that different audiences need a different language, different content, different frames, different depth and angles.
Some suggestions from the young communicators went deeper: “[Scientists need] training and practice,” one of the attendees commented. Training in science communication includes practice. “For example, having feedback at an event [from an external observer],” the attendee said.
Of course, it soon becomes clear that the best results are not obtained at the first attempt. Which should not sound unfamiliar to your supervisor or to yourself: isn’t it the same with experiments?
Some communicators we met in Erice suggested that “if science communication was more valued within your institution, an improvement would be observed soon.”
Or, in other words: “Maybe if science communication would become more ‘institutional’, scientists would take it more seriously,” as one of the attendees suggested.
As long as communication will have to start from personal engagement by motivated scientists, the results will emerge only sporadically.
In fact, one attendee insisted: “[Scientists] should be endorsed by their administration. I mean that often the time that young scientists spend on science communication is not viewed positively by their bosses or supervisors.”
The key to triggering a revolution in science communication by scientists was succinctly expressed in a comment by one of the attendees: “[Scientists need] better training, encouragement.”
If you who are reading are in a position to provide practical support to researchers or staff in your institution, and want your institution to be known and appreciated beyond the sphere of the scientific world, remember that it is time to provide communication courses and encourage your colleagues or researchers, also with incentives. It’s time to invest time and resources on science communication.