Guide: Taking Science to People

I originally wrote this 84 page Guide for science communicators but have subsequently found it can be useful to scientists and indeed researchers in any field.

It has three sections.

1) The why, who and how of science communication (pp.1-14)

2) Tips and Techniques for communicating effectively (pp.15-50)

3) Cautionary Tales based on my own experiences  of involvement in projects large and small over the last 20 years (pp.51-84)

Sample 1

Who wants to communicate science?

Science communication is not only practiced by individuals but also sponsored by several different kinds of organisation and institution. Each has its own mix of motives for investing its resources in this way; examining these provides another way of exploring why science is communicated, and can also be very useful when looking to gain their support for a particular initiative.

Key players are:

Universities who are major funders of science communication world-wide, even in countries that make no other kind of investment in taking science to their citizens. Their main motivator is the difficulty many have in recruiting students into science and engineering degree programmes.

Government Agencies that combine a concern to ensure the ability of their country to compete  economically on the global stage with, in the developed world, a strong motivation to ensure that their citizens feel that they play a central role in deciding which science based innovations are appropriate for use in their society. This driver has increased in power since a number of innovations, like  the use of genetically modified organisms in food production, were not accepted in some countries with a consequential impact on the companies that invested in developing them and knock on effects on national economies.

Funding Agencies that distribute public money to researchers are principally interested in assuring support for their investment decisions and therefore have a strong reason for ensuring that the scientists they fund communicate the results of their research to the public as well as to their peers. They also need to convince their political masters that the work they fund will have a positive impact on the health of the economy.

Businesses are mainly motivated by both their need to recruit skilled workers and, like government agencies, have a strong interest in ensuring that new technologies are accepted by the public. They also would very much like to encourage successful capitalisation of knowledge generated within universities.

Learned Societies and Professional Bodies are motivated by both the need to maintain the flow of new members into the discipline which they exist to promote and by wanting to ensure that the activities of their members are valued by wider society, an essential pre-requisite for attracting funds from the government.

It is not the case that all these players are active in any one country. Although Universities are the most likely to be active globally, there is a definite trend for Government and Funding Agencies, which are often closely linked, to be more pro-active in seeking to ensure that research findings are disseminated to the public. However, it is the case that many scientists do not feel that they have  the time, skills, and possibly most importantly the incentives to fulfil this dissemination role and this can offer job and funding opportunities to science communicators.

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Sample 2

Getting Funds from Grant Awarding Bodies (Trusts/Research Councils/Learned Societies)

Once  a project has been planned in detail and carefully costed you are ready to apply for an Award or Grant. This process will almost certainly involve filling in a form. A process for which you will need to set aside considerable amounts of time, particularly if you are going to work with partners and have to agree their role in the project and share of the funds.

Remember that the funders and their proposal reviewers, who may not be specialists in your area, will want to be certain that your project :

1) meets their funding criteria;

consider:

  • sending brief outlines of what you plan to the Officer running the scheme (or even better getting them to visit your place of work)
  • discovering what kinds of work a particular funder has supported in the past
  • volunteering to be a referee for specific funding schemes

2) meets a need;

evidence you sight might be taken from:

  • the conclusions/recommendations of a relevant report produced by a learned society/independent think tank/government dept/select committee
  • a statement of support from a prominent representative of the community/audience at which your project will be targeted
  • your existing audience that wants its experience to be further enhanced

3) will work;

so make reference to:

  • other projects of a similar kind where outcomes are known
  • evaluation of your own pilot project/previous related activity
  • general track record of delivery of quality projects by yourself and your partners

4) will deliver value for money;

  • include as much detail of your costings as space allows

5) have a measurable impact on a defined number of people;

  • provide as much detail as possible about how you arrive at your audience numbers, avoid including over-estimates of secondary audiences
  • include the costs of any measures, like subsidising transport, which are designed to enhance attendance of your activity/event
  • be specific about evaluation methods and try to ensure that a range of measurement tools are deployed that are suitable for the target audience

In addition to needing convincing of the viability of the project, the potential funder will also want to be certain that you are strongly motivated and have the necessary skills and knowledge to carry out the work (or if you don’t you know someone who does);

  • be sure to indicate how you will enlist professional expertise for things like; website design, event management, exhibit construction, press and publicity
  • include the cost of your own training needs where appropriate
  • sound confident but realistic, avoid use of words like “hope” or “might”
  • include a time line in the description of the project plan
  • volunteer to report on progress frequently
  • make reference to any previous achievements that would lead you to be categorised as a completer/finisher.
  • provide evidence of pre-research and knowledge of the field
  • be aware you might miss something, avoid claiming absolute originality it more often antagonizes than impresses
  • make reference to consulting people who have run similar projects, including them on advisory panels if appropriate

Finally your potential funder will want to be assured that your project partners are positively committed to the project;

include:

  • letters or statements of support that clearly communicate that the partners know in detail what they are committing to delivering
  • specific roles for the partners within the project plan
  • named contacts within each partner organisation
  • the extent of teach partners financial and in-kind contributions to the project
  • a clear rationale for why each partner should be involved

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Sample 3

Pub Genius – A Cautionary Tale

The British love quizzes, and I had noticed that this passion was being exploited by pubs that organised regular or irregular quiz nights. My own experience of these events was that they fell far short of being atmospheric, usually involving a bored sounding publican reading out a list of questions in which sport and TV programmes featured heavily. It seemed like there might be a niche for a livelier format.

It was all scheduled for National Science Week during which a thousand flowers bloomed, or actually more like large numbers of weeds through which the odd flower fought to be noticed. Universities have always been the major providers of events seeing it as an excellent context for their attempts to recruit science students, but tended to hold events for schools on their own campuses. Ours was going to be different, we had made an alliance with a brewery which gave us access to three of their pubs, a crate of beer to hand out to contestants during the quiz and a grand prize, which was a guided, tankard in prospect, tour of their premises.

Our final event format was a quiz about all about the science to be found in a pub, interspersed with table top demos like the Lifting Lemon for teams to try between rounds (of the quiz, that is)

We were lucky to have undergraduates on the Science,Society and Media degree to help with the devising and it wasn’t hard to persuade them to spend the evening in the pub helping us run the event. Our premiere was a little shaky in that I suspected the pub had been nominated by the brewer because both its regulars were getting on a bit. However, our pre-event media mini-blitz, an interview on local radio, ensured we had a respectable number of punters. It went down well, particularly the table top demos which, apart from self-elevating lemons, also involved Alka-Seltzer rockets and a lager lamp. These were particularly popular partly because we gave a bottle of beer to anyone who could give anything even vaguely resembling a sensible explanation of the science behind the trick, but also because the students handing out the ingredients for each trick were mixing with the audience, so it wasn’t just me asking questions.

We actually got TV coverage of the second event,  the hook being the perceived quirkyness of the juxtaposition of science and a pub. We were overconfident by the night of the final event and rolled up to find that the pub claimed they hadn’t been told we were coming. Nothing daunted we ran the event anyway, the only snag being that there was no PA system, which meant I had to run around shouting a great deal. Our evaluation techniques were somewhat primitive at the time but Ben did manage to get some great quotes from participants. Armed with these we made it into the Daily Telegraph as the inventors of “Boozology” and an event that has travelled the world.

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