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Today we are going to look at the following four topics…
So to start with, what is science communication? Well there are lots of different ways of looking at it. This quote gives us somewhere to start.
Some of these processes can be the fairly standard research process whereby people do research, write up a paper, get published, do some conference talks and repeat. But there is so much more to science communication than that one part of a wider cycle, or environment as they call it here.
But before we get too far into things, I want to go through some key terms in science communication so we’re all on the same page.
Science literacy example – related but according to an NHS Scotland report, 43% of English working age adults struggle to understand instructions on how to calculate a child’s dose of paracetamol. Now that’s reading and numerical literacy but these things are not unconnected.
Lay public – while the emphasis here is on scientists because this is a talk about science, these lay people can be experts in their field such as lawyers/
And a few more…
So where did science communication come from and where is it going? Well here’s quick potted history.
Science communication was first coined as a term in 1834. But Humphrey Davy (discovered calcium, among other things, and created the Davy lamp which was used as a safe light source in mines) and Michael Faraday (known for lots of things including his work in electricity and magnetism) were already engaged in the popularisation of science. The Royal Society was founded in 1660 and while was not initially set up to focus on public communication, it did begin the concept of the “scientific paper” in 1666.
The scientific paper can be seen as a “unit of productivity” of science and of course is a huge criteria for many aspects of modern research.
Royal Institution founded in 1779 as a research lab and it was here that Davy and Faraday did much of their work as well as delivering public demonstration lectures. The public in this case was initially made up of skilled workers looking to advance their careers but these lectures eventually led to the formation of the now iconic RI Christmas Lectures, started by Michael Faraday in 1825.
The RI Christmas Lectures became a national institution when they were broadcast on TV for the first time, only pausing during 1939-1942…can anyone imagine why? Yep. WWII.
In 1830, Charles Babbage wrote ‘Reflections on the Decline of Science in England and Some of its causes” – this is still very relevant today but one of his main concerns was around the fact that he saw British science lagging behind the rest of the world and he put this down to a lack of public interest. Does this sound familiar?
As a direct response, the British Science Association was founded, quickly followed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Both organisations have strong public communication goals which include establishing themed science weeks, running science literacy initiatives and informing national policy such as curriculum design in schools.
Science communication in the modern era has followed two main models – the deficit model and the dialogue model.
This flow diagram shows how modern science communication has moved through different stages over the past 30 or so years. So let’s look at each of these big steps.
In essence, scientific literacy is considered here to be very similar to literacy and numeracy levels, so understanding fundaments such as the earth is round and rotates around the sun. In a study published in Nature in 1989, only 34% of the British public knew that the earth went around the sun once a year. So these things aren’t to be taken for granted but also scientific literacy has improved since then, but it still has pockets where it isn’t as it perhaps should be. The emphasis on scientific literacy is good in that it instills a need for learning in schools but it also risks isolating those who should be taking part in the discussion round science policy, such as voters, but who might be disqualified from doing so due to not having the right skills.
This form of passing on factual knowledge is what I referred to earlier – a form of the deficit model.
Public understanding of science (or PUS…eww) echoed what Babbage was talking about back in the 1830s. In the mid 1980s there were concerns around public attitudes towards science which were captured in the now landmark Bodmer report. This report is highly influential and established the new PUS approach with an emphasis on the deficit model of science communication. It led to multiple initiatives…and also had a big influence on the UK national curriculum.
Then the millennium came and with it a House of Lords report. The report stated that the PUS approach was “arrogant and outdated” with its top-down approach of communicating science to the public. A new emphasis was placed on a two-way dialogue with the public. Just talking to the public wasn’t enough. Listening to and recording views was deemed an essential part of increasing trust and confidence in science and ensuring that it is a democratic process also, especially in the context of decisions made by government in relation to scientific matters.
And what about Cambridge’s approach to science communication?
So hopefully you now understand a bit about how science communication has evolved and what it looks like now. But why should you do science communication?
Well first off, it gives you the opportunity to share knowledge. Your knowledge. Your expertise and specialist awareness of specific areas of research and subjects should be shared with the wider world and many will benefit from learning from you.
You can help improve public understanding of science. Now as we have seen, this can take many different forms but without a good public understanding and by extension, support of, science, how can we expect our nations to engage with the democratic process if they don’t have the full picture of what it means to have evidence based policy or how they can contribute to lobbying their MP about issues that matter to them.
Related to this is helping combat science illiteracy. As we saw earlier, this type of literacy allows for people to engage with science and its impact on our daily lives. As with improving engagement with the democratic process, science literacy allows for people to apply scientific principles, findings, and knowledge to their own lives so they are able to make informed decisions about their health, lifestyle choices, recycling options, choice of energy provider…the list is endless. Without this ability to use science to critically inform our lives, we risk falling into the trap of fake news, and we see the ramifications of that all around us. Climate change denial, fear of vaccines, “it’s just a hypothesis”/evolution denial…
Public speaking…presenting to different audiences…event organisation…accessible design…confidence building…these are all things that look excellent on any CV and are also things that you can develop through doing science communication. There is always something new to learn, some new challenge to face or comfort zone to get out of, and every moment will be of use whether you’re learning how to do something really well or how to avoid something in future.
Through dialogue about your work with the public can lead to feedback. Now depending on who that public is will influence what the resulting feedback is. A lay audience may give you insights from their specialist perspective in ways that you hadn’t previously considered. You may also get a really profound question from an 8 year old that dramatically alters the approach you were taking. This happened to a colleague of mine in the polar sciences…a child asked a very good question and it resulting in him taking a completely new look at his work and influenced his approach quite significantly. You never quite know when inspiration will strike.
While I would like to hope that doing public good with effective science communication is something that you would just do out of the goodness of your own hearts, it might also be that you find yourself having to do it, say for a course that you’re taking. Some institutions and organisations have public engagement as a core part of their mission statement and so expect others to take part as well. Some funders, especially research ones, have outreach written in to grant conditions. There can be many situations where you find yourself having to do some form of science communication, so it pays to be prepared!
So I’ve talked about the history of science communication, why you should consider doing it, but how do you actually do good science communication? Well…you can use lots of things that are already out there and available for you to tap into.
First of all you have social media. There’s lots you can do for free online these days, from using YouTube to film shorts videos to using free podcasting tools to upload discussions about research and cool science things. It’s very easy to develop high quality content with a smart phone these days and while initial set up and learning new skills might take a bit of time, once you’ve done that bit then the world is your oyster! Presenting your work in different online formats gives you well…the opportunity to develop your presentation skills and tailoring your message to different audiences and media. What might work in a long form blog post for example might not work so well in a snappy 3 minute YouTube video and viceversa. There’s a lot of good examples of science communication out there on the web and I’ve given you a few people to look at (handout).
There are lots of existing campaigns out there which are always calling for new contributions from scientists. Just check out simple things like Ask Me Anything on Reddit for some ideas or consider applying for something a bit more formal.
One great example is I’m A Scientist, Get me Out of here…here’s a quick video to show how it works.
You can also work with the media, either giving advice, acting as an expert or sharing your work through new channels. The University’s central communication office is a great place to get started with this as they can help write up any work you’re doing into a punchy news article that can then be sent out to different outlets for further sharing and publication. Cool right? If your work is especially engaging, they might even film or photograph you for their own social media channels.
You can take advantage of events already happening on your doorstep. As already mentioned, Cambridge already does lots of open days and other public engagement event and they’re always looking for new volunteers. These opportunities can be department focused or University-wide. And of course, you opportunities might not just be limited to the University. Depending on what you do after your studies, you might find similar opportunities in different educational or industry settings to take advantage of.
Consider working with schools and other groups with reflect underrepresented demographics in the sciences, such as women in science, BAME individuals and many more. How you go about this will greatly depend on your professional circumstances but many organisations, including universities, have contacts with local organisations so you can go and talk to people at events, assemblies, or in a science class, helping give a richer context to the things that people are learning about through talking from your own experiences.
So now we’ve explored what science communication is and what sorts of opportunities are out there for you to potentially take advantage, let’s talk about some examples that you might want to use for your outreach projects. Now I think you will be getting a full briefing about your projects in a few weeks but here are some ideas to get you started thinking about what you might want to do.
First up we have the child-friendly experiment. Now this is a practical form of public engagement where you have some form of experiment that you can either do with a younger audience through supervising them, or is something they can play with themselves without any specific guidance. How you manage this is up to you but do bear in mind that anything relating to children will need to have a risk assessment done as a priority so this might also affect how you approach this.
Now I know the department has had open days before and in the past people have done things like showing how oil and water interact by getting children to do some paintings. Others have shown how electricity can be generated using biochemistry or have demonstrated chromatography with paper. You can also do a demonstration with samples to show which ones might have been poisoned for example. A winning experiment for a younger audience typically should be one that they can see, interact with, and maybe even make something that they can then take away. If it isn’t engaging, too complicated or doesn’t have anything to make them go “wow!” like neat changing liquids then it might not work for that audience.
If a practical experiment isn’t for you, you could consider giving a talk but specifically one that has been adapted for a non-expert audience. Remember our definitions of public from right at the beginning? You might have a lay public audience who has fairly good science literacy but doesn’t know your specific area of research that well. The trick with a good science communication talk is to make sure you’ve left enough room to define key terms and concepts without talking down to an audience. People don’t want things to be so simple that they’re being spoken to as if they’re idiots, but you also don’t want to go so high level that you lose everyone. Balance is key. If you’re ever not sure if you’ve got the right balance, ask a non-expert friend to be a guinea pig so you can test out your talk on them and see if you’ve got things right or if you’ve made some assumptions about your audience. Also, leave space in your talk for questions…you might give people the chance to ask things as you go or to wait until the end but giving an audience the chance to feed back and engage with what you’ve said is absolutely critical to the science communication dialogue that we’re trying to encourage.
You could combine the practical and the talk elements that I’ve just described and run an activity that is experiment-based but also has a talk element to it. Now this can be adapted to suit older children and adults as it isn’t really very suited to young children. Again, how you do this depends on what you want to communicate but examples from previous Biochemistry department events include talking about the microbiome in humans, talking about brewing and having your own distillery! Also you could have a demonstration area set up to talk about the human heart and its valves while also giving a short talk on the practical things that are on show. The possibilities are endless really.
If you’re not sure at all about talking or doing something practical and hands-on, you can always fall back on the humble poster or leaflet. Communicating science visually and through engaging text is a skillset in its own right and it can be done effectively with attention to detail and the same adaptation and reflection on your message that you have to do when giving a presentation. So I’ve provided some good poster design links for you on your handout for you to explore. This option can have a presentation element to it if you are with your poster or leaflet and available to answer questions but it is slightly different. I would say the key to any successful dialogue-based bit of science communication is you. The human element. The person who is there to share their knowledge and ideas. So while posters or leaflets can act as a useful takeaway piece of science communication, do make sure you put something of yourself in it, especially if you can’t physically be there. Something as simple as a photo of you doing your work could be really impactful to an aspiring scientist looking for a role model.
Introduction to science communication and outreach
Research Support Librarian
Cambridge University Libraries
Introduction to science
communication and outreach
• What is science communication?
• Why should you do it?
• How do you do it?
• Some examples…
Adapted from Science Communication: a practical guide for scientists (2013)
• Communication: social interaction through symbols and message
• Science communication: popularisation of science
• Scientific literacy: knowledge and understanding science facts and
• Public understanding of science: a knowledge of science and how it
applies to everyday life
• Public: every person in society
• Lay public: people, including other scientists, who are non-expert in a
Adapted from Science Communication: a practical guide for scientists (2013)
• Public engagement: communication and discussion with a public
• Outreach: a meaningful and mutually beneficial collaboration with
parties in education, business, public and social service
• Upstream engagement: discussion takes place with the public before
any new scientific developments and technology become reality
• Citizen science: public participation in research
More key terms…
• “Science communication” first coined in 1834
• Humphrey Davy & Michael Faraday already engaged in popularisation
• Science communication in the UK shaped by learned institutions like
the Royal Society
• Royal Society was founded in 1660
• Royal Institution founded in 1779 as a research lab and delivered
public demonstration lectures to skilled workers
• Lectures led to the iconic RI Christmas Lectures in 1825
• The RI Christmas Lectures were broadcast on the BBC in 1936
• Only stopped between 1939-1942
• In 1830, Charles Babbage remarked that British science was behind
the rest of the world due to lack of public interest
• Led to formation of British Science Association in 1831 and AAAS In
Establishing science communication…
Adapted from Science Communication: a practical guide for scientists (2013)
• Deficit model: where the public is seen as lacking knowledge and
understanding which can only be remedied by imparting facts
• Dialogue model: scientists and public in conversation
Models of science communication
with Science and
• Knowledge of basic text book facts of science
• An understanding of scientific methods e.g. experimental design
• An appreciation of the positive outcomes of science and technology
• A rejection of superstitious beliefs
Jon D. Miller (1983)
What is scientific literacy?
with Science and
• Sparked by Babbage back in the 1830s
• The landmark Bodmer Report was published in 1985
• Key publication when discussing deficit models
• Led to creation of multiple initiatives including the National Science
and Engineering Week
• Also influenced UK national curriculum making science a core subject
between the ages 5 to 16
Public understanding of science (PUS)
with Science and
• Influenced by a House of Lords Science and Society report in 2000
• Considered PUS to be outdated with its top-down approach
• Emphasises two-way dialogue and conversation with the public
Public engagement with Science and
• University committed to public engagement
• Last VC signed up to Manifesto for Public
• Core part of many researchers’ outreach
• Many opportunities to engage:
Festival of Ideas
The Cambridge context…
• The science communication landscape is complex and varied but at its
heart is the idea of dialogue and sharing of ideas
• You can do science communication for many different reasons, but
sharing your knowledge with others is a fundamental motivator
• There are many opportunities and ways in which you can do science
communication, many of them for free!
• When deciding how you’re going to communicate your science, think
about what you’re going to communicate and to who
• Enjoy it! Talking about science with others is fun and exciting!
• Think about what you want to do
• Remember you will be assessed on your project
• Set up some time to discuss your project with me
• You will get two slots with me between June and August
• Come prepared to these meetings
• Coordinate as a team and maximise your time
• You will present your projects at a symposium on 30th August