Friday, 7 April 2017

"Standing Up For Science": early career researchers and media communication

Today I was lucky enough to attend a workshop hosted by Sense About Science, “Standing Up For Science”, aimed at early career researchers (ECRs). The workshop was about the importance of ECRs, such as PhD students and post-docs, providing our voice to media coverage of scientific topics.

The day started with a panel by three scientists: Dr Rachel Tilling, Professor Matthew Cobb, and Professor Allan Pacey. All three shared their stories of engaging with the media - both the positives and the negatives – before giving the chance for the audience of ECRs to ask questions about their experiences. This panel was probably my favourite of the day, as it really helped my see how really small efforts to engage with the media can easily snowball and make a big difference to our careers.

The panel reflected on their negative experiences and gave us advice on how to handle these situations, or how to avoid making the same mistakes they did. Top tips included simply relaxing about the situation (easier said than done!), not worrying too much about those negative occurrences, using Twitter as a platform to start science communication engagement, and biting the bullet and just going for it. I particularly liked Rachel's advice of “find a friend” who works in media, such as a science journalist. All three panellists shared similar experiences of being contacted repeatedly by the same journalists after they’d established this initial network.

The second panel of the day comprised of three journalists. Jane Symons and Peter Ranscombe are freelance newspaper journalists, and Pav Bhatti is a producer for BBC Radio Manchester. This panel really opened my eyes! Often we, as scientists, see journalists as a bit of a headache. Articles seem to be constantly churned out containing misinformation, sensationalist headlines, and cause a collective academic sigh of “here we go again…”.

I was really surprised to learn that journalists don’t actually write the headlines, and that that job belongs to the sub editors. What’s more, is that journalists are just as frustrated we are when they see those misconstrued headlines slapped on top of their work. The headlines are clickbait, and they’re there to draw the readers in. They don’t provide a summary of the article in the same way we’d expected the title of a journal article to.

Journalists are also keen to get their article as scientifically accurate as possible, and often it’s the scientists that are the barrier! If we don’t take the phone calls or emails from journalists, we can’t help them be accurate. If we’re not communicating our work in a way that journalists can understand, how can we ever expect them to write it in a way that the public can understand? Even with the “publish or perish” culture that surrounds science, we still have time to work on our academic papers, but journalists are often facing same-day deadlines, and have a limited amount of time to access appropriate experts. We can help by making ourselves known, offering our expertise, and writing to newspapers with opposing evidence when we see a “dodgy” story.

I didn't necessarily agree with everything that the journalists said. Or perhaps, rather, I was disheartened by the way that our aims are not aligned. The goal of a newspaper is to sell stories and generate online advertising revenue. Our goal is promote good science, conduct robust research, and report our findings without overhyping them. I think Jane provided a good example of this misalignment when she spoke about the way newspapers use relative statistics rather than real ones to overhype the danger, or benefits, of something, whether that be a particular food or medical intervention. Cancer Research UK has a good summary of the difference between real (absolute) and relative statistics if you  click here. I don’t think scientists are ever going to fully like the media's representation of science, but we can work together to make sure that the reporting is as good as possible by giving journalists access to our expertise. Jane mentioned that she is in frequent contact with her “go-to” statistician for these types of stories!

After this panel, we were given the opportunity in groups to discuss the obstacles we believe we face as ECRs that prevent us from communicating with the media. Many of the ideas that the different groups shared definitely resonated with me a lot. Imposter syndrome is frequently discussed in academia – the belief that you’re a fraud who ended up in this position by accident and that any day somebody’s going to realise what a terrible mistake they made when they hired you. We all feel like that! But this belief - the belief that we’re not as good as we (probably) are - stops us from feeling like we can present ourselves as experts. We believe that there are people with more expertise than us. However, a PhD is such a niche topic of research that we dedicate a substantial portion of our lives to, and whilst we’re doing that research we are, in actual fact, probably the world leading expert on that topic (thanks to Sofie, director of Sense About Science EU, for highlighting that point). We are perfectly qualified to provide our expert voice, and we shouldn't forget that.

Other obstacles centred on issues such as our reputations. Academics that have been in the field for a long time can get away with saying silly things or making mistakes when talking to the media. For an ECR, that incident is likely to be one of the first things that pop up on Google when a prospective employer looks us up. In the words of one audience member “the internet never forgets”. However, the panellists from the first session were adamant that we should dive in and do it anyway. One negative experience can easily be shrouded by ten positive ones.

The final panel was more broadly about science communication, public engagement, and a little about the Ask For Evidence campaign. The panellists were Hayley Gorton, a pharmacist with a lot of public engagement and science communication experience, Sarah Blackford who works with the Society of Experimental Biology, and Sofie Vanthournout who leads the Sense About Science EU office. Discussions centred on Sense About Science’s Ask For Evidence campaign, which encourages everyone (whether scientists or members of the public) to challenge claims made by companies or individuals by asking to see the evidence. Sofie provided a couple of interesting anecdotes on this, including one that prompted Vision Express to change their staff training, which you can read about here. In addition, we heard a lot about public engagement. As someone that has done a lot of public engagement before, I can appreciate just how important this work is. Both at Manchester and during my undergraduate at Lincoln, I have communicated the work we do to audiences of all ages, ranging from young children to the elderly. It’s a great skill to develop, and helps you to think about the best way to simplify your research for a lay audience. This skill can then be used to communicate with the journalists too!


Overall, it was a really insightful day, and I want to thank Sense About Science and all the sponsors for organising it. I've learned a lot and left the workshop with new perspectives, as well as a renewed vigour for communicating science!