Every two years, the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW) hosts its one-day Science Journalism Summer School. The 2017 event took place on 5 July at the Wellcome Trust in London, and I went along as a budding freelance science writer to learn a few tricks of the trade.
I was joined by 135 other delegates on the airy and light sixth floor of the Trust’s superb glass-fronted Euston Road building on one of the hottest days of the year. With me were undergraduates, PhD students, freelancers of many kinds, and established science journalists working for a range of organisations. Oh – and a colleague (Clare Gee) from my Masters course in Science Communication here at UWE! Billed as a 12-hour working day, I indeed arrived for coffee at 9am, and did not depart until 8.30pm after the superb networking session with commissioning editors from a number of science publications, such as New Scientist.
BBC Science Correspondent Pallab Ghosh opened the proceedings, and the format for the rest of the day followed short talks with panel discussion and audience Q&A. We learned about new media trends, particularly around digital news consumption, in the context of the question ‘Where have all the science correspondents/journalists gone?’. ITV’s Science Correspondent Alok Jha extolled the virtues of critical science journalism in the fake news world, asserting the need to communicate conflicts between scientific researchers and cast more light on the imperfections and uncertainties of the scientific endeavour. That doesn’t sit so easily with being a proponent of science, which most of us are.
A session on pitching skills was most revealing, with commissioning editors suggesting that they aren’t receiving enough news pitches (short 250-word pieces) alongside the veritable flood of feature pitches. They were keen to point out that background was largely irrelevant; if the story was good and the source reliable, they’ll take it. And one particularly good tip to remember is that editors often prefer to receive a ‘phonecall, with e-mail used as the follow-up.
The session on investigative reporting left a sense of how good for society the best journalism can be, despite the challenges around funding this type of work in today’s climate. Given the potential risks, freelancers were generally advised to steer clear of investigative reporting!
Perhaps the highlight for me was the final session on “successful freelancing”. There were personal testimonies of the struggle to get going, to find sources of work, to carve out a niche area of specialisation. Max Glaskin, the successful, award-winning author of the magazine Cycling Science, offered a tremendous insight laced with some dark humour along the way. His successful writing career has allowed him to diversify his sources of income through giving talks, chairing panel discussions and undertaking specialist scientific consultancy.
All-in-all, a long but rewarding day, worth every penny. If you want to meet several commissioning editors in one place at one time and establish relationships, then this biennial Summer School is a good investment of your time and money.
You can read my blog, Sykes on Science, at: www.sykesonscience.wordpress.com
Ben Sykes, MSc Science Communication student, UWE
After my PhD viva in 2004, I promised myself I’d never again study for a qualification. Having gone straight from A-levels through a degree to a doctorate, I felt as if I just couldn’t learn anything more. But a decade later, I found myself at a career crossroads trying to figure out what to do at the end of my maternity leave.
Inspired by my elder daughter’s curiosity, I set up a blog, Simple Scimum, to answer questions about science and nature. Slowly, as the blog gathered followers, my confidence grew; and when one of my daughter’s friends asked if I would answer her science questions too, I knew I had to turn science writing into something more than a hobby.
I began searching for jobs that involved writing about science and quickly realised that a qualification in science communication would be an advantage. So, I googled ‘sci comm Bristol’ and found UWE’s MSc in Science Communication, which sounded brilliant but was more than I could manage whilst working part-time and looking after two young children. However, the Postgraduate Certificate in Practical Science Communication was exactly what I was looking for: a one-year, part-time course with intensive teaching blocks, offering hands-on experience and links to industry. I applied for the September 2016 intake and won a bursary towards my tuition fees: I was going back to university!
I felt nervous about returning to study after such a long break but I knew that this was just the first step along a new career path.
The ‘Writing Science’ module was an obvious choice, with the opportunity to create a magazine and develop a portfolio just too good to miss. I learned the essential elements of journalistic practice and wrote a bylined article for UWE’s Science Matters magazine. But the real highlight was a three-hour workshop on ‘how to write a book’ – I’d love to write science storybooks for children, and came away bursting with ideas, enthusiasm and an action-plan to turn my dream into reality. (Roll on NaNoWriMo…!)
But it was through the ‘Science in Public Spaces’ module that I discovered just how strongly I want to inspire young children and engage them with research. I designed ‘Simon’s Box’ to talk about genetic disease and genome editing with GCSE pupils in local schools. And I had the best time in the Explorer Dome learning about science shows for young audiences. Seeing how to encourage children to learn through stories and play was a fantastic experience and a seminal moment in my desire to become a science communicator.
At times I found it hard to juggle study, work and childcare but the intensive teaching blocks made it easier for me to attend lectures and workshops. I paid for my younger daughter to go to nursery for an extra morning each week and used that time for reading and research. Still, I often found myself studying between 8pm and 10pm, when the kids were tucked up in bed, and I was grateful for 24-hour online access to UWE’s library facilities. But now the hard work is over and I’m just waiting for my final results.
Over the past year, I’ve been part of a supportive cohort of students who are committed to science communication. I’ve developed the confidence to pursue a new career path and given up my old job to become a Research Fellow in UWE’s Science Communication Unit. Before the PGCert, I dreamed of working in science communication but now I’m actually doing it.
Emma Weitkamp & Erik Stengler
September saw the lecturing staff at the Science Communication Unit welcoming our new MSc Science Communication and PgCert Practical Science Communication students to UWE and Bristol. It also sees the start of our refreshed programme offering, which includes significant changes and updates to two of our optional modules: Science in Public Spaces and Science on Air and On Screen.
The first three-day block of Science in Public Spaces (SiPS) marks the start of a diverse syllabus that seeks to draw together themes around face-to-face communication, whether that takes place in a what we might think of as traditional science communication spaces: museums, science centres and festivals or less conventional spaces, such as science comedy, theatre or guided trails. Teaching is pretty intense, so from Thursday, 29th September to Saturday, 1st October, students got stuck into topics ranging from the role of experiments and gadgets to inclusion and diversity.
Practical science fair
Thursday, 29th September saw the 13 SiPS students matched with researchers from the Faculty of Health and Applied Sciences. Students were introduced to cutting edge research and have been challenged to think about how this could be communicated to the public in a science fair setting. Each student will work with their researcher to create a hands-on activity which they will have the opportunity to deliver to the public at a science fair to be held during a University Open Day in the spring.
Towards the end of the three days a session on creativity generated intense discussion about how we might judge what creativity is through to practical techniques and tips we might use to stimulate creative thinking. The session included a word diamond (McFadzean, 2000), where groups considered how you might foster engagement and enjoyment amongst blind visitors to the Grand Canyon, how blind visitors could be involved in creating a sensory trail (for sighted people) at an arboretum or how to enable a local community to be involved in decision making around land use that involved ecosystem services trade-offs. Challenging topics that draw on learning from earlier in the week.
After a final session on connecting with audiences, students (and staff) were looking a little tired; three days of lectures, seminars and workshops is exhausting. We hope students left feeling challenged, excited and ready to start exploring this new world of science communication and public engagement and that they find ways to connect their studies with events and activities they enjoy in their leisure time – though that might not apply to the seminar reading!
Science in Public Spaces got off to an excellent start, thanks to the students for their engaged and thoughtful contributions in class. Up next is the Writing Science module, where Andy Ridgway, Emma Weitkamp and a host of visiting specialists will be introducing students to a wide range of journalistic techniques and theories. Then it will be the turn of the new Science on Air and on Screen where Malcolm Love will introduce students to techniques for broadcasting science whether on radio, TV or through the range of digital platforms now open to science communicators. Looks to be an exciting year!
McFadzean, E. (2000) Techniques to enhance creativity. Team Performance Management: An International Journal, 6 (3/4) pp. 62 – 72
What IS storytelling? What IS NOT storytelling? These two questions opened the 9th conference on “Storytelling: Global Reflections on Narrative” I attended from the 10th to the 12th of July in Oxford (UK). As participants, we were asked to reply, and we gave completely different answers, depending on our academic field and personal experience.
We defined storytelling as an engaging and dynamic form of communication, which must not be boring at all. Moreover, we emphasised the fact that storytelling does not include only what is told, but also what is kept silent, what is not remembered, and what is changed, and that it encompasses many points of view, many different stories, and many different ways of telling the same story.
During the conference, each speaker contextualised storytelling in a different field: literature, history, sociology, communication, education, sciences, and even medicine; and we discussed the topic taking into account professional and personal experiences as well, thus getting a broad and inclusive overview of storytelling.
Storytelling is not only influenced by the discipline in which it’s studied or applied, but also by many other factors, such as background, culture, education, ethnicity, nationality, social class, gender, and age of storytellers and of the audiences.
Novels, advertisements, TV shows, etc. communicate a story using language, semiotic signs, stereotypes, metaphors, and rhetoric figures that are tailored for specific target publics. Moreover, stories usually reflect the social values and characteristics of the audiences. For example, in Japanese anime the homogeneity of the Japanese society is represented by the possibility each character has to become the protagonist of the story, whereas individualistic feature of the Western societies is depicted by the presence of only one main character in Western comics.
Medium may change the way we tell or listen to a story. We read novels in a sequential way, page after page from the beginning to the end, whereas we can read a story on social media in a relational way (as in mind mapping), jumping from one point to any other as we please. Moreover, in digital interactive documentaries and videogames, we (as audience) can even change the story.
Storytelling also differs in its applications: we can use it for conveying information or entertaining, but we can also use it for advocacy campaigns, education, and research. Indeed, storytelling can be a suitable technique for advocacy, due to its capability of engaging audiences emotionally and personally, and it is effective in involving students in school lessons as well, and in stimulating their critical thinking, communication and writing skills, creativity etc.
The use of storytelling in the research field is particularly interesting. By analysing either ancient books or new TV fictions, we can investigate the individual characteristics of authors as well as well the social beliefs, values, and imaginary of a specific historical period, and we can study how they changed over time. We can acquire similar data by collecting witnesses’ stories of a specific event, as well as asking the research subjects to write a narrative on a specific issue. For example, patients’ stories on how they perceive their disease and how it is affecting their quality of life can provide further information to improve our comprehension of the disease from a clinical point of view, understand patient-physician communication, or improve the health care system. Even collecting stories on digital media and videogames we can yield insights on individuals and social groups’ characteristics.
What is storytelling? What is not storytelling? Though it may be very difficult to give a concise and inclusive answer to these questions, we can say that storytelling provides many different opportunities and challenges in science and health communication as well as in research.
Find out more about the conference ‘Storytelling: Global Reflections on Narrative‘
Elena Milani – PhD student, Science Communication Unit.
How do you get your first job in science communication? That’s not a straightforward question to answer – when it comes to science journalism at least. My experience of working in the industry showed me that having some kind of experience – either in the form of a placement or a few articles published – can be invaluable. Just as important as any qualification, in fact. And if you’ve won some form of recognition for your writing – perhaps through a competition – that can have a big impact on your job prospects too. It’s probably not too much of an exaggeration to say that there are as many routes into science writing as there are science writers.
It’s out of this experience that the UWE SCU Science Writing Competition was born. Targeted specifically at those who haven’t had popular science writing published before, it is now in its second year.
Given its target audience of new writers, this year we (the SCU that is) decided to provide writing advice in the form of blogs from the judges and other respected science writers, including one of last year’s winners – Emily Coyte .
There were another couple of important additions too, including a partnership with the Royal Institution – an organisation with a track record for nurturing new talent – and a survey of the competition participants aimed at gaining a fuller picture of the opportunities and barriers they face in breaking in to the science writing industry. The survey makes for interesting reading.
For starters, all of the 49 people who took part in the survey (out of roughly 90 competition entries) said they were interested in a career in science writing in some form – some as full time writers or editors and others envisaged writing as a sideline to a career in research science. Many participants were students and most (almost 90%) had not had any form of science writing training. Of those who hadn’t had training, a fairly high proportion (45%) said they were not aware of any training courses.
However, it’s where the responses to this survey – from those who want to be science writers – are compared with the responses from another survey we conducted – from those who are already science writers – that things get really interesting. But this isn’t the place to go into any detail on that – there will be more on that later. So watch this space…
As for this year’s science writing competition, the shortlist has now been drawn up and the judges will meet in August to decide the winners, who will be announced on 1 September 2016.
How we make choices as consumers, patients, parents and members of the public has, of course, long been of interest to science communicators, and topics like immunisation can continue to raise differences in perspectives, as well as media interest. A few years ago we started to think about the sometimes challenging process of weaning a baby. Ruth had recently had two young children herself, whilst completing her MSc Science Communication with us, and I’d been doing some research with parents and caregivers in community groups, so we knew weaning was a topic that was being discussed. But what about the parents who might not be out there in these social spaces, what was happening online? We asked the question ‘how do people on Mumsnet frame media coverage of weaning?’
As our starting point we considered a review of scientific evidence published in the British Medical Journal in 2011. This work, by Fewtrell and colleagues, suggested the period of exclusive breastfeeding recommended by the World Health Organisation be reduced from six months to four. Unsurprisingly the study attracted media attention, particularly in ‘quality’ newspapers like The Times, The Guardian, and especially, The Telegraph, and was frequently reported on by specialist health and science correspondents. They tended to talk about ‘risk’ but rarely contextualised that with further information on the study itself.
On Mumsnet it was clear that a vibrant community was keen to discuss the issue of weaning, and we located 112 comments that directly referred to the Fewtrell example and its media coverage. What were people most wanting to talk about? The inaccuracy of media coverage really stood out in their comments, as well as frustration that it was returning to the breast vs. bottle aspects of the debate. And the forum discussions often presented more context, nuances around the question of ‘risk’ and the details of the study itself. Of course, they had more room to do so, but it was interesting to see these types of details being discussed.
What does this tell us about science, the media and how it’s discussed online? Well it suggests that at least amongst this very small sample of Mumsnet users there is some awareness of the weaknesses that can be present in science and health reporting, but also that people often use scientific and personal information in transitionary means, embellishing some of the deficiencies of media coverage in interesting and new ways. As people become more and more reliant on social media sources for information, further work is needed on how this is supplementing and challenging our relationships with scientific and medical expertise but also how we use our social networks to support decision making. You can find out more about this work in a recent Journalism article or at:
Clare Wilkinson and Ruth Knowles
SCU was well represented at the Bristol Festival of Nature (BFON) in June, with Associate Professor Emma Weitkamp manning the Drought Risk and You (DRY) stand on Saturday and MSc student Hannah Conduit showcasing her research with the Durrell Trust as part of UWE’s festival tent.
Emma is exploring communication and engagement barriers and enablers related to drought and water scarcity within the DRY project. At BFON, Emma was interested to hear what visitors think about a set of cartoons produced as part of the project and whether these might be a tool to open conversations about water scarcity; climate change models suggest the UK will have wetter winters and drier summers, increasing the risk that we will have serious droughts. . In the southern UK, the most severe in living memory is the drought of ’76.
Initial work within the DRY project highlights the challenges of engaging people with Drought. Unlike flooding which has immediate effects, drought has a slow onset and many not have immediate relevance to many people. Rain during BFON highlights the challenge – how do you engage people with drought when it’s raining?
Emma presented initial work on citizen science aspects of the DRY project at the Society for Risk Analysis meeting in Bath, 20th June, while Adam Corner, of Climate Outreach presented the project’s initial work on communication barriers.
Frogs are not the cuddliest of species, so Hannah is tackling similar challenges through her research with the Durrell Trust. Amphibians have suffered a dramatic decline in numbers, and around 40% of all amphibian species are now considered to be under threat. But in a world of glamorous tigers and cuddly lemurs, it is sometimes hard for frogs to get a look in.
Hannah’s research focuses on one particular species of frog; second largest in the world and perhaps one of the most endangered. The ‘Mountain Chicken’ is aptly named for its meat; prised locally as a delicacy with taste and consistency similar to that of its feathery cousin.
With less than 100 individuals remaining in the wild and continued threat from disease, the Durrell Trust and UWE are working together to find more effective ways of communicating the plight of amphibians like the Mountain Chicken.
At BFON, Hannah and her Durrell supervisor, Jeff, along with a small group of volunteers talked with the public about the Mountain Chicken’s story, as well as showing them some of the methods used by scientists and researchers to monitor the remaining wild frogs. Scanning the stall’s microchipped frog plushies and swabbing them for a fungal disease called Chytrid proved to be the weekend’s most popular activities.
Research is currently ongoing for Hannah’s project, and will culminate in a handbook for use by the Mountain Chicken Recovery Programme in raising awareness and gathering interest amongst the public for the species.
Blog post written by Emma Weitkamp & Hannah Conduit
A press release and tracking of the resultant media coverage, or a public talk, are relatively easy methods of public communication, which most researchers are comfortable adding to their pathways to impact, but what about those wanting to be a bit more adventurous or wishing to undertake public engagement right from the start to help shape research design or data collection? In our new book Creative Research Communication: Theory and Practice, we explore a range of emerging or non-traditional approaches that the research community is exploring for public communication and engagement; from collaboration with the arts, to digital storytelling and gaming, through to the use of comedy in locations like community spaces and festival sites.
By considering an array of different research communication opportunities, we argue that researchers may find compelling niches for both themselves and their research participants, to engage creatively alongside, or perhaps despite, increasing institutional agendas around engagement:
‘This is an era to channel creatively away from metrics or “one size fits all” and to engage in ways that work for you as an individual researcher in the context of your own disciplinary potential and desires, and that embrace and recognise the ways that people beyond the context of an organisation or university may creatively add to your research process as well as experience benefits of their own.’ (Wilkinson and Weitkamp, p.10)
We’re not suggesting in the book that all approaches to research communication need to be entirely new or novel, rather that there is a rich history of research communication which can be drawn on to develop effective, insightful and engaging approaches. Starting with a history of the field, and moving through chapters examining many tried and tested approaches, we offer the novice research communicator a set of tools and ideas via which they may build and advance their practice, often using more recent or contemporary techniques.
The book is peppered with case studies drawn from around the world; you can read up on how researchers are embedding art at CERN, using apps to allow people to experience their city in roman times via the Virtual Romans project, and supporting communities to tackle their local environmental worries through the Public Lab approach. Most chapters are supported by clear advice on practical aspects of research communication, for instance there are sections on how to utilise audience segmentation approaches, manage conflict and controversy, and principles to keep in mind when working with policymakers.
In writing the book we tried to keep a range of research areas firmly in view. As co-authors coming from two contrasting disciplines (originally working in sociology and biochemistry) we tried to consider a range of ways in which research communication can and may be relevant, and that for some researchers this may be at different points of the research journey:
‘From a research communication perspective, and particularly conversations around “impact”, there can be a tendency to focus on engagement after the fact, rather than before or during research. This neglects that whilst research has an impact on people, people also have an impact on research.’ (Wilkinson and Weitkamp, p.74)
And whilst we’ve titled the book Creative Research Communication, don’t be deceived that we see communication as only occurring in a one-directional manner. We envisage communication to include a variety of approaches, including those which embed people within research and engagement, from a participatory and dialogic perspective.
But of course impact is a very relevant issue for many research communicators at present and it can stimulate particular notions of the direction of any such impact. Recognising that, we have included a chapter on impact, which contains evaluation approaches which can be used to track the outcomes and impacts of your research communication activities on a range of participants including the researcher, as well as ways in which you might adapt evaluation to be more creative in itself. For us impact is also tied to ethical quandaries around the wider role of research communication. Is research communication about engendering change, learning, attitudes that align to our ways of thinking? Is it for all but really for some? Does research communication in and of itself need an ethical code of practice? We explore some of these themes within the book, as well as providing resources to equip researchers with techniques for ethical best practice in the design and evaluation of their research communication efforts.
In summary, we hope that the book provides a space for researchers to reflect on the ways they can engender creativity in their own research communication efforts, whilst recognising that taking such ‘risks’ requires support and encouragement:
‘Creativity can involve taking risks, having failures, pushing beyond one’s boundaries, and evaluation is one space in which to capture this, continuing to move the trajectory of research communication forwards without simply reducing research communication activities to those which might tick a box. Creative research communication is a recipe, concoction, a craft and a science, and it is up to each researcher to consider where their path lies on their own map of research communication.’ (Wilkinson and Weitkamp, p.266).
To answer our original question, do we need to be more creative in communicating research, not necessarily, but we hope the book provides a wide variety of reasons why you can.
What do robots have to do with ethics? And how do you end up with the job of “roboethicist”? Prof. Alan Winfield, Director of the Science Communication Unit at UWE Bristol, explains his recent professional journey.
It was November 2009 that I was invited, together with Noel Sharkey, to present to the EPSRC Societal Impact Panel on robot ethics. That was I think my first serious foray into robot ethics. An outcome of that meeting was being asked to co-organise a joint AHRC/EPSRC workshop on robot ethics – which culminated in the publication of the Principles of Robotics in 2011: on the EPSRC website, and with a writeup in New Scientist.
Shortly after that I was invited to join a UK robot ethics working group which then became part of the British Standards Institute technical committee working toward a Standard on Robot Ethics. That standard was published earlier this month, as BS 8611:2016 Guide to the ethical design and application of robots and robotic systems. Sadly the standard itself is behind a paywall, but the BSI press release gives a nice writeup. I think this is probably the world’s first standard for robot ethics and I’m very happy to have contributed to it.
Somehow during all of this I got described as a roboethicist; a job description I’m very happy with.
In parallel with this work and advocacy on robot ethics, I started to work on ethical robots; the other side of the roboethics coin. But, as I wrote in PC-PRO last year it took a little persuasion from a long term collaborator, Michael Fisher, that ethical robots were even possible. But since then we have experimentally demonstrated a minimally ethical robot; work that was covered in New Scientist, the BBC R4 Today programme and last year a Nature news article. I was especially pleased to be invited to present this work at the World Economic Forum, Davos, in January. Below is the YouTube video of my 5 minute IdeasLab talk, and a writeup.
To bring the story right up to date, the IEEE initiated an international initiative on Ethical Considerations in the Design of Autonomous Systems, and I am honoured to be co-chairing the General Principles committee, as well as sitting on the How to Imbue Ethics into AI committee. The significance of this is that the IEEE effort will be covering all intelligent technologies including robots and AI. I’ve become very concerned that AI is moving ahead very fast – much faster than robotics – and the need for ethical standards and ultimately regulation is even more urgent than in robotics.
It’s very good also to see that the UK government is taking these developments seriously. I was invited to a Government Office of Science round table in January on AI, and just last week submitted text to the parliamentary Science and Technology committee inquiry on Robotics and AI.
You can find out more about Alan’s research and engagement on his own blog.