Science Communication I

Science communication skills have very wide applicability, from scientific journals and conferences all the way through to giving talks to school students. ESConet Trainers make use of a “scenario approach”, in which the researchers to be trained are put into a number of situations in which they will be expected to com- municate with lay, but intelligent, audiences. In particular, ESConet stresses the importance of communication with and through the mass media in order to provide basic training in structured and well-focussed communication.

Our science communication workshops consist of a number of modules, most of which have practical activities. Feedback sessions are built into all of the practical modules, and further feedback will be given as required, after the workshops.

Science Communication I aims to introduce the main concepts and skills to start scientists on the road to communicating with different audiences effectively.

 

Who are you communicating with and why

This module acts an introduction to the workshop, and is designed to open up the trainees to the possibilities and pitfalls of communicating with lay audiences. Before embarking on any communications activity, it is vital to ask: who is your audience, and why are you communicating with them? For any science communication activity to be successful, it is important to understand the specific characteristics of the audience that may shape how people relate to science. So the first section of this module looks at what we know about European citizens and their attitudes to science, making use of the Eurobarometer surveys, among other information sources. The second part of this module presents the reasons why lay people need and seek scientific information, using the “uses and gratifications” approach from communication theory. For both sections there are short exercises, including asking trainees to introduce themselves, outline their experience in communicating with the media and lay audiences, and say what their particular motives are for being involved in science communication. This module then leads into the following THREE practical modules that develop communication skills in writing for the media, talking to the media, and communication through the internet.

Writing for the media

If they publish in high profile journals or have to make an important announcement or conference presentation, researchers may often be asked to provide information for a press release. They may, of course, leave the writing of this release entirely to their institution’s press office. But, increasingly, researchers themselves are being asked to play a part in formulating what goes out to the media, to ensure accuracy and to highlight the relevance, novelty etc. of what they are doing. The press release is a very disciplined, formulaic piece of writing designed to fit closely to what news journalists have to write on a daily basis, and to answer a few very basic questions: who, what, where, why, when and how. So this module provides scientists with the skills required to prepare a press release about their own research. Before developing their writing skills, trainees are also given an introduction to news values that they can apply in their own press release writing, and taken through examples of press releases that have successfully generated media coverage. The module engenders good written communication practices that may be widely applicable, including in a purely research setting, such as a scientific journal or conference poster. This is considered a core module for a workshop in which participants with little or no experience of science communication are to be trained.

Talking to the media

This module introduces trainees to the various forms and uses of the media interview in which scientists may be involved, and involves participants in a practical simulation of a media interview. It reviews participants’ experiences and expectations of media interviews. It considers the media’s approach to interviews and sets out the range of contexts in which scientists may be interviewed. Participants are advised on preparing for media interviews, underlining the importance of clear focus on key points, and of anticipating the possible lines of questioning. Participants are presented with a scenario in which the media wish to interview them, and they have the opportunity to prepare with a colleague-participant, under trainers’ supervision. Participants are interviewed by media professionals in one or more settings. The default setting is the t.v. or radio interview in a studio setting for live broadcast or recording. Other possibilities are: interviews on the telephone for radio (live) or newspaper; extended interviews for magazine; interview on-camera in non-studio location; presentation to media at a press conference. Trainers and participants review the interview performances, offering opportunity for peer and self-critique. Time and numbers permitting, participants are re-interviewed in the same or similar setting and their improvement assessed. This, too, is a core module, essential for further training.

Public science on the web

This module examines the various forms and uses of the web as a medium of public science communication. Tutors and participants will review critically selected examples of science web sites, aiming to identify elements of good and bad practice, and to establish criteria for effective sites. Participants will be encouraged to reflect on use of language, structures of information, use of images, inclusion of interactive features and hyperlinks, and other features of web sites appropriate to science communication in various contexts. Participants will undertake supervised exercises, working in pairs, to review critically selected science web sites and to produce an outline of a web page or pages about the project, programme or institution to which they belong. They will be introduced to techniques such as blogging, and sites such as Facebook. Tutors and participants will review together the pages produced. This module does ask trainees to keep in touch with the trainers and undertake some follow-up exercises, to be undertaken in the following weeks.

How the media cover science

There is much anecdotal evidence of scientists experience difficulties with journalists and broadcasters when it comes to popularizing their work: inaccuracies, oversimplifications, removal of qualifying statements, over-emphasising controversy etc. Much of the uneasiness between the world’s of research and the media is due to mutual unfamiliarity, and a separate call under FP7 is designed to make journalists more familiar with life in a research institution. This module, however, is designed to increase researchers’ familiarity with the world of the media. The module presents an overview of the main features of media presentation of science and technology issues. It reviews the key findings of long-term studies of media coverage of science and technology, tries to highlight the dominant trends across time, the main differences across the diverse media (TV, press, radio) and presents some particularly significant case studies. ESConet often delivers this module as an evening lecture and discussion.

Science in culture

By the end of an intensive, two-day workshop, trainees have been exposed to a great deal of practical activity and detailed information. At the end of the workshop, therefore, it is useful to reflect on what has been learned and put it into a wider context. This module provides a useful framework for doing this: the public representation of science is the result of a combination of a great multiplicity and variety of factors, the origins of which are difficult to trace. This module provides a brief introduction to some of those factors, and aims to generate a final discussion on why science communication is important at a number of levels. In short, it reinforces the lessons learned in the workshop by emphasising the context and importance of science communication.

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