Standing up for Science

Today I attended the Sense about Science [1] media workshop: Standing up for Science [2]. The day is run as part of their Voice of Young Science network [3] and aims to help early career scientists launch themselves into the rather intimidating field of media engagement.

The workshop itself was a really interesting day so thanks to Chris Peters and Ana Skamarauskas for organising and chairing through the day. It was primarily composed of three very interactive panels: scientists who have communicated with the media, journalists who work in STEM-related media, and the ‘nuts and bolts’ panel.

The Scientists

Probably the most interesting for me was the first. Three scientists from different fields gave use their experience of engaging with the media. Professor Claire Halpin [4] spoke about her experiences before the GM debate struck the UK, her experience as the debate reached it’s most controversial and her work in public perception of GM crops.

Dr Mario Vellejo-Marin [5] gave his experiences as a younger researcher working in a less controversial topic: plant evolutionary biology. Mario described how an enthusiastic conversation at a Professor’s party with somebody who turned out to be a science journalist has led to several news and television appearances for him and his new species of plants, an example of less person-centric research still being of great interest to the public.

Professor Sergio Della Sala [6] gave the audience his advice and opinions on what we should be communicating with the media. He warned the audience of the dangers of being too media happy and reporting on unconfirmed, unreviewed or wrong results and put the responsibility of safe scientific reporting not just on the media but very much on the scientists who are engaging with the media.

The Journalists

The second session was revealing of the limitations and frustrations of reporting science from the view of two freelance journalists (Jane Feinmann, a medical journalist [7], and Wendy Grossman [8], a technology and freedom writer) and a TV correspondent (Kevin Keane of the BBC [9]). Key messages were that if you make a press release through the university, but then go on holiday, then don’t be upset if your competitor is the one speaking on the news at six. Further, if you don’t engage with the journalists trying to report your science then the risk of them misinterpreting you results or the significance increase. Basically: the more we as scientists are available and happy to engage, the better science journalism will occur.

An additional point, which is very important to remember, is that not all journalists are science-specialists and even those who are don’t necessarily know you tiny bit of science. As journalists, their job is to take an overwhelmingly complex and nuanced piece of science and simplify it for the audience in questions. That might mean taking your three years of work and condensing it into a 90 second TV slot. As scientists, we should be aware of the challenge involved and a) help this process by expressing our research in an already simple way and b) not getting upset by the ‘over simplification’ of our work but try to communicate which are the important bits and why their important.

The Nuts and Bolts

The final session was a mixed panel: Beatriz Goulao [10], a PhD student, statistician and ambassador in the Ask for Evidence campaign [11], Jen Middleton [12], a PR manager at the University of Edinburgh, and Lindsay Murphy, former Assistant Director and now Scottish Programme Coordinator for Sense about Science and owner of Be Experimental [13].

Here the panel was able to give the audience insight into the connections between scientists and journalists. The support, training and platforms available through organisations like Sense about Science and the Voice of Young Science network, through learned bodies, e.g. BSA Media Fellowships [14], and funding organisations and through university press officers.

My Take

So, what are my take home messages?:

  • Researchers need to be open and proactive about talking to the public and the media. It’s only through this transparency that we can prevent misunderstanding.
  • If you are speaking to the media: prepare. Prepare a message that you’d like to get across, prepare simplified forms of your discipline’s jargon, just prepare.
  • Scientists are public figures: they usually receive public funding, their research does impact the public and the public are, often, extremely interested in what science is happening.
  • Scientists can engage with the media at a range of levels: maybe you jut want to discuss your direct research, or just the field, but you could also engage with the media and public when you see bad science, or science being reported in an irresponsible way.

I think a lot of the rest comes with experience, talking to those who have experience in engaging the media, talking to those in the media. So, those of us in science who have yet to do so: why not dig in? Why not get involved in campaigns like Ask for Evidence? Or highlight bad science or reporting by contacting the reporters/outlets involved? Or, just as a start, why not attend a similar sessionĀ  yourself?


Chas Nelson
LKAS Research Fellow in Data Science

An interdisciplinary scientist with a background in quantitative microscopy and bioimage analysis.