As I begin to prepare for my TED talk (more fervently now as the I count down to the conference!), I chanced upon a science communications talk organised by the NUSLibraries. It was part of a series of workshop called Researcher Unbound, which aims to help get researchers of all levels on-board. And of course, I’ve been a ‘fan’ of the speaker given that she has been very outspoken on her journey to promoting science communication in Asia – Assistant Professor Juliana Chan. 😀 Dr Juliana is also the Editor-in-Chief of the Asian Scientist Magazine!
I like to share what I’ve learnt from her presentation, and my own experience with science communication. And why I strong encourage everyone to give it a try – one form or another! 🙂
Why it matters for scientists to engage with the public?
- Pay back to society – Apart from the fact that our research funding comes from the government and public, sharing our scientific knowledge can be viewed as our social responsibility to inform society.
- Shape attitudes – Knowledge is a powerful tool that can influence mindsets. This can also help to build up support for science, and promote understanding of its wider relevance to society.
- Find collaborators – A platform to showcase your research work beyond your peers to a broader, non-scientist audience.
In the first place, you may be wondering – Does the public even care about what we do as scientists? The answer is maybe? (At least in Singapore). Dr Juliana and her colleagues conducted an island-wide survey to find out public views and attitudes towards science and technology issues in Singapore, and results are published in a white paper.
She shared some of the paper’s key findings as follows:
- The public supports government funding channeled towards research
- Some are concerned that people may depend too much on science
- There is support for women in science!
- Scientific literacy is uneven among public
- Only 58% want to engage with scientists! >> General public considers us unapproachable?? (laughs!)
So how can we scientists better communicate to a general audience?
hahaha! I love this comic, but as a start, let’s not shout. As a start, Dr Juliana shared 10 practical tips on how to communicate science in a written manner (but this can also apply to spoken if effort is taken to write it down first). And here they are:
- Dump the jargon – Why say ‘utilise’ when you can say ‘use’?
- Beware the ‘curse of knowledge’ – Just because you are an expert in this field doesn’t mean others can understand what you say. Lose the technical terms!
- Avoid absolutes – Be careful not to assert the extremes/absolutes. Replace ‘will’ and ‘must’ with ‘perhaps’, ‘probably’ or ‘potentially’.
- Dealing with numbers – Or not? Limit the use of numbers. Infographics are good!
- Slow down the pace of delivery – Avoid writing long sentences that becomes convoluted and complex!
- Use connectors – Engage in a story-telling manner. Reduce the use of ‘The’, ‘This’, ‘They’,…
- Tone down the rhetoric – Forget the impact factors or the journals that publish your work. Focus on the findings – that’s what matters!
- Use metaphors and analogies – May help readers understand something new in terms of what they already know. ‘Make swimming less of a drag’
- Use humour – Reference to pop culture. ‘Stars that are die young and fast’ (By the way, refers to the red giants, and not pop-stars!). Moderate use of metaphors can engage the millennials more easily.
- Declutter (Marie Kondo style) – It may seem counter intuitive but… less information can be more easily understood.
Where do I begin with science communication?
First, start writing! 😀
My story-telling days began about 10 years ago in the form of a nature blog. The aim was to use the platform to share about marine life and marine science research in Singapore. With time, I asked myself the question of how can I disseminate science (especially my research work) to others who don’t study what I do? And that’s when I started to take writing more seriously and learnt the techniques of writing science that is easy for others to understand. It’s ALOT of hard work! For each writeup I do, I spent hours researching the materials, fine-tuning my sentences, and reading out loud to make sure it makes easy sense!
At the end of the day, I know that it is worth it. A friend of mine whom I have not met for a while told me that she saw my post on her Facebook one day, and decided to click on it to see what I write. And she ended up in front of her computer hours after, because she read almost all of my posts! *beams*
Another means to improving science writing skills is to participate in competitions! I’m very excited to share that the Asian Scientist Writing Prize 2017 is back again! You not only get a chance to win great prizes, but also get your work featured in a book! I submitted a piece for the inaugural ASWP2015 and was very fortunate to have my article chosen for publication in Bugs & Quarks: Stories from the Asian Scientist Writing Prize 2015!
If you need more to convince you on the great importance of science communication, I’ve picked up a couple more articles for your further readings… 🙂
NatureJobs Blog – ‘The importance of broadening science communication‘
Engage – ‘Analogies and metaphors in science communication: the good and the bad‘ by Siva Kasinathan (Update 11/03: Applogies! I got the writer mixed up!)
Biological Conservation – ‘Science communication for biodiversity conservation‘ by Bickford et al. (2012)
The Elements of Style by Strunk & White (For beginners and intermediate writers)
The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker (For advanced writers)