Communication is key when passing on important information to the public, media and policymakers. Since starting my PhD, I have become more and more interested in communication of scientific news and ideas, and so when I heard about the Voice of Young Scientist: Standing up for Science workshop I jumped at the opportunity to learn more. Held at the fantastic Wellcome Collection on Euston Road, the workshop was run by Sense about Science, a charity whose aims include effectively engaging the public in science and ensuring evidence is robust and accurate for use in policymaking.
Throughout the day we heard from a whole variety of scientists, journalists and people who work with policymakers, and hearing about their experience with communication and public engagement was fascinating. Initially, researchers Prof. Mike Tildesley, Danielle Purkiss and Prof. Chris French talked about the relationship between science and the media, including how talking to journalists can sometimes spectacularly go wrong! I hadn't previously considered how communicating uncertainty can be tricky, especially when timelines (such as the possible end-date of a disease) can have such a big impact on the public's day-to-day lives. Top tips I learned included: get the key message across even if it doesn't properly answer the interviewer's question, be very careful about making off-the-cuff comments, and potentially the most important, it's ok to say "I don't know"!
Next, we heard from those working in and with the media, including writers Jane Feinmann and Ehsan Masood, and University of Essex Head of Corporate Communications Ben Hall. They shared advice for talking to journalists and how effective stories are made. For example, thinking about the audience is key to producing content that people will actually consume, and good articles are based off evidence that is strong and effective, such as case studies and published data. Other good points included thinking about if a piece of research is actually of interest to the public, how the types of media people consume is so varied nowadays, and that searchability is also of great importance to people finding your work in the first place.
The final panel investigated what policymakers are looking for, with behavioural scientist Prof. Brooke Rogers and policy engagement manager Dr. Chris Peters from the University of Manchester. One down-to-earth piece of advice was to manage your expectations, as changing things from inside the government can definitely take time. Scientists are also there to make recommendations from their research, but cannot make the actual decisions, and there is far more than just the science to take into consideration. Transparency is also very important for public trust, as said in a written statement by Jade Appleton, Croydon Councillor, who unfortunately was unable to attend. This was also echoed by Brooke, who said that transparency is your armour - you can only give as much as you know.
Lastly, Dr. Hamid Khan from Sense about Science talked through effective public engagement for researchers and about the work the charity has done to help when public awareness goes wrong. Sense and Science have produced publications to help increase public faith in topics such as GM and forensic genetics, and interactive content, such as a website to help parents get informed about children's heart surgery after a hospital ward in Leeds was closed due to higher-than-normal death rates. He also discussed how to approach producing content for the public, such as talking to the public from the beginning and working out what concerns they actually have.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the day and would recommend anyone interested in policymaking, science journalism or public engagement to look up Sense about Science and Voice of Young Scientist.
Images ©Wellcome Collection, Benjamin Gilbert (top); ©Sense about Science (bottom).