Science Communication: Time to Double Down

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    Try and remember. Go back in time, and try to recall one of the moments that inspired you to pursue science. Chances are, it was a news item with a sleek scientist taking a stroll with your imagination. He offered you a glimpse of an outrageously cool future. Or maybe it was an article which guided you through the steps taken in a breakthrough research, paving the way for exciting new possibilities. Perhaps, it was an experiment you performed for the very first time and its outcome triggered a powerful emotion: wonder.

    A lot of people are fascinated by science. And they need to be.

    A wonderful evolution within you: you had learned something you could not even begin to imagine as possible. It began with the things you knew, but the journey went into the unknown. And the destination was so awe-inspiring that you gained knowledge. It shifted your perception of reality and the rules that govern it.

    Prof. Brian Cox, a sleek scientist

    There is no doubt whatever subject you pour all your energy into, could be as exciting as any of those moments you have experienced. But how would you create such a moment? How would you structure that story? How would you compress endless streams of data? How would you break out of the bubble of speaking, writing and thinking in six syllable terms? What details could you allow yourself to omit, for the sake of clarity? And what form would it take? An article? A video or even a GIF? Something completely different?

    A lot of researchers struggle to make their work appealing to non-scientists. And it is easy to see why. Over the course of their training, they learn an enormous number of scientific terms needed to talk sense in their field. They get accustomed to the clean but dull layout of papers. Every scrap of communication they engage in has to withstand major scrutiny. And for good reason. But apply this on a daily basis and it hinders scientists to talk about their work in a chit-chat manner. The scientist falters as he clarifies his daily activities to someone who is unfamiliar with the matter. Most of the time, people react with ‘interesting’ or ‘cool’. But when the listener pries with genuine interest, the scientist struggles, since he either talks about it in the most general way possible or explains it all.

    Talk in terms your hairdresser or pizza delivery guy would talk

    It is unfortunate, because a lot of people are fascinated by science. And they need to be. Science communication is gaining momentum, in a world driven and shaped by technological advancements.

    Every day, newsfeeds all over the world are riddled with the latest promising experiments and crazy new inventions. These stories are originated in the lab. Some of them find their way to a worldwide audience, exploding social media and popping up in dinner table conversations among everyday families.

    They inform non-scientists about how their lives might transform. The effects those changes will have on their lives, their children and their environment made clear. They allow them to voice their concerns or stand by their enthusiasm, empower them to back or oppose legislation and ultimately to be an active participant of the society. In the age of misinformation, we hold the power to provide the necessary knowledge, when fiction is passed off as fact.

    The internet is littered with success stories of popularized science. YouTube-channels like Vsauce, Veratisium and SmarterEveryDay have millions of subscribers. TED-talks are hugely popular, in part thanks to speakers like Hans Rosling, who captivated audiences with statistics, of all things. And websites like IFLScience.com get read on a daily basis worldwide.

    That is why the value of science communication departments is on the rise. Consultants who offer advice and workshops are sprouting all over the world. They aim to offer the tools of how to communicate to inspire. They provide insight in how to bridge the rift dividing the scientific community and the general public. They show institutions and companies the importance of outreach. With novel ways to produce food or cure disease, comes the inevitable challenge of framing the story.

    So, how could you do it? How could you create an inspirational moment based on what you are occupied with? I would like to offer some advice and tips to those of you interested in breaking down the walls of the lab, which by now, should be all of you.

    And it matters. If one kid considers a career in science when he never did, it is valuable.

    Tell a story. Anyone can list a fact sheet. But can you make the protein you are researching into a villain? Can you frame the method you are developing as a ‘week in the life of’? How about structuring your search for potential chemicals as a talent show?

    Ignore your dictionary. Talk in terms your hairdresser or pizza delivery guy would talk. You stand to lose your audience, still thinking about that weird word when you need them to laugh, cheer or applaud.

    Dare to let go of the details. The specifics are important in research, but they lead the audience astray. Get to the point and focus on the broad steps taken to get to that conclusion.

    Go unusual. You do not have to present with a PowerPoint. You do not have to write a long blog post. What else could you do? Make a music video, design a board game, do a daily tweet, make memes!

    Get inspired. Scour the internet for great examples of science communication, like xkcd’s “What If?” series. The creative lengths people will go to spark interest in science will amaze you. Collaborate. Get together, with fellow scientists and enthusiasts. Start local, at your institution or town hall, paper or radio station. See what you can come up with. You will be surprised of the impact it will have.

    ‘What if’ by xkcd, when asked about a baseball at 90% the speed of light.

    Disregard your degree. You do not have to have a postdoc to talk about science. You are qualified to inspire.

    Do not get me wrong; you should read up on what you want to communicate and tell a correct tale. But you are not teaching, you are sharing a story.

    Have fun. The fascination of experiencing someone’s enthusiasm is unrivalled. I hope I was able to provide you with some new insights.

    I hope you will keep in mind anything you work on is worth sharing, and people will care if you take the time to think about the packaging.

    And it matters. If one kid considers a career in science when he never did, it is valuable. If one person quotes your work at a party during a lighthearted conversation, it is worth it. Imagine a Nobel Laureate who recalls the moment he was inspired. What if you had anything to do with that?

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    The author is a biotech lab technician with a passion for science communication. He co-founded ReaGent, a do-ityourself biolab in Flanders, Belgium. It is open to anyone who wants to discover biosciences, regardless of training or age. Ekoli, a non-proft born out of ReaGent, brings biosciences to kids in general and underprivileged children in particular. Trough hands on workshops and projects, they aim to fascinate. Niek now works as a freelancer in Break it Down, a collective of science communicators offering advice and projectwork.
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