I recently spoke with a great class of third year undergraduates at UCL about all things scicomm and, following the dispensing of what practical advice I could (in terms of contacts, where to look for jobs, how to pitch) and a simple introduction into the history of scicomm and a brief explanation of how public engagement evolved from the pre-1980s “public understanding of science”, how press releases actually work, I found myself having a conversation about why scicomm was worthwhile, why so many scientists chose/found themselves taking part in it and generally - to follow Dennett in borrowing from the lawyers - cui bono...
We found ourselves discussing initially scicomm, but then moved swiftly into how (and why) scientists utilise social media platforms (primarily Twitter*), discussing six key themes, each explored with varying levels of cynicism: connections, visibility, money, advertising, policy and love.
I don’t often paraphrase Dawkins, but when he writes that it’s hard to see why any one studies anything other than biology, he encapsulates the infectious enthusiasm that those with knowledge often (but not always) display, and the drive many feel to share that joyous amazement at a world that becomes more and more strange the more you learn about it. As someone that has been lucky enough to share with others the remarkable things I have learnt on stage, on the radio and on the television, as well as in front of audiences of kids at book festivals and Saturday clubs, I’ve experienced the utter joy of sharing information with a reactive audience and talking with audience members afterwards as we bounce ideas off each other - as well as the instant gratification of appreciation so unlike the usual slow release of the relentless march of More-Publications-Please. The passion that leads most to become biologists, or physicists, or chemists, is the same drive that leads them to voluntarily (and often freely) spend their time in the almost**-selfless act of teaching.
We spent a while considering the go-to social media platform of choice, Twitter, and the interactions the majority of scientists seem to go for on there. In a snapshot, it really does look like most users consider ‘Excited to share our latest paper…’ or ‘Here’s the obligatory shot of me standing by my poster at this niche conference’ as the extent of, and the appropriate use of the platform, and the limit of most’s outreach activity. We talked about how this is just an extension of the ‘Dear colleagues, you may find my latest paper of interest’ letter and then emails scientists have historically sent to each other. There’s a lot of science out there and it helps to ring your bell occasionally. This just seems to be a left over from a less connected time, and certainly isn’t scicomm.
Connected to advertising work completed and papers written, was the idea of maximising personal visibility. This seemed to come up a lot when looking at scientist’s feeds. Twitter enables people to develop their own ‘brand’*** and in many cases, it does feel like scientists use their twitter accounts in an attempt to rise above the white noise of innumerable research papers, the sea of PhD students, to increase their visibility. This was hardly scicomm, but was certainly linked to...
Through visibility came connectivity, both within academia and without. As in conferences, where the advice is to speak to as many people as possible, it seems that using social media is an excellent way to forge new, and maintain old, professional links. It does seem, though, that yelling into the void and accumulating nods seems radically different from the two-way interaction of actual conversation, but the visibility increase that follows social media activity can maintain awareness of one’s activity/interests/aliveness in between physical encounters - and levels the field for those who can’t/do not wish to attend conferences/talks/courses. It’s the equivalent of sending Christmas cards to clients in the hope that professional relationships will continue in the new year.
Outside academia, things are similar. Speaking from my own experiences, it was through Love and harping on about animals that I was first approached by the publishing house that initially gave me a shot, which then led to my career as a writer and consultant. Although I now have far more confidence in contacting publishers directly, I have an awful lot thank for that initial DM.
When I was an undergraduate, I had hardly any idea as to where the money that funded research came from - e.g. the UK Research Councils, charities, National academies and institutes etc (there’s a lovely summary on the Imperial College website), so I thought it was important to run through these. It was also very important to emphasis that ‘impact’ is now a massive part of the funding machine, and an understanding of public engagement is paramount (well, after the actual research part) for actually getting funding to do science at all today.
Finally, we discussed policy as ‘public’ engagement, and the interaction between scientists and powerful members of the public. I’m never sure how policy will be received when it’s discussed. For some, it’s deathly dull - an encroachment of suits into the field site - whilst others see it for it’s potential: the hand to help guide, the sabots on the factory floor. It’s perhaps telling that of the key priorities identified by the UK’s independent scientific academy, “Increase scientific advice for policy makers” is listed at the top of the pile for “Demonstrating the importance of science to everyone”, as is evidenced by the enormous number of staff who work in the Society’s policy department - writing primers for politicians, synopses for judges, briefings on climate change and plastic pollution PDFs for the public. So long as our politicians continue coming from classics rather than chemistry backgrounds, we need scientists to work with policy workers to deliver science to those that need to understand it in a clear, succinct fashion, free of the ambiguity that often shrouds fast moving contemporary research.
It was really cool to discuss this, and really try to get my head around why so many scientists now engage in engagement. This is just a short, non-exhaustive list, and it was interesting that we focused more on the benefits for the scientists performing engagement rather than the recipients, but I wanted to get this down whilst it was fresh in my head. Massive props to the students for making me mull on this.
* 0% of the 20-year-olds I was talking with had Twitter accounts.
** Applause is addictive.