The keynote address at the Science Communication Conference (#scicom12) was delivered by Lisa Jardine, the Centenary Professor of Renaissance Studies and Director of the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters at Queen Mary University of London. I enjoyed the talk, so much so that my notes from it were rubbish. But I think I noted down some of the most important parts, so here we go. This is an insight into the mind (notepad) of Loris.
Sometimes, doing and communicating science is a pain in the ass. Scientists must really just sometimes think, “what the hell is the point in trying to tell the public about all this really important research that I dedicate my life to, when people insist on buying and believing scare-mongering bullcrap like THIS over my professional opinion?”
This is a real problem and a barrier in science communication. As horrendous as it may seem, it’s almost like the people who want to sell lots of newspapers sometimes couldn’t give a flying beaker about scientific accuracy. Apparently scare stories sell more copies or something.
Scientific issues affect the lives of each and every one of us, whether we like it or not. It is therefore incredibly important that we try to achieve an active and ongoing communication between the scientific community and the general public: not a one-way, directional lecture from scientists to the pubic, but rather a dialogue in which both sides look at a concept that may be controversial, each express their concerns and together they review the state of the evidence. Ahh to live in an ideal world.
No one wants to be patronised. I hate being condescended, it makes me a very angry little primate. If I, as someone who knows absolutely nothing about art, went to an art gallery in order to find out about a particular technique or artist and I found the staff there sensed my lack of knowledge and presumed I was an ignorant moron and therefore spoke to me as if I were an idiot, the chances are that I would leave with a very negative and distrusting view of that particular artist, technique or community. It’s the same with science. When talking about the impact science has on the public, we first have to think about who the public you want to reach actually are. Young people? Old people? Families? Infants and babies? Children? Scientists from another discipline? There is no one public, there are many different publics which are made up of many diverse individuals. It is not enough to assume that the public is simply “non-scientists”: Everyone is someone else’s public. And no one wants to feel stupid. Two-way involvement, openness and trust have to drive the future of public engagement with science.
This is one point that I always talk about when discussing science communication. If you don’t convince your public that your research is important to them, why the hell should they care about it? I particularly like the quote at the bottom, which comes from Lisa’s father Jacob Bronowski (a major science communicator in the 1970s, famous for the groundbreaking BBC documentary The Ascent of Man). I was delighted to hear that Lisa’s thoughts on how to convince the public that your research is important are exactly the same as my own:
I meet a lot of science PhD students and am always so surprised when I say “ooooh so what is your project?” and they reply with “oh it’s just like… it’s boring.” I later find out, through more probing, that they work in a lab and poke around neurons from rat brains in the hope of finding out more about the neurology of addiction. Or perhaps all they do all day is put people in fMRI machines to investigate how the brain reacts to pictures of certain faces. SAY WHAT? THAT IS AWESOME. You don’t think so? Really? Look. If you are not excited about your research, then do not expect anyone else to be.
The final thought the wonderful Lisa Jardine left me with was this:
So I did.
I should really get an iPad or a smaller laptop so that I no longer have to rely on pen and paper notes. As you have witnessed, it’s not very effective.