Monthly Archives: April 2011

Has blogging changed science writing?

I gave a talk to students on the Science, the Environment and the Media course at American University this week. The actual talk was a reasonably long and sprawling event, so I’ve pared it down a bit for this blogpost.

There’s an oft-made joke that the answers to questions in headlines is always ‘no’, and that this is especially apparent in the era of click-from-the-tweet linkbait news production. It was neatly parodied by Martin Robbins in the sub-heading to his (infamous) This is a news website article about a scientific paper post for the Guardian last year.

So, here’s a headline question: Has blogging changed science communication?


Or at least ‘ish’.

Yes, various technologies of online communication, and cultural changes surrounding them, mean we can do new things with science writing, but that doesn’t mean we have done them, or that we’ve done them in simple ways.

There are various thing we can talk about in terms of how blogging has or has not impacted on science writing. In the longer version of this piece I covered several. There’s the ongoing story of journalists vs bloggers (the silliness of it, though also the sense where it is real). There’s the complex ways in which trust can be build via pseudonymous blogging (the about us section at HolfordWatch is a fascinating example). Or, for all the promise of the web as a great leveler, when it comes to science many of the old patterns of authority and anti-authority are played out online (I think science bloggers tendency to networks is interesting here). I also cautioned against naivety when it comes to setting ‘information’ ‘free’, using Ben Goldacre’s scepticism over an investigation from the Guardian Health team as example, including the idea that open data might need open methodology too (credit). To which I might add the need for open education, not to mention an awareness of the role of tacit knowledge (and that’s without getting into economic arguments…).

Here, I’ll posit two ideas in more detail, and invite your response: (a) I don’t think hypertext has transformed science writing, but (b) I do think blogging has fostered greater reflexivity in the field.

Hypertext hasn’t transformed science writing

Or at least it hasn’t transformed it as much as it could.

The link is a form of rhetoric like any other form of communication. Placing one, thinking about what you’ll link to, how and when, is part of the craft of modern writing and something to delight in. It’s a challenge that, as someone who has been writing about science online for over a decade, I personally adore. However, many science writers don’t link, even to the paper a story is about, let along further context.

There are various reasons for this. Content management systems many professional writer work with can be very clunky, constraining a writer’s hypertextual expression. A lot of text online has to also be available in print. In the tough economies of professional writing, links are used to increase search engine optimisation, or even advertising (Mary Knudson shared a story about this at a DCSWA event last week). Writers often also ask the simple question ‘link to what: a paywalled document no one will understand?’ (which brings us back to access issues…).

We might similarly argue that there are many more complex tools available than simple href tag which could add something to the way we tell stories about science. Several writers have been playing with timelines recently (e.g. this one from Henry Nicholls) as ways to connect the rich context around a story. These are great, and I look forward to their use more and more, but they are underused. The Guardian’s Story Tracker idea is nice, but very low tech and hardly used. Compare it to the Guardian’s Arab Spring timeline. Where’s the human genome project version of content like this?

I know a lot of science journalists who are incredibly excited by the various new media options available to their craft. They just don’t have the time or resources to pursue them. I should note that it was Mun Keat Looi, Online Editor at the Wellcome Trust, who prompted me to wonder where the HGP roller-coaster was. Maybe it’s institutionally based science writers like him who have the resources to make these sorts of projects? (maybe this is a problem?)

This isn’t necessarily a criticism. I don’t expect science journalism to have to ‘tech up’, nor do I necessarily think all their audiences want it. But let’s not assume more than there is. The history of technology is often as much a story of what innovations we haven’t taken up as those we have (see Edgerton, 2006); there has always been more options than actions when it comes to science writing.

Blogging has fostered reflexivity in science writing.

By which I mean we can see science writers engaging in critique and debate about the meanings and methods of science writing.

Especially in the UK, the role of Ben Goldacre and other members of the ‘Bad Science’ blogging community shouldn’t be discounted, but I think my favourite example here has to be the US-based EmbargoWatch. It’s quite ‘inside baseball’, and in some respects, an example of the ability of the web to connect niche interests groups (it’s a bit ‘Long Tail’). I mentioned this to a professor of science journalism recently and his eyes grew into saucers with geeky glee: ‘there’s a whole blog, on embargoes?!’ Another nice example is Christopher Mims’ reminiscing over the history of science blogs. Or there’s the Guardian’s recent series linked to a competition, or simply the way so many science writers use their blogs to disperse posts about their craft alongside actually doing it.

The niche element is only part of the story though. Going back to the impact of ‘Bad Science’ blogging, Martin Robbins who now blogs on the Guardian network (great post about this here by the way) makes for a super case study here. There is that parody I mentioned earlier, or his occasionally mischievous tweeting. What makes Robbins so interesting though is not just that he gets to post critiques of professional science journalism on the site of such professional journalism (as Ben Goldacre does too), but the way in which this demonstrates an audience for such a critique (again, see also the success of Goldacre). Just look at the share stats at the top of that parody post: 4747 tweets, shared on facebook 37K times. That’s unusual for the Guardian science pages. I checked with Martin, and it amounted to 15% of traffic to the site for 2 days; about a quarter millions hits per day.

That’s not to argue that such critique is always useful, valid or listened to. Just that it’s there. It’s probably worth noting that much of this sort of critique is of the kind that both the scientific community and media-watchers (including mainstream media itself) have made for years. It’s not necessarily all that new; it’s just more overtly embedded alongside the work itself now. I’d also add that for all that the odd blogpost may be highly perceptive and well researched, not to mention sometimes incredibly funny, there’s still a role for the more developed work of academics (e.g. from Andy Williams, Matt Nisbet or Jenny Kitinger, Felicity Mellor, Martin Bauer, Angela Cassidy, Brian Trench…).

In conclusion, science and blogging are both large and amorphous cultural spaces: aspects of the above will be more or less true depending on where you look. I don’t claim to know about all of it. Personally, the thing I appreciate most about blogging is that it seems to have make it more socially acceptable to finish with questions. So, what do you think?


Considering science and children

I did my PhD on children’s science books. I happen to think children’s interactions with science – and the way adults decide to build such interactions for them – is a fascinating area of social analysis. I hope to spend much of the next few months (while I’m on research leave) going back to this work, so I thought I’d turn some of my old teaching notes into a blogpost.

In advocating research on children and science it is all too easy to fall back on overly self-important (and under-analysed) celebrations of their significance. Yes, political intersections between children and science and/ or technology can be some of the most controversial: vaccinations, digital culture, the future effects of current energy policy. As I wrote on an old blog years ago, children are at the center of an awful lot of science news stories. Yes, increasingly, science and technology is a central part of children’s lives; whether because they find themselves in front of flickering electronic screens or because various people mobilise their concern to train a scientifically literate futurepeople, plotting science into curricula the world over. But I am not in the business of repeating such rhetoric. I’d much rather have a good, hard look at it; examine it, consider what makes it tick, take it apart and see if we can’t put it together in more useful and interesting ways.

Imagining the child and science

There are many ways to define both ‘science’ and ‘the child’. Moreover, the ways we imagine what counts as either scientific and childish effect how we structure our world, and can be used rhetorically. Interestingly, both the child and science are subjects that have, at the end of the 20th century, been described as being ‘under threat’ in some way: the Science Wars (see Labinger & Collins, 2001) and a perceived End of Childhood (e.g. Postman, 1994). Arguably both were largely momentary non-events, the controversies of which have largely settled down to be unpicked by social and historical scholars (e.g. see discussion in Leane, 2007, Broks, 2006, Prout, 2005, Buckingham, 2000a). Still, notions that either science or the child might be under threat from aspects of post/late modernity remain in public discourse. Moreover, both (non)events at least underline not only a suggested ‘crisis’ in childhood/science, but also a desire to maintain a sense of singular identity for these groups.

As Anne Higonnet (1998) and Patricia Holland’s (2004) studies of iconography of the child in visual culture both emphasise, the child is often used to stand for a form of unquestioned, unsullied, pre-social ‘natural’ human state. Higonnet in particular emphasises the ways in which imagery of childhood continually depicts children as existing somehow beyond or above social life: presenting a ‘secret garden’ of classless, androgynous non-identity. Several scholars of children’s literature have argued that such Romantic imagery put the child at odds with science, placing children firmly (iconically, even) on the side of the natural. As Jacqueline Rose puts it, the child is thus ‘set up as the site of a lost truth’ (Rose 1994, 43) somehow in opposition to book-based, scientific or technical knowledge. Noga Applebaum (2006) argues that such Romanticism surrounding the child also explains a thread of anti-science/ technology she perceives in much of contemporary children’s science fiction.

However, sociologist of childhood Chris Jenks (2005) stresses that there is a diversity of ideas as to what the nature of childhood equates to: innocent, pure, pre-social, but also playful, innovative, futuristic, mischievous, even deviant. It is worth quoting Jenks at length to help us consider the range of meanings at play here:

Whether we regard children as pure, bestial, innocent, corrupt, charged with potential, tabula rasa, or even as we view our adult selves; whether they think and reason as we do, are immersed in a receding tide of inadequacy, or are possessors of a clarity of vision which we have through experience lost; whether their forms of language, games and conventions are alternative to our own, imitations or crude precursors of our own now outgrown, or simply transitory impenetrable trivia which are amusing to witness and recollect; whether they are constrained and we have achieved freedom, or we have assumed constraint and they are truly free – all these considerations, and more, continue to exercise our theorising about the child in social life (Jenks, 2005: 2)

It is important to note that when Jenks talks about ‘theorising’ about the child, he does not only mean academic work, but also refers to the quite prosaic theorising which we all do as part of everyday social life.

As Jenks acknowledges, there is a key distinction to be made between such everyday theorising of the child and similar social work we all also do around class, race or gender. Every adult has at one time been a child and every child (tragic events avoided) has the potential to be an adult. Indeed, it is what is expected of them. As Jenks puts it, children are both alien and similar to adults: ‘the child inhabits our world and yet seems to answer to another’ (Jenks, 2005: 3). James and Prout (1997) in particular draw our attention to temporal issues in terms of ideas of the child and emphasise that part of the work of the sociology of childhood is also an understanding of the social construction of time. Childhood is social identity that is, unusually, at once apparently timeless and yet also heavily reliant on ideas of change over time. Vivian Sobschack (1991) puts it well when she describes children as equally futuristic and nostalgic.

Some ways of framing child/science interaction

Different definitions of what it means to be scientific and a child mingle to construct a range of presumptions over how children and science should relate to one another. The following list is not exhaustive, neither are any of these categories mutually exclusive (see Bell, 2008, for development with examples. It is free to download).

Children as distinct from the scientist. This is an oppositional category that, like scientist/public or any number of other cultural dualities, draws a boundary and defines one member in comparison to another. In such a system we might imagine the child as naïve, lacking a scientist’s “mature” knowledge, and therefore work the boundary and its associated definitions of child and scientist around notions of intellectual capacity and/or learning. We might, however, equally see the child as good and science as corrupt. The cultural image of the child comes with many optimistic and positive connotations, and we should not assume that children are always placed at the bottom of the comparison.

Children as similar to the scientist. In some respects, this is the opposite of the first category in that it finds points of similarity between children and scientists. We see this both in educational theory with ideas of the child as acting “like a scientist”, and in the construction of images of the scientist where a sense of the childlike can be worked to endow science with the positive connotations of the child. For example: the idea of having “the future in their bones”; the curiosity of a child; an intuitive link to nature; or a sense of innocence which fits neatly with the scientific aim to attain the simplicity of Occam’s Razor.

Children as scientists in waiting. This is often articulated in policies stressing the need for more trained scientists to maintain the national economy. In some respects, this is to think of the children in question not as children, but as the adults they will be in the future. Thus, studies of the child and science also show us something of the (youthful) construction of the scientist, as well as ways in which science interacts with a (youthful) public. This category could be subsumed within child-as-scientist; it tends, however, to maintain a sense that children will remain distinct from science at least until they have reached a certain age. Therefore it could also be seen as a mix of the first two categories.

Children as “critical friends” (in waiting). This has a very different political history from the other three categories. Rooted in “post-PUS” calls for engagement or dialogue with science, it suggests a collaborative relationship between science and the child, in which they can work in dialogue to work out issues of science policy. I place the “in waiting” in brackets, rather than defining a separate category, because such dialogic work tends to be considered only in terms of adult relationships with science. This is not simply a science-specific issue. Opinions on current affairs and matters of public policy may be encouraged as part of personal development, but tend to be ignored substantively until individuals reach voting age. When the education community has taken on such ideas, it tends to be seen as preparation for a later, adult role.


  • Applebaum, Noga (2006) ‘The Myth of the Innocent Child: the Interplay Between Nature, Humanity and Technology in Contemporary Children’s Science Fiction’, The Journal of Children’s Literature Studies vol. 3(2): 1-17.
  • Bell, Alice R (2008) ‘The Childish Nature of Science: Exploring the child/science relationship in popular non-fiction’, in Alice R Bell, Sarah R Davies & Felicity Mellor (eds) Science and Its Publics (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing) 79-98.
  • Broks, Peter (2006) Understanding Popular Science (Maidenhead & New York: Open University Press).
  • Buckingham, David (2000a) After the Death of Childhood: Growing Up in the Age of Electronic Media (Cambridge: Polity).
  • Higonnet, Anne (1998) Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood (London: Thames and Hudson).
  • Holland, Patricia (2004) Picturing Childhood: The Myth of the Child in Popular Imagery (London: IB Taurus).
  • James, Allison & Alan Prout (1997) ‘Re-presenting Childhood: Time and Transition in the Study of Childhood’, in (eds) Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood: Contemporary Issues in the Sociological Studies of Childhood, second edition (London & New York: Routledge) 230-250.
  • Jenks, Chris (2005) Childhood, 2nd edition (Routledge, Abingdon).
  • Labinger, Jay A & Harry Collins (eds) (2001) The One Culture? A Conversation About Science (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press).
  • Leane, Elizabeth (2007) Reading Popular Physics: Disciplinary Skirmishes and Textual Strategies (Hampshire: Ashgate).
  • Postman, Neil (1994) The Disappearance of Childhood, vintage edition (first published 1982) (New York: Vintage Books).
  • Prout, Alan (2005) The Future of Childhood (London & New York: Routledge Falmer).
  • Rose, Jacqueline (1994) The Case of Peter Pan: Or the Impossibility of Children’s Literature, 2nd edition, (Macmillan: Basingstoke).
  • Sobschack, Vivian (1991) ‘Child/ Alien/ Father: Patriarchal Crisis and Generic Exchange’ in Constance Penley et al (eds) Close Encounters: Film, Feminism, and Science Fiction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) 2-30.

Science Top Trumps

This is a picture of my small collection of science-themed Top Trumps. It’s one of those things you only remember you own when you are moving house (I have just packed up my possessions to store while I spend two months in North America*).

my science-y top trumps colection

Top Trumps, if you haven’t heard of it, is a card game. Each set of cards is themed. In the picture above you can see chemistry, dinosaurs and scientific careers, but they’re more likely to be characters in a TV show, cars or footballers (yes, there is a Royal Wedding set…). Each card will have a set of values relating to that theme (e.g. height, weight). You play in rounds. Someone picks a category, and the player with the card with the highest value in that category wins the round. Popular in the 1970s and 80s in the UK, they were relaunched about ten years ago. As one might expect, there’s a detailed Wikipedia entry. Or there’s the official site, Planet Top Trumps.

I’ve written about the dinosaur set before. As I said then, it reminded me a bit of Buckingham & Scanlon’s comparison the way dinosaurs are used in non-fiction publishing with Pokémon (it’s all about collecting and exchanging facts, with the odd semi-fantastic monster thrown in).

dino top trumps

Each round of Top Trumps is very quick, but this doesn’t leave much time for considering the context of the values assigned, and we did query the scientific basis for some of these too. The ‘dinoman’ card is especially weird (I’m not the only person to have spotted this. There is a facebook appreciation page).

That old post about these was passed around a few bits of the internet, and as a result I was sent a pack of Dr Hal’s Chemistry Top Trumps. The ‘values’ here are atomic weight, danger factor, usefulness factor, melting point and year of discovery. Each card comes with a picture and a few sentences of ‘elementary facts’. I played this with some friends recently, and like the dinosaurs set, we wondered why we had to assume the biggest number is best, and there was some debate over whether it should be the biggest amount from 0 (either 0 degrees for temperature, of 0 years before common era in terms of discovery date) that won.

chemistry top trumps

Still, even our grumbles were, arguably, forms of learning about chemistry, and I do think I gained some feel for the elements as we sifted through them in the course of the game.

About a year ago I picked up a set of science career trumps card at the Science Museum shop. As a procrastination from packing I was reflecting on the chemistry pack anyway, I had a bit of a shuffle and a read.

Science careers top trumps.

Each card is carries the logo of an organsation connected to the job, and along with the values (travel, communication , numeracy, computer and technical) there are illustrations and a blurb. Here’s a picture of a few more. I was a bit surprised that the Association of British Science Writers say a qualification in a scientific subject is essential for a career in science journalism (I’m a member of the ABSW. I don’t have any scientific qualifications).

Science careers top trumps.

Playing the careers one, I really felt this was a blunt way of learning. I could see how the processes of the game could help bring some familiarity with the materials (and, as with the chemical elements, reminded me of ones I forgot I knew about), and I could imagine kids going ‘I want to be a…’ or ‘ha, I wouldn’t be a…’ off the back of one card ‘trumping’ another. Still, for me, it’s no substitute for something like the I’m A Scientist project, which connects young people to professional scientists. I’m not sure we should play games with careers. Maybe I’m being oversensitive.

I should probably note that the I’m a Scientist team do also produce debate packs structured through cards as another thread of their work. These aren’t Top Trumps though, they aren’t so competitive and don’t try to assign these odd numerical values to everything. The aim of the card-playing aspect of these packs is to prompt and help structure discussion (it’s worth looking up Democs if you are interested), which I suspect is the key way people learn from the chemistry or careers sets too.

I’d be interested to know if any science teachers have used Top Trumps though, and what the students thought.

I'm a Scientist cards

* I’ll be in the USA and Canada from the 18th of April. I’m mainly going to be in DC (at American University, School of Communication) but with some time in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Toronto and Ottawa while I’m in that part of the world.

What’s this public ‘engagement’ with science thing then?

This is a linked-up blog-version of a talk I gave for Imperial’s grad school. It’s all basic stuff, but I hope it’s useful.

A few months ago, a colleague asked for my ‘top ten tips for public engagement’. My first response was a bit curt, I only had three:

  • There is no such thing as ‘the public’.
  • What on earth is ‘engagement’ supposed to mean?
  • I’m not entirely convinced by this ‘science’ word either.

I was taking the mickey, but there is a serious point here. If I really have to reduce all the things I have learnt about the public communication of science, then I’d argue it’s the specifics that matter.  ‘The public’, ‘engagement’, ‘science’ or ‘scientists’ are just simplifications we’ve made up to make the big wide complicated world easier to understand. These terms are still real and meaningful, but at the very least, they’re open to a bit of playful reinterpretation.

Considering the ‘public’ and ‘scientists’.

There are various studies of public opinion with respect to science – this paper and this report are both worth reading if you are interested (some more links here). Most people, especially British people, on the whole seem to quite like and trust scientists. Still, the people that are less enamored by science still matter, and it’s wrong to lump them together, or assume they all have the same reasons for feeling whatever disconnect with science they do. Similarly, we shouldn’t assume that much uniformity within the group that say they do like science.

Most critical work in science communication emphasises the multiplicity of ‘the public’, as the National Coordinating Center for Public Engagement (NCCPE) puts it, ‘everyone is a member of the public’, and yet everyone is different; ‘Thinking of the public as an undifferentiated whole is unlikely to help develop any kind of purposeful, responsive and respectful engagement’.

As the NCCPE goes on, one commonly used tactic is to talk about publics rather than the singular public. Another is to take my first ‘top tip’ and say there is no such thing as the public. Much as I think it’s a statement worth making, I don’t think you should take it too seriously.

  • Firstly, the term public is used, and is made real by this use. If you are interested in this, there’s a nice paper by Mike Micheals where he talks about Publics in Particular and Publics in General (or ‘PiPs’ and ‘PiGs’) and the different ways in which different ideas of ‘the public’ or ‘a public’ get used with respect to science.
  • Secondly, this sense of ‘the general public’ can be useful. People in science communication are often told to target their audiences. Work out who you want to talk to and learn about them so you know how to talk to them. This is important. But it can also be very limiting. Knowing your audience is great, but who says you want to be limited to who you know? If you aim for an imaginary ‘general public’ you force yourself not to assume much knowledge or particular interest, and therefore open it up to more people. It acts as a sort of heuristic.

Writing for a broad and vague sense of ‘the general public’ can make everything a bit bland though. It’d be boring if all science communication was like this. Within the big field of science communication, there can be both narrow and broad aimed work. You can try to know your target audiences as best as possible whilst also being open to new ones you had no idea existed/ cared. It depends on your project.

I’m similarly sceptical about lumping this whole ‘science’ thing together (and in particular, lumping together ‘scientists). Science is big and complex, its ideas about itself vary and change over time. Maybe it should be pluralised to sciences, like publics. Or again, maybe we could just talk about specific people, ideas and approaches. Leave loose talk about ‘science’ to philosophers and advertising executives, and instead focus on sharing what you have particular expertise in, be honest about what you don’t know and think about all the new things you might learn from engaging in a bit of broader discussion about your work.

All of this is why some of the most powerful engagement work happens face to face – rather than writing something and delivering it to an audience – as scientists and ‘publics’ (whoever any of these people actually are) can gradually learn what it is about each other; discover what they do and do not have in common, and discursively find ways to connect.

What’s this ‘engagement’ thing about then?

A recent UK government report (pdf, p20) described public engagement with science and technology as ‘an umbrella term’, encompassing a range of activities from science festivals, to the news media, public debates or policy consultations. If one was being unkind, one could say ‘umbrella term’ is a polite way of saying so many people are using the word, it’s started to loose any coherent meaning. However, the report goes on to stress that ‘any good engagement activity should involve aspects of listening and interaction’, and this is key.

With the stress on listening and interaction, they are deliberately distancing themselves from more top-down approaches, which are seen as a bit old fashioned. As I’ve written before, there is a story many people in science communication tell about their professional past, is as used to believe in the deficit model but have now seen the light and are gradually moving towards greater and greater degrees of dialogic enlightenment.

In reality, nothing’s that linear, but the short version of this long and complex story is that in 1985 Walter Bodmer wrote a report for the Royal Society calling for a greater Public Understanding of Science (PUS). Although the role of this has been argued over since (e.g.), it seemed to formalise a feeling that the public needed to be onside with science, and that this was largely the public’s fault (they were ignorant, too easily led by the media… it was anything other than science’s fault).

Critics of a PUS approach, such as sociologist Brian Wynne (famous for his study of sheep farmers), dubbed their attitude to the public ‘the deficit model’, arguing it unrealistically black-boxed science and the public and naively imagined knowledge should (and could) simply flow from the former to the latter. There’s a basic media studies critique to be made: people don’t simply believe what you tell them, especially if you set up a patronising structure which defines them as stupid.  There are also epistemological problems; by many definitions, it is ‘unscientific’ to assume science has all the answers ready to pass on to the rest of the world. A new view emerged, stressing a more contextual approach to the public’s reactions, use and knowledge of science. Post ‘BSE crisis‘, a series of publications stressed the need for greater openness and transparency, with a special focus on the need to be careful when it comes to communicating risk. The 2000 House of Lords report on Science and Society is the most important of these, known for formalising in a ‘new mood for dialogue’ which took on the sociological critiques of the deficit model.

Where now?

The legacy of the 80s and 90s leaves us with two key models for thinking about the public communication of science (although in terms of actually doing such work, things are always more complex):

  • The Deficit Model. This assumes the public are deficit in scientific knowledge and need to be better informed. It is patronizing and unrealistic about the public, the media and science. This is generally hated by the professional science communication community. So much so, people mention it at conferences and you can head people going “booo”, as if they were at a pantomime.
  • Dialogue. Rooted in sociological ideas as well as a lot of work by geographers. It acknowledges the scientific worth (as well as democratic and rhetorical necessity) of listening to non-scientists, as well as the contingency and continental changing nature of science. It is discursive rather than conclusive, and arguably has limited political impact.

… and there’s not been much new in thinking since then. I wish there was (if only because I’m personally a bit bored with people banging on about the deficit model). There is the notion of ‘upstream’ engagement, but that’s got its problems too as a model, and is a it old too.

Perhaps we don’t need new ideas though; we just need to put them into practise. I’d also say that I think there have been shifts in practise, and in many respects the most exciting innovations come at a very local level. It’s the specifics that matter. Often, it’s the specifics that are the most interesting too.


In an attempt end on a positive point, I’ll finish by forcing myself to take that ‘top tips’ idea seriously, and I’ll even stretch as far as five.

  • Don’t be silly about ‘the public’. Remember: knowing your audience and targeting specific groups can be very powerful, but so can the serendipitous connections made by packaging your work as accessibly as audience as possible.
  • Communication is something you take part in, it’s not something you deliver. If you spend as much time listening as you do talking not only are you more likely to find yourself listened to, but you might well learn something inspiring.
  • Don’t be try to be an advocate for the whole of science, but don’t let yourself be limited by its boundaries either. You don’t have to brand something ‘science’, think instead about the object of your study, or perhaps a specific method or approach. What is it exactly you want to share precisely?
  • There is a long history to debates over science and society. This means there are small pots of ideas, people and money which are worth being aware of and tapping into. Don’t be limited by this history, and be prepared to see public communication work as part as (and funded as part as…) your research.
  • There is nothing wrong with a bit of ambition, but be realistic. This means keeping in mind the limitations of your project, including pragmatic concerns like money, time, your professional image and the weather. You are unlikely to change the world. You may not even change any minds, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile, you may well have helped move towards a bit of world/ mind changing. These things take time. None of them are easy.

If you have any more top tips, or want to disagree with any of mine, please do add them in the comments.

I’ve also put together a list of links to further resources. EDIT added here before posterous closese:

A few useful resources for scientists interested in Public Engagement with Science (very UK focused):