Science Communication Conference 2011

Last week I attended the British Science Association, Science Communication Conference 2011. I was granted a bursary to attend, covering transport, accommodation and conference fees - which was nice, as without it I would not have been able to go! I was really looking forward to meeting people involved in science communication across the UK (& world) and some of the people I have spoken to through email & twitter. Creating networks when you are based so far away from the main source of the action can be difficult, social media does help enormously - but it still never beats meeting someone and having a conversation in person. The conference seemed the perfect opportunity to do this. So, off I went to London town with a bag full of Au magazines to share. I was really pleasantly surprised to find that quite a number of people had already come across the magazine and were interested in the project. That made conversation easy! As I was at the conference on my own I had no option but to speak to everyone I met (I'm not a fan of silence) and I met lots of wonderful, lovely people and shared lots of ideas and  found a few ideas that I would like to 'borrow' ..

The point of the conference, besides networking, was to have the opportunity to learn about different aspects of science communication and listen to a few keynote speakers. I don't wish this post to sound negative, but what I took from these sessions was somewhat limited. I felt that there was plenty of opportunity to share ideas & ask questions openly throughout these sessions but there was very little guidance or talk about how to actually push through the ideas discussed and implement them. Although I enjoyed the keynote speakers talks I felt the talks in someways were disconnected to the realities of implementing 'outreach/engagement/communication' activities. The beauty of the conference is that people from all different sides of science communication were there and maybe that is why (as science communication is not a part of my full time job) I felt somewhat disconnected to some of these discussions.

I do not want to post about all the problems and disagreements I had. The whole nature of the conference was to encourage debate, discussion and provoke different viewpoints. However, I think there were two rather large things missing from the conference that really need to be addressed.

I felt there was a lot of emphasis and talk about the monetary cost of engagement/communication activities. There was no talk (apart from the times I pushed it) about the time cost that people give up to take part in engagement/communication activities. Following this, there was no talk about how the people that do have an official engagement/communication role as their main job could help people that volunteer their time and put a serious amount of effort in to organise engagement and communication activities. There was however, a consensus that all PhD students & post docs have a responsibility to take part in these activities and Universities should support that. Would it not have been worthwhile to have a specific session for 'volunteer' engagers/communicators to help them get a network of support (these networks are there) and give some guidance on what they can do to make their somewhat 'extra curricular' activities become part of their main job in some way? I know that the activities of my university rely heavily on people volunteering to help. How do you make Universities realise the worth (and give proper reward) to these people?

The second point is regarding outcome and 'next steps' (to put my business hat on). There is no point just having endless discussions without some guidance/help of how these steps will be implemented after the conference. Going back to the point above. Although everyone seemed to agree (to a point) that engagement/communication should become part of the role for scientists, there was no talk on how people could communicate that to universities and help supervisors implement it. What can a student, who has a story they want to tell, do if their supervisor views 'engagement'/'communication' as a waste of time? You might dismiss that point as 'well that supervisor is missing out/doesn't understand' but that still leaves the student in a tricky position. I made the point at the conference, no PhD or Post Doc is going to be denied a job in research because they haven't taken part in any science engagement activities (and in fact, some people view taking time out away from research as a disadvantage), but that is a whole other debate...

I do think the science communication network/field/movement (whatever you like to call it) could learn an awful lot from the 'business community'. Essentially what a lot of people are doing, is, selling science. We have a segmentation model of how people think about science, which is a fantastic tool to use to understand how to reach out to the different people in a group of people. All businesses that have a product to sell have a segmentation model and there are many different ways to use these models, learn from the model and develop it further. Seriously tapping into that world of knowledge may open a lot of peoples eyes. Although, whenever I mentioned the word 'business' to people, I mostly got a look of fear and worry....


  1. I came away with a similar feeling from the previous SCCs I've attended. Setting aside the actual engagement activities that are being delivered, there does seem to be a lack of novelty and thought put in to promotion or polishing up the product that's on offer. The most exciting activity ever can be scuppered by poor or tawdry design, or the path of least resistance to generating an audience taken. As great as seeing your event promoted via University staff emails is, for example, it does doom your event to being mostly full of employees looking for entertainment within the scope of what already engages them. It may get bums on seats and look like you're getting a return, but what impact does reaching no further than an already savvy audience get you? Similarly, I listen to a lot of public engagament style podcasts; as do, I imagine, many other researchers. Do we really look at the audiences as much as we should do, or do we settle for quantity as a metric of success? Maybe I'm being too picky. After all, my knowledge of particle physics is lay at best: I'm someone's public, even though I'm a scientist.

    Drawing people in that wouldn't normally be engaged requires more than just identifying the population you want to reach - It needs the tools to 'sell' that activity to people. And viewing that activity as a 'product' to sell shouldn't be a dirty, gut-wrenching prospect. Marketing appeals to people, and it knows how to. Maybe it's too many years loving consumerism and propaganda for the amusement it gives me, but the power of selling can be harnessed for good and not just selling someone something they don't need.

  2. The problem people have with "selling" science is that modern ideas about engagement try to encourage two-engagement rather than just "informing" or "persuading".

    In terms of practical activities, I would always say start with low-impact activities (in terms of your time) to get experience. That way you can show your prof a finished product and say "I'd like some regular work time to do this - it didn't take very long and see how good it is". I hope that including impact in mainstream RC grants will make this discussion easier, but who knows?

  3. Sorry - that should have read "two-way engagement".

  4. I don't think 'selling' an event detracts from two-way engagement; I see the deficit being in the marketing of the event towards the appropriate audience. It's all well and good identifying who you need to engage with, but you then need to make what you're doing appealing for people to engage with it. That's what I mean as 'selling' - not reducing science to a product, but dressing up the activity as attractive in the best, most appealling way. Otherwise I fear we're always self-selecting for already sympathetic ears.


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