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Essay

The Lab Reporters

What it is that ‘science communicators’ do?

Alom Shaha 18 January 2006

www.lablit.com/article/71

Shaha believes we should look more deeply at how best to transmit science (Photo credit: Suzy Silver)

Science communication needs to shed its connotations of Alka-Seltzer rockets and home-made fireworks

I began to blog a few months ago, but broke one of the golden rules before I even started – I neglected to have an ‘about’ bit on the site that told readers who I was and what I did. According to experts, this is crucial in the blogosphere so people can decide whether or not it’s worth reading what you write. I considered describing myself as a ‘science communicator’ but soon found that my non-scientist friends had no idea what this meant. Many thought it sounded pretentious and one of them found the term hilarious.

So, what exactly are ‘science communicators’ and what are they good for? To be honest, I didn’t have a clue such a thing existed until a few years ago, when I was looking around for an interesting course to improve and develop my skills as a teacher. I ended up on Imperial College’s Science Communication course and found myself studying everything from the history of science to semiotics to how to write a press release. As part of the course, I was given a chance to do some work experience at the BBC which quickly led to the offer of a job, and I have been working in TV ever since. I have worked almost entirely on science related programmes, ranging from Science Shack to Horizon, and have developed a reputation for being able to make science easy to understand for TV audiences. So, I think ‘science communication’ is an accurate description of what I do, although my employers would say that I am a TV producer.

In my experience, science communicators can be found doing anything from dressing up in lab coat and making explosions in a lecture theatre to running outreach programmes for research councils to producing science documentaries. However, the term seems to have become most closely associated with people like Dr Bunhead, a.k.a. Dr Tom Pringle, and others like him, who go around doing live experiments in schools and other venues and try to make science ‘fun’. Dr Bunhead is perhaps the most famous of such science communicators; he is well known among scientists themselves and appears on the Sky show Brainiac.

Tom has a cleanly shaven head, wears glasses and, when on stage, wears a white lab coat with coloured patches – an image which corresponds well with the pictures young children often draw of ‘mad scientists’. He has an enviable range of demonstrations – from turning a banana into a hammer by freezing it with liquid nitrogen to firing a potato through a tennis racket to make instant chips. I’ve seen him in action and the children in the audience clearly enjoy his show (read LabLit.com's review of Dr Bunhead’s live show here).

Tom told me that he was aware that research has shown that people don’t learn much from such shows, but he hopes people go away from his performances feeling "excited and more interested in science". Tom also told me that schools are "hungry" for people like him and that there aren’t enough of this type of ‘science communicator’ to go round. He adds: "There’s a huge demand for it; people want to see this kind of old-fashioned style demonstration lecture, but with a bit more of a modern feel to it."

I believe that there is a need for people like Tom – they genuinely enthuse and excite people about science and that can’t be a bad thing. However, science communication has to be about much more than celebrating the wonder of science. At a time when climate change and the future applications of biotechnology are in the papers virtually every day, science communication must become a term we associate with people who provide reliable information about these issues. The public should turn to these people for sound advice about scientific issues instead of looking to self-appointed experts and pressure groups. If science is in crisis and there really is a "march of unreason" (as Dick Taverne of Sense About Science argues), then science communicators must be in the front line, defending science and helping it to reclaim its image as a vital cultural activity and essential force for progress.

Fortunately, there are many scientists who are turning to this type of science communication and who may help the term shed its connotations of Alka-Seltzer rockets and home-made fireworks. I recently met with Dr Rhian Salmon, a member of the British Antarctic Survey who’s just returned from an 18 month stay in Antarctica. Rhian told me she did her PhD in atmospheric science because she wanted to "know what scientists really thought about all the environmental claptrap sold by the likes of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth". Rhian kept a blog of her experiences in Antarctica which was widely read by people all over the world and may soon be published as a book. She is now thinking of becoming a professional science communicator.

When I asked her why she wanted to leave full-time research, Rhian told me: "When I go out and socialise, people continually ask me for the 'truth' about climate change. I would like to look into this further during the next few years so that I can answer that question better. I don't imagine I'll ever provide answers for 'what to do' but if I can, I would like to make a contribution towards people understanding the facts so far and the scientific results so far, and who believes what, so that they can then make their own minds up."

Rhian writes about her work in an eloquent, inspiring and personal style that I hope will reach a wide audience. I believe that we need more science communicators who want to engage the public with the political and cultural implications of science, not just the magic and wonder of it.

Related links

Alom visited CERN recently and interviewed young British scientists working on the Large Hadron Collider. You can see a short film he made about it called "Lords of the Ring", and can read a lively article he wrote about the experience.