Scientists Must Communicate! But How?

April 16, 2015

By Sarah Boon, PhD

Everywhere you turn there’s another article exhorting scientists to communicate. They’re encouraged to share and promote their research for many reasons: to secure more funding in an age of budget cuts and industry-targeted grant programs, to engage citizen scientists and the public, to contribute to the public debate about science and to science policy itself, to share research that would otherwise reach only a very limited audience, to develop new collaborations…the list goes on.

But how do you take that first step out of the research lab or field site, and into the public realm?

It ultimately depends on how involved you want to be in communications and outreach. Here we provide a few tips on where to get started, what kind of commitment might be involved, and how to progress if you catch the communication ‘bug.’

1. Start local.

Look around your institution and your community. Are there regular Café Scientifique events in which you could participate - like this one through SFU? Perhaps there are organizations like Let’s Talk Science who could use your help in sharing your research with school kids. Maybe you’re interested in volunteering at a science centre or for a science fair. Anything that gets you into a public space where you can share your science – either through a talk, a piece of writing, or a demonstration – is a great way to find out if this is something you’d like to pursue further.

2. Join social media.

There have been several studies of science and social media – Twitter in particular – that suggest it can be a great outreach tool

Open a Twitter account (using this handy how-to guide from Tweet Your Science) and start following scientists, journals, scientific organizations, science communicators in your field, and science news outlets. This will give you a sense of the types of conversations happening online both in your own field and in related ones. You can then contribute to that conversation by sharing your own expertise and research, broadening your network online and potentially creating new collaborations - while also informing people who might otherwise not know about your work. You can decide how involved you want to be, and what level of time commitment you want to make.

3. Write a blog.

Many Canadian scientists write blogs, using them to share their own research as well as other people’s research, science in the news, and their thoughts on teaching, academia, and more. 

Some great examples include UBC mathematician Izabella Laba (The Accidental Mathematician); UBC microbiologist Rosie Redfield (RRResearch); McGill ecologist Chris Buddle (Arthropod Ecology); University of Western Ontario astrophysicist Pauline Barmby (Pauline's Perambulations and Permutations); and University of New Brunswick ecologist Stephen Heard (Scientist Sees Squirrel).

Before starting a blog, consider this list of questions compiled by experienced science blogger Bethany Brookshire (@scicurious), and these tips from Kelly Oakes (@kahoakes), the Science Editor at BuzzFeed. 

Blogs definitely require more commitment than a simple Twitter account: you have to dedicate time to coming up with post ideas – and then actually write them. You’ll also want to ensure that your blog is easily understandable to your target audience. If you’re concerned about sharing your ideas and thoughts publicly, you may prefer to blog pseudonymously. Another option – if you don’t want to maintain a personal blog – is to write a guest post for outlets like The Conversation US, Science Borealis, or other science-related outreach ventures.

The rewards of blogging include enhanced communication abilities due to constantly practicing your writing and knowledge translation skills, greater exposure for your work, and the opportunity to see your research in a new light as you explore it from different angles. 

4. Attend a communications workshop at a conference.

Given the popularity of science outreach, scientific conferences are increasingly offering communications workshops for scientists interested in getting involved. For example, the Canadian Society for Ecology & Evolution held a workshop on blogging, social media and podcasts at their 2014 meeting, while the 2015 AGU / CGU / GAC-MAC Joint Assembly in Montreal has a workshop on Sharing Science in Your Community. Bigger meetings like the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual spring meeting have even more extensive science communication workshops

If you’re already attending the conference to present your research, why not take in a workshop as well? It will give you a chance to learn from the professionals, and see if there are other ways to pursue your outreach efforts.

5. Expand your audience and take media training. 

If you want to broaden your audience to include the media sphere, this step is for you. Most organizations have a media relations office, from which they disseminate news about the organization to the print and broadcast media. They’re always interested in sharing scientists’ work, and are keen to have scientists who are trained in how to interact with the media. 

For example, both Queen’s University and UBC have media training services available for you and your research group. If you’re curious about what media training involves, see this great resource put together by the American Society of Human Genetics, and this list from the AAAS.

6. Intense communications training.

You’ve been out in the community, writing a blog, and/or sharing your science via social media, and are really enjoying communicating science. Perhaps a multi-day workshop offered by communications professionals from outside your organization is something to consider.

The AAAS provides science communication workshops, which you can book through their website.

COMPASS is a well-known non-profit organization that runs science communication workshops across Canada and the US. In 2014 they ran a communications training program hosted by McGill University, which served as the kick-off for the Liber Ero Postdoctoral Fellowship Program in applied conservation and management. COMPASS also runs the communication and policy training for the Leopold Leadership Program, a program out of Stanford University that provides researchers with skills to translate their knowledge into action. Several Canadian scientists have completed this program, including glaciologist Martin Sharp, remote sensing scientist Arturo Sánchez-Azofeifa, ecologist Elena Bennett, and climate scientist Simon Donner. COMPASS also teaches a six day science communication workshop to kick off the year-long Wilburforce Fellowship in Conservation Science, designed to train scientists in leadership and communication. 

Canada also has the University of Toronto’s Science Leadership Program, a two-day workshop for academic scientists hosted by Dr. Molly Schoichet (recent winner of the L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science Award). 

Any one of these workshops provides not only intensive training in science communications and outreach, but also pushes you to apply that training in the year following the workshop. It creates a cascade effect, as you not only serve as a model for science communications, but you also help other scientists improve their own communication skills.

7. Go all out – and potentially change your career path…

Maybe you’ve really got the science communication bug, and are itching to turn it into a full-time passion. You could be a great candidate for the Banff Science Communications program, chaired by well-known Canadian science communicator Jay Ingram of Daily Planet and Quirks & Quarks fame. Many science communicators in Canada are alumni of this program, including the Stem Cell Network’s Lisa Willemse, and UBC Physics & Astronomy Communications Coordinator Theresa Liao. This is a great way to work with scientists and communicators alike towards a common goal: great communication of science to the public, via a variety of media.

The key is to start small and see what you think. You can always move on to bigger and better things as your confidence – and your interest – grows. Every little bit of outreach helps – from sharing stories about your science with your friends and their friends, up to giving radio interviews on your latest journal article. Even if you just want to dip your toe in at the shallow end, there are resources out there to get you started. You may be pleasantly surprised at the benefits you see, and the people you meet.

Additional reading: 

Ten Simple Rules for Effective Online Outreach  Bik et al. h/t @TimCurran8 

Thanks to Theresa Liao for reading and commenting on an earlier version of this post.

About Sarah
Sarah Boon has straddled the worlds of freelance writing/editing and academic science for the past 15 years. She blogs at Watershed Moments about the environment, science communication & policy, women in science and academic culture. She is a member of the Canadian Science Writers Association and The Explorer’s Club, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 2013. Sarah is also the Editorial Manager at Science Borealis. Find Sarah on Twitter: @snowhydro

Filed Under: Science Communication Science Careers Sarah Boon

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William Raillant-Clark

Might I add a Point No. 0? Contact the public relations and communications team at your insitution. We're here to advise and help... including the heavy lifting. Although it is absolutely wonderful when scientists and researchers decide to communicate independently, institutional communicators can offer a platform to those who do not (yet) have the experience or inclination to venture out on their own.

William Raillant-Clark

International Press Attaché - Attaché de presse international

Foreign, English-speaking and scientific media - Médias étrangers, anglophones et scientifiques



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