Popularization is an intrinsic part of the creative scientific process, says journalist Edwin Colyer

29 Nov 2022 Jana Sosnová

Edwin Colyere also visited the Faculty of Economics and Administration MU | Photo: Peter Mikuš

Why is science communication key these days and what benefits does it bring to the researchers? Edwin Colyer, the first science journalist funded by the European Research Council, recently spent a month at the Masaryk University in Brno. During his stay, he visited the Faculty of Economics and Administration and hosted a workshop focused on storytelling and science popularization.

Why does science popularization matter?

I talk to a lot of people doing basic science – their research is at the very frontier of our knowledge. They are discovering how the universe works, from weird quantum effects to the supermassive blackholes and everything in between. And when I asked them how their work might help benefit society, they look at me sideways and say: “Isn’t it just good to be curious and discover new things?” I have to agree. But if knowledge is intrinsically important, then shouldn’t it be shared as widely as possible. Not just published in journals that non-experts and wider publics never read and can’t understand.

However abstract the science, find ways to share it widely – it is part of the creative process. You never know, someone might be inspired to follow in your footsteps, they might be able to see how your work could be applied. They might even be a billionaire and want to give you some cash! And if none of these, you’ve just added to someone else’s bank of knowledge, connected previously unconnected ideas, and maybe look at the world with a bit more respect and awe.

How can scientists benefit from popularization?

Communicating your science is hard work. And most scientists end up doing it in their own time, which I think is unfair. For me it is part of the day job. It is actually an intrinsic part of the creative scientific process. You wouldn’t dream of not publishing or sharing you work, and that goes as much for wider publics as peers.

There are many benefits. First of all, think about who reads Twitter, magazines or watches the news. You do and so do people like you. Hearing about your work on so-called “popular” contexts might help to make serendipitous connections you would never have otherwise.

Second, the more your field is covered in the media, the more popular it is perceived. That raises it up the priority list in the minds of politicians and funders. And that generally means more attention and money for your field.

Third, sharing your work with diverse audiences is the playground where you develop your communication skills. Being able to talk about your science to non-experts in ways they understand and enjoy can be really hard. But with practice you will find the stories, metaphors and language you need. Good communication skills are absolutely crucial for scientists. They need them to write grant, perform well in interviews, teach undergraduates, mentor PhD students and postdocs.

Finally, and most importantly – it can be fun! I know researchers who absolutely love engaging with public audiences. They get a buzz, they find inspiration, it triggers the creative thinking that you need for quality science. And dare I say it, the questions and conversations you have with the public can inspire and inform new avenues of research and even experimental design.

What key things a scientist should consider before engaging in popularization of science?

I would say that first comes confidence. If you lack confidence, start somewhere safe, for example with a group of people you know reasonably well. If you enjoy the experience, build up from there. Some people think that the so-called “general public” is like a wolf in the forest, prowling in the shadows, ready to pounce on its prey if it strays off the path. I think this impression comes from listening too much to political journalists who do – in the public interest – ask politicians some pretty tricky questions. From my experience though, most people love the opportunity to talk to scientists about their work. They are genuinely curious about new discoveries.

Another key aspect to be considered is time. Good public engagement and science communication is a science in itself. It needs careful planning, shaping to the audience and ideally some evaluation so you know it has made a difference. Unfortunately, public engagement is the poor cousin of lab work, conferences and winning grants. Therefore, most people have to do it in their limited free time. Think hard about how much time you have.

Last but not least, it is important to stay humble. Scientists spend a lot of time defending their work or reflecting on criticism from peers. It is no different with popularisation. It should be a two-way process. You are not just telling people facts and truths, but you should listen carefully too. These conversations are rich in information and expertise you may not have in your group. You might be developing the funkiest medical gizmo ever, but if a patient tells you why they would never use it, is that not a warning you need to revise you approach? You mustn’t ever think you have all the answers, nor must you pull rank. Everyone has expertise and the more diverse ideas you feed into your science, the richer your work will be.

Is popularization for everybody?

There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be. Some people struggle, especially when their research is very abstract. For these people, I’d recommend they team up with experts who know how to communicate abstract ideas: dancers, artists, designers, writers. I always joke with people saying that if you can’t explain your science and why it is important in a few sentences, you probably don’t understand it that well yourself. Get some people to help you.

But of course, priorities go up and down. If your head of department has said you’ll be fired if you don’t bring in a grant, perhaps that’s not the best time to head off to a science festival!

Based on your experience, how would you evaluate the science communication in the Czech Republic?

Sadly, my month has been super busy just talking to scientists and people connected into the regional research and innovation ecosystem. But my impression is there’s a real appetite to do more. People are hungry for good news stories. Items about good quality Czech research help to make people feel proud, more confident and more positive about the future. Surely that’s a good thing, right? From my understanding, the Czech specialist science journalism community is growing too, which is exciting for me to hear.

I know that Masaryk University also wants to build its international reputation for good quality science, with excellent facilities and a supportive research environment. It is hard to break through all the “info-noise” that people receive, but great stories of incredible science and societal impact will slowly get you noticed.

Where does popularization well? Can you give an example of good practice?

I’m probably biased, but I think the UK is pretty good. Most news outlets have science specialists. The BBC has many popular science programmes and podcasts every week. News Scientist – the magazine that launched my freelance career – is still really popular, and lots of other publications will run occasional science pieces. And many science journalists also write popular science books. I’m pretty sure that France, Belgium and Spain have quite active science writer communities too. And of course, the US, just because so much science happens there anyway. The US is also much better at translating science into products and services, so you also get some great storytelling from the innovation side of things.

What is your favourite memory as a science journalist?

A few moments spring to mind. For example, being phoned by the editor of New Scientist when I submitted my first piece. He wanted to talk me through all the edits so I could understand the rationale and improve my craft. They also gave me some training that has stayed with me to this day.

I helped to copywrite one of Sir David Attenborough’s books to accompany a TV series. That involved lots of creative writing to make the creatures and prehistoric worlds come to life on the page.

The interviews with famous or important people give me a slight out-of-body experience when I think too hard about who I’m talking to. Fortunately, I’m always relaxed and chatty when I interview which really helps the conversation to flow. The strange thing is that most superstar scientists or TV personalities are pretty down to earth people. I’ve even had one knighted professor sit in my messy house, drink tea and reminiscing about growing up around the Manchester coalmines.

Every day is different and you never know what will come your way next!

Edwin Colyer is a British science journalist and Masaryk University Science Journalism Fellow. He has been writing about science and reporting on its workings for 25 years. During his career, Edwin also worked as an Impact & Engagement Manager at Manchester Metropolitan University. Currently, he focuses mainly on his business, Scientia Scripta, where he writes complex stories about science.

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