Category Archives: Science Communication

Diversity in Science Communication

I have been thinking lately, about how much public engagement is aimed at people who already have access to science and education (too much), about the importance of science in public debate (see: March for Science), and about whose voices are routinely excluded from those discussions. So with thanks/apologies to Flavia Dzodan & DN Lee, my science communication will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.

I want everyone to have access to scientific ideas, to scientific habits, to the radical notion that we are each entitled to talk science with each other (though we may come from different backgrounds, whether in science or in culture). But we must acknowledge that some people already have this access more than others. Science communication should not only be aimed at those from highly educated backgrounds, those with family wealth, those with internet access and science capital and a sense of entitlement. If we ignore the vast majority of people who can engage with science, who can become scientists, then what are we really even doing?

President Barack Obama hosts the second White House Science Fair celebrating the student winners of a broad range of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) competitions from across the country. The President views exhibits of student work, ranging from breakthrough research to new inventions, in the Red Room of the White House, Feb. 7, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

Part of the appeal of science is supposed to be our wonder at the way the world is, a willingness to look below the surface and upend our pre-existing assumptions. So why would we accept a system in which access to science depends (still! after all these years!) on surface traits like skin color, gender, or age? It may be tempting to stick to our ideal vision of science as a meritocracy, where all will be rewarded according to their capability, but decades of research on unconscious bias in hiring, retention, and negotiation across science and engineering fields show that if we passively wait for things to get better, we are really just endorsing the status quo.

I love the community of people I have found in science communication. But I can’t help but notice how much of the administrative and organizational work is done by people who are still being disadvantaged in mainstream science: women, people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities. Even the fact that so much of science communication is done by younger researchers, who face a perceived stigma around this work, rather than older researchers with more career stability, is incredibly unfair. We need to actively include these communities in our engagement programs  without asking them to shoulder an unfair portion of the load. Science communication has never been about clever men showing off, but it sometimes looks that way, which is just as bad for the future of science.

You might ask, why do marginalized communities and young researchers take up the banner of science communication more often? Who stays in science is largely determined by how well they feel they fit in. People who don’t resemble the stereotypical scientist know the importance of representation, the importance of seeing people who look like you in the field you want to pursue. Younger researchers are also closer to career decision points, remember the factors that led them to choose science, and still have the passion to provoke that decision in others. It’s encouraging that so many people are still working hard to communicate science well to all audiences… but we must continue to support that work if we want it to continue! Science is an activity done by people, and it is at its best when it makes use of the full spectrum of human experience and knowledge.

I refuse to let science communication put people in boxes, when science is about thinking outside the box. We can do better.

Two Cultures, or Many?

One of the most pernicious myths in neuroscience is that of the left brain/right brain divide. You have surely heard it before: the idea that half our brain is logical, scientific, and calculating while the other is creative, artistic, and empathic. There is no evidence for such a distinction in the actual brain, but the simplistic categories give people easy ways to identify themselves, and others, as members of tribes with specific values. It’s just as easy to feel good about yourself for supposedly having a brain that’s rational or creative as it is to put someone else down for being too cold or impulsive. This myth isn’t about the brain or neuroscience at all: it’s about putting ourselves, and others, into groups.

false dichotomy

In the pursuit of knowledge, similar false dichotomies can arise. Those seeking to understand science may think of themselves as fundamentally different from those seeking to grasp history or literature, and vice versa. This was most famously written about in C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures essay, where he noted the division and in fact the disdain that had arisen between intellectuals in the humanities and the sciences, and how this prevents people from pooling their knowledge to solve the great problems facing humanity. After all, if you do not respect the source of someone else’s knowledge, why would you bother to listen to them?

We should know better. After all, knowledge isn’t just a dry list of facts, but a set of underlying connections between those facts and ideas, as well as an understanding of context (whether it’s human context or physical context). People who study interdisciplinary fields like nanoscience, my area, know that a chemist can bring a very different approach than a physicist does to the same problem. Often both are useful in gaining understanding. Why not extend this same respect to the social sciences and humanities? And why do we not bat an eyelid when someone says they ‘don’t get’ science, when we’d be appalled if they said they couldn’t read?

In my view, an open mind is critical to any pursuit, whether it’s scientific, literary, or even comedic. Don’t limit yourself by how others think before you; go outside the pre-existing accepted framework to solve problems. Isn’t that true creativity, which is required for any academic pursuit as well as for the simple but rewarding task of making sense of this world? Rather than drawing a line between science and the arts, between types of people, we should share our knowledge and natures, expanding our understanding by sharing our humanity.


Science Capital

There are lots of different approaches to understanding who studies science and even who feels entitled to talk about it, but the idea of Science Capital is an especially interesting one.

Science capital comes from not just what you know, but also how you think, what you do, and who you know: the cultural factors that lead someone to feel interested and, perhaps more importantly, accepted in science. Enterprising Science have a nice video about the idea and how they are working to measure it:

For those working in science communication, it’s an important reminder to consider how we can not just pass on knowledge, but help others build up more science capital so that they feel entitled to be part of the conversation.

You Are Here

It’s one of the biggest questions there is: how the universe came to be here, and how we came to be here in it. A beautiful radio documentary, You Are Here, answers these questions on a short walk through Dublin, talking to astrophysicists, geologists, and geneticists to tell us how we came to be where we are. The story is mesmerizing and very well told, and best of all you can listen online:

Bright Club Dublin

Awhile back I was over in London, to give a talk at the Institute of Physics and to give a monologue about science for a Project2 improv show. At both places I found myself chatting to audience members afterward about my passion for comedy as well as physics, and in both places people said, ‘So you know about Bright Club, right?’

I had never heard of it before, but as soon as I learned about the format—academic researchers give stand-up comedy style sets about their work, alongside comedians and musicians—I knew I wanted to bring it to Dublin. It sounded like a really fun type of variety night to put on, entertaining and thought-provoking and dipping in to all sorts of interesting ideas. Plus for the academics, I loved the idea of public engagement that uses humour, and they receive training to develop a set with real jokes that may be massively different from anything they’ve done before. To paraphrase Richard Feynman, everything is interesting if you go into it deeply enough, but everything is funny if you look at it the right way. So I wrote to Steve Cross, who came up with the idea and ran it in London, and he kindly gave his advice and his blessing for me to start a Bright Club in Dublin.

Before the first event, I will admit that I had some difficulty getting people to agree to do Bright Club. Academics would say, “wait, I have to be funny?” Comedians would say, “wait, is the audience going to be all academics?” We sat down to do the speaker training, and an alarming fraction of the room gave their reason for being there as “Jessamyn twisted my arm!” And I had a nagging fear that I was designing the perfect variety night for me, but maybe other people would want something different… I wanted people from across physical science, social science, and humanities, but maybe an audience would prefer strictly science or strictly art, so was anyone else actually going to turn up? Fortunately they did, the first event was a splendid success, and it got a lot easier to fill lineups for Bright Club once I could point to past shows, and past speakers who’d had a great time. While I could still reach out to my networks in academia and comedy, people were now coming to me to ask to be in Bright Club!

Photo courtesy Sandra Duffy.

I was also fortunate that the outreach office of the institute I work in, AMBER, agreed to help fund the early events. They took a chance on a crazy idea I brought to them, and it helped the thing get off the ground. Soon conferences like Sci:Com and the Society for Applied Microbiology were asking for Bright Clubs with their events. And now, I am delighted to have Science Foundation Ireland onboard as a sponsor alongside AMBER, which has enabled me to broaden the team of people involved in making Bright Club great.

Humour is a great way to engage with complex subjects—how many people watch The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight or Weekly Wipe instead of straight news shows? But the bottom line is, Bright Club is fun to be at and a joy to MC and run. If you’re in Dublin, you can swing by our next show on January 29th! And if you’re somewhere else, we’ll be putting videos online soon, or you can always follow us on facebook and twitter.

Why do public engagement? Diamond Nine activity

This week I had the pleasure of attending the BIG ‘How to train researchers’ event at Newcastle University. It was an excellent and thought-provoking day and I took away a lot of useful tidbits and ideas.

As our focus was on improving how we support researchers to do public engagement one of my favourite sessions was the ‘activities circus’ where we were able to visit various brave souls who had activities or exercises they have tried and tested for our perusal. One of the ones I enjoyed was the ‘Diamond Nine’ of public engagement – a hands-on tool for facilitating discussion around researchers’ reasons for doing public engagement.

I was so inspired I’m incorporating it into my next training session; I’m looking forward to finding out what the researchers prioritise and hoping that the conversations will spur some introspection on their part!

I’ve included a print-out of the activity and instructions below – if you give it a try let me know what you think!

PDF: Why Do Public Engagement Diamond Nine

The Best Question I’ve Ever Been Asked

The man in the audience was shifty-eyed. I thought my talk about swamp-dwelling leeches, while slightly gruesome, had been going well but he seemed to have other things on his mind. I liked enthusing people about the diversity and creative adaptations of the species that made the swamp their home. I finished up, eliciting the usual ‘eww’s and ‘cool’s, and my audience crowded around the table to see the artifacts I had brought along. The alligator skull was a perennial favourite, and it took several minutes for the crowd to disperse. The shifty-eyed man remained, however, along with a friend. He approached.

“Excuse me, I was just wondering… is there such thing as a real Pokémon?”

“I’m sorry?” I got a lot of strange and interesting questions working as an education assistant at a zoo, but that one was new to me. “A what?”

“A real live Pokémon. You know, like in the game.”

“I… er…” Working in outreach makes you good at thinking on your toes, and I’m happy to say I didn’t stare at him in bemusement for more than a second. Maybe two. “You know, it’s certainly not something I’ve heard of existing in the real world.”

“But aren’t you a zoologist? Don’t you know about things like this?”

“I do, but I’ve never heard of a real live Pokémon. I don’t know if such a thing exists.”

“Well,” he said, eyes darting from side to side before he leaned closer, “I think it does, because I was listening to the news earlier and they said Paris Hilton had been bitten by some sort of Pokémon. So I just wondered if you knew about that.”

“I haven’t heard anything about it,” I said, quite honestly. “But that’s interesting. I’ll have to go look it up!”

He seemed satisfied at this even if I couldn’t confirm for certain, and left not long after. After sharing the story with some coworkers we decided we definitely had to look up what had befallen Paris Hilton.

It turns out she had been bitten by her pet kinkajou. I suppose it does sound an awful lot like Pikachu…