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Raising the profile of science in the UK 10.10.14

Proof BD Director, Jennifer, gives her take on the BIS Science Communication event

How do you remember this past Monday? With rain and cancelled trains. Well not me, because I got one step closer to raising the profile of science in the UK. I went to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to talk about improving science communications.

The opportunity came about because the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) STEM group took the initiative to figure out the barriers to improving science communication. At the beginning of 2014, CIPR joined forces with BIS to move things forward and to commission a new research study surveying science communicators. The point of doing the study was to pin point the challenges so we can solve them.

First, take a step back to see the bigger picture of what we hope to achieve. People talk about what they understand more than what they don’t understand. It seems pretty obvious to me that if we:

Improve science communications -> this leads to

Science is more widely understood -> which leads to

Science is more widely talked about = Raising the profile of science

Human behaviour and the rule of social proof states that the more something is talked about, the more people get interested in that topic and talk about it too. We are already on our way. People are seeking out scientific information more than ever. Take a look at the last few years: In 2011 the BBC wrote the article ‘Has science become cool again?’, then a record number of applications for science degrees in early 2013 were attributed to the Cox effect’. Just last month Leonardo DiCaprio spoke about climate change being ‘a fact’ at the UN climate summit.

The underlying reason that science communication is so important is that all our global issues (climate change, energy demands, food short age and biodiversity loss) need scientists to solve them. People are seeking out explanations because they want to understand what is going on, and the majority of the explanations come from scientists. Most communications that people are reading, seeing and hearing have been created by science communicators who are helping scientists get their point across.

So let’s understand the key findings of this CIPR/BIS study so we can get on with creating solutions to communicate science better. All findings can be found here but from my perspective, the key challenges for science communicators are:

1. Dealing with increased rate of publishing – Respondents said that the pace of science communications and the different and many layers of approval make it difficult to keep up with how fast news move these days

2. Under-informed on what the public wants – Respondents said that organisations could do more to understand exactly who their audiences are and what they want to hear. They feel that the communications planning phase is under-informed

3. Lack of credibility – There were views that scientific organisations do not sufficiently value communications professionals.

4. Understanding the science – Respondents find it difficult to understand the science in which an organization is involved including using the appropriate vocabulary for establishing credibility with scientists.

5. Engaging with scientists – Many respondents said that scientists don’t want to talk to communications professionals. Respondents said that scientists had gotten ‘their fingers burnt’ in the media and so were very unsure of speaking out again.

6. Embracing the complexity while keeping true to the serious process of science – Striking the right balance between complexity, specialisation, intricacy, expertise and detail on the one hand and clear, intelligible, engaging communication on the other is difficult.

I actually got involved in this process about a month ago when I went to the first meeting to discuss these findings with the CIPR STEM group. Being a former research scientist turned BD Director, I felt very strongly that I could help create solutions because I understand the challenges from both the science communicator’s side and the scientist’s side. At that meeting we created three buckets of solutions and on Monday we made the first step to defining them:

1. VisionWe need to strive to achieve greater recognition as credible communicators.

2. EthicsWe need to lead with evidence in order to be as ethical as possible.

3. Professional DevelopmentWe need the basic understanding of how to create a communications strategy to understand how every communication activity is in line with the strategy.

This was clearly just the starting point and much more needs to be developed.

At Proof we are dedicated to improving science communications so watch out for our upcoming Communicating Complexity Series – where we will be hosting events around these topics as well as much more.

If you have any comments please email me at Jennifer@proofcommunication.com

Or tweet me @JenGraceJo

See my profile on the Proof website here.