At Sense about Science we think that the rampant spread of information, availability of data, and the rise of the social media pseudoscientists is making it extremely obvious that you, as researchers, have a responsibility to get involved in the conversation about science, before someone does on your behalf.
As an early career researcher (ECR) embarking on the public engagement journey, it can often feel daunting. “Where to begin? What if I don’t know enough? There must be someone else more experienced!” are just a few of the thoughts many young scientists have.
At Sense about Science, an independent charity organisation, we work with ECRs in our Voice of Young Science (VoYS) network to equip them with the necessary tools to engage the public, policymakers and the media about science, evidence and research. The overall goals of Sense about Science are to promote public interest in sound science and ensure evidence is recognised in public life and policymaking. We believe that everyone has the right to evidence, especially surrounding issues that are going to impact them.
Throughout the pandemic it has become obvious that the voice of science is an important one. Whether to clarify basic misunderstanding of vaccines, dispel conspiracy theories or speak on lockdown policy changes, it all contributes to the overall goal of effectively communicating science between researchers, the government and the public. This has led us to become even more focused on ensuring ECRs contribute to policy consultations, policy discussions, and collaborate with researchers in different fields to show how complex issues need multifaceted solutions.
VoYS is a dynamic network of ECRs across the UK and Europe who have a common goal of getting involved in public discussions about research and evidence. We run workshops to equip ECRs with the skills and confidence to engage the public, work with the media, and inform policymakers. Why ECRs specifically? So that you can make an impact from the very start and apply the learnings all through the lifetime of your research career.
“You don’t have to wait until you’re a professor to get involved and have your say,” George Freeman, Member of Parliament, spoke at the latest VoYS ‘Standing up for Science’ workshop.
Top tips when promoting science and evidence
We have included below our top tips for contributing to public discussions about research as an ECR.
You know more than your thesis title
As a young scientist you have spent years focusing and narrowing your research interests, until you’re the expert in your niche research field. It’s often forgotten, by researchers themselves, that you know so much more than just your thesis title. Researchers are able to critically comment on evidence and contribute to discussions surrounding many areas outside their direct research topic. Although scientific evidence is not always able to provide the whole story, it is still crucial for informing policy decisions and providing information to the public, and we need researchers to effectively communicate this.
A common mistake made by scientists is to not tailor their communication to their audience – it is too easy to get wrapped up in your research world and forget that not everybody knows the name of your niche protein. When engaging with the public or policy makers the goal is to get them to understand the evidence and not get lost in the technical jargon. It might sound fancy, but unless it’s absolutely necessary and explained properly, it will be useless.
People will be much more engaged with what you are saying if they understand the words you are using, and you will quickly find that people are more interested in what you have to say. Imagine you were speaking with your local football team or the cashier at your local supermarket: if they understand what you’re saying you’re onto a winner!
Practice makes perfect
As with most public occasions it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that you might encounter mishaps along the way; you might find yourself at the mercy of internet trolls or encounter technical difficulties. These things happen and are good learning experiences. Keep going. It’s only going to make your science communication and public engagement better – even if it is disheartening or frustrating at the time. Some of the top science communicators still find themselves faced with difficulties but still push through, and so can you.
The key to good science communication is to understand your audience, anyone from the Prime Minister to your local shop assistant, and to remember why you’re doing it. Your intentions with science communication shouldn’t be to please a supervisor, add it to an application form, or to satisfy a funding body – it should be because you want to make an impact. Whether that be impacting how the public perceive a controversial topic, the evidence that policymakers use to make decisions or how healthcare decisions are made, however you choose to do it, someone will be eager to hear your voice and what you have to say.
With the way modern networking and events are running, if you want to stand up for science it is very important for you to put yourself out there and get involved with the discussion across multiple platforms, whether websites, social media, or the more traditional media outlets. It is important that you have a presence. Make yourself googleable by using keywords that define you in your Twitter bio or your personal blog. You want your name to appear on the first page on Google when a journalist or politician’s team are searching for experts in your field. That way you’re able to provide your expertise in a timely manner.
In the same way you stay in contact with your most reliable friends, journalists and policymakers reach out to reliable people they know will pick up the phone when called. By being that person, you allow yourself to give expert views on current topics and be a reactive source of knowledge. This will make you an invaluable asset, you’ll stay on their experts list and you’ll be sure to get asked for your expertise on many, many issues!
An ‘evidence movement’
The world is only going to get more complicated and we’re facing great challenges, from Covid-19 to new genetic tests that give future risks, concerns over health checks, drug side effects and misinformation spread on social media. But we are also now more than ever able to visualise data, provide interactive ways for people to grapple with risk and benefits, explain trade-offs in the decision-making process, and help people make sense of evidence and research.
There’s an ‘evidence movement’ going on of people committed to helping, not only get good information out there, but to make it understandable. We’ve been part of this movement for 18 years and we hope you’ll now be a part of it too.
Ilaina Khairulzaman, Head of international public engagement, training and marketing and Caitlin Hounsell, Intern
Sense about Science