Making science matter

14 10 2013
© XKCD

© XKCD

I’ve been home from my last overseas trip now for nearly two weeks, but despite not feeling caught up, it’s high time I report what I was up to.

Some of you who follow my Twitter feed or who saw a CB post about cartoonist Seppo Leinonen know that I was visiting the University of Helsinki to participate in a three-day short course for PhD students entitled ‘Making Science Matter‘. I was so impressed with how well Mar Cabeza and Tomas Roslin put together the course, that I thought I’d share the format with CB readers (just in case any of you out there can be convinced to design a similar course at your university).

I think it’s important first to discuss the philosophy of the course and what it hoped to provide those early-career researchers.

Most science PhD students will tell you once they’ve completed their degree that they feel completely unprepared to launch themselves into the extra-curricular world of communicating their science beyond the ‘traditional’ (peer-reviewed journals) outlets. Swamped with learning how to write concisely and clearly, getting up to speed with the entire body of theory on which their projects are based, mastering advanced modelling and statistical approaches and learning how to apply efficient computer code, it’s no wonder that many students find precious little time for anything else (including families, good food and proper hygiene).

Once they do land that precious post-doctoral fellowship though, they are immediately expected to interact professionally with the media, embrace social media and give fantastic public lectures to engage the uninformed. Right.

So where do they pick up these skills? Most people either sink or swim here, and usually it takes a bloody long time to gain the experience and necessary abilities to be a good science communicator. In my case, I didn’t start blogging until nearly five years after I completed my first postdoc, and I have only felt comfortable speaking off-the-cuff to journalists about my work in the last five years or so. Like anything, the more you do something, the better you become.

Surely there’s a better way to prepare people. Well, with the foresight of Mar and Tomas, the students that attended ‘Making Science Matter’ are well on their way to becoming better science communicators.

A brief outline of the course suffices to illustrate what elements should be included in such a course offered to post-graduate students early in their careers.

One of the key elements to the success of such a course is to minimise distractions and create a sense of community amongst the students and instructors. Mar and Tomas achieved this by carting us off by coach to Lammi Biological Station1 about 1.5 hours north of Helsinki. With communal dorms, cafeteria, common area and even a classic Finnish sauna on the shores of a lake, we were guaranteed to get to know one another well.

First, Tomas introduced the course, followed by me giving an hour-long lecture on how to ‘pimp your profile’ (making yourself be seen and heard above the cacophony of rubbish out there polluting the internet). Next, Joona Lehtomäki (perhaps one of the most switched-on PhD students I’ve ever met) gave a brilliant talk about ‘open science’, including everything from data storage, open-access publishing and cloud computing.

The amazing Seppo Leinonen followed with a wonderful talk about the value of pictures and cartoons in getting across your science message (something to which I certainly subscribe – see examples here and here). Then, Minttu2 Heimovirta, top environmental journalist with the Finnish Broadcasting company (YLE), gave a great talk about how to engage with journalists (what to do, and most definitely what to avoid).

Following Minttu’s talk, the students then got down to the business of writing their own press releases. Working in small groups, they chose one topic on which someone in the group was working and turned it into a sexy media release.

That evening, the students worked together again in groups to write a five-minute policy brief to pitch to politicians. The goal was to influence policy rather than just ‘inform’ in the media cycle.

The next day focussed on citizen science and stakeholder3 engagement. My talk started the day with a discussion of how to engage one’s audience in presentation (how to tell your story so non-scientists will be interested). Then, Tomas gave a talk about his experience getting non-scientists to collect data for him (a difficult, but entirely rewarding exercise if you can get it to work), with a few other talks about specific stakeholder engagement issues in Finland. That evening, the students honed their policy brief presentations.

The next day was all about policy again, with me talking about getting your science noticed by policy makers. We had a few more policy-based talks, and then we all travelled back to Helsinki to the Finnish Museum of Natural History where we were engaged by two sitting members of Finnish parliament on how to talk to a politician. In other words, how to get and keep their attention about what your science is saying how society should be governed. Some wonderful memes came out of that session. It was also here that the students got the opportunity to pitch their policy briefs.

Finally, we were entertained by one of the greatest living ecologists – Ilkka Hanski – who gave us his own personal perspective on getting the policy wonks to take notice.

In brief, it was an excellent overview of what one is more and more required to take on in the world of scientific research. While many of the students later ‘complained’ that it was a lot to take on, I think getting this information to them is better than waiting for them to pick it up naturally as their careers progress.

I’m now looking into designing a similar course for University of Adelaide students. If you and your university think you’d like to try something similar, I could potentially be available to participate if you believe I could make a contribution.

CJA Bradshaw

P.S. Many, many thanks to Mar Cabeza in particular for her wonderful hospitality. Thanks also to Joona Lehtomäki, Ilkka Hanski, Enrico Di Minin, Tomas Roslin, Marco Milardi, Atte Moilanen, Erin Cameron, Marissa McBride, Anni Tonteri, Evgeniy Meyke, Johanna Eklund and Laura Meller

1I cannot let this opportunity pass without waxing lyrical about the amazing field station facilities available at Lammi. Part of a multi-institutional network of field stations across the entirety of Finland, it is, in my experience, an unprecedented world of research opportunity that is sadly on the wane in most other countries. I wish we had 1/10 of the facilities like Lammi here in Australia.

2‘Minttu’ means ‘mint’ in Finnish. Cool name, no?

3I’m not big on the word ‘stakeholder’ – it always reminds of me of this.


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27 05 2014
Scientists should blog | ConservationBytes.com

[…] many of you know, I regularly give talks and short courses on the value of social and other media for scientists; in fact, my next planned […]

30 04 2014
Putting the ‘science’ in citizen science | ConservationBytes.com

[…] I was in Finland last year, I had the pleasure of meeting Tomas Roslin and hearing him describe his Finland-wide […]

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