Tips for scientists to deal with the media

21 11 2016


I regularly give science communication workshops that include tips for dealing with reporters and journalists in the mass media. Most of these tips come from my own experience, or from stories I’ve heard from close colleagues. Instead of just teaching these important lessons to a select few who get to hear about them in person, I’ve decided to write a little post listing the most important points. Most of the following has little to do with maximising the likelihood of getting an interview, but these tips should help you avoid problems should a reporter notice your important work.

Welcome to the jungle.

1. The best way to get noticed by the media is to write a press release, although this is no guarantee in itself that anyone will pay attention. A good rule of thumb is to write a release for nearly every peer-reviewed article you publish, even if you think no one will be that interested. You’d be surprised how seemingly innocuous and run-of-the-mill papers can go viral if the press release is well-written. On that latter point, engage closely with your institution’s media office, and help them write the release by, for example, sending them a link to the lucid blog post you wrote about your own paper.

2. You can maximise the probability of uptake of your press release if you foster good working relationships with journalists. If you’ve ever had positive interactions with some before, keep the names on record and send a pre-release version of the article and the press release itself before the main event. Every journalist loves a scoop.

3. Register on expert media sites so that journalists can find you (e.g., like Scimex, Expert Guide, Ocean Expert, etc.). Most countries have such things.

4. If a journalist contacts you, make sure you respond immediately. Often even 30 minutes is too long before they seek opinions from some other scientist. If you are travelling, make sure you have an emergency contact auto-responder designed specifically for deadline-enslaved journalists.

Remember, you're smarter than they are (© Monty Python)

Remember, you’re smarter than they are (© Monty Python)

5. Once you do manage to gain an interview, whether it is live radio, recorded television or just as a chat for a newspaper article, avoid jargon like the plague. And make sure you test your language on a non-expert — what’s jargon to a non-specialist might not appear to be jargon at all to you. This often comes with experience, but at the very least try to avoid big, technical-sounding words (they do not make you sound more intelligent; rather, they make you sound boring and up-yourself).

6. Still on the issue of language, use short, punchy answers, analogies and a little humour. Try to relax (again, this comes with experience) by remembering that you know your shit more than 99.99% of the people that will be listening to you.

Read the rest of this entry »

Battling the seven-headed hydra: Crassula control in Europe

8 11 2016
Hydra. Seba Albertus (1734-1765). Image from Wellsome Trust

Hydra. Seba Albertus (1734-1765). Image from Wellsome Trust

A contribution by Claire Wordley of Conservation Evidence.

The Australian swamp stonecrop (Crassula helmsii) is a small, unassuming looking plant with incredible resilience. It can survive both baking heat and freezing cold; it can live underwater, on the water’s surface and on land; it can survive being dried out, bleached and sprayed with hot foam; and it can regenerate from tiny fragments. Unfortunately, in the UK and elsewhere in Europe it is an invasive species, choking the oxygen from ponds and shading out other plants with knock-on effects for entire freshwater ecosystems.

Swamp stonecrop, also known as New Zealand pigmyweed, was first introduced to the UK from Tasmania in 1911 and sold in garden centres from 1927 as an ornamental pond oxygenator. Shockingly, despite being documented as an invasive plant in New Forest ponds as early as 1976, its sale in the UK was only banned in 2014. Crassula appears to be spread mostly by people, whether deliberately or accidentally; it appears to be concentrated around car parks, residential areas and areas where equipment such as fishing gear is likely to have come from an infected site. Nearly 20% of 700 UK waterbodies surveyed contained the weed. Since every 10% increase in Crassula corresponds to a 5% decrease in native vegetation, and negative effects of Crassula invasion have been documented for zooplankton, macro-invertebrates and fish, with possible negative impacts on amphibians as well, control and ideally eradication is clearly needed. But what works to destroy this superweed?

Killing the hydra

Crassula helmsii (photo by Benjamin Blondel)

Crassula helmsii (photo by Benjamin Blondel)

Like the seven-headed hydra of legend, Crassula helmsii seems able to regenerate after even harsh treatment and being shattered into tiny pieces. Documenting clearly what works to control this beast – and what does not – is critical. This work has recently been completed by Conservation Evidence at the University of Cambridge, as part of an ongoing series on controlling freshwater invasives. The team has worked to collect all the evidence on different ways of killing Crassula, and experts have scored these for their effectiveness (or otherwise).

One of the most effective ways to knock back Crassula appears to be applying herbicides, particularly glyphosate and diquat or diquat alginate. While each of these performed well to reduce Crassula in many trials – and the use of glyphosate and diquat together led to a 98% reduction in one trial – there are concerns that while the medicine could cure the disease, it could kill the patient. One study in the New Forest noted that native plant cover fell in the treatment sites at a greater rate than in the control sites, and glyphosate appears to be toxic to amphibians. There might also be adverse effects on some bird species, although this could be due more to habitat-level changes than direct toxicity, because other birds appeared to benefit from wetlands being sprayed with glyphosate. Read the rest of this entry »

Shadow of ignorance veiling society despite more science communication

19 04 2016

imagesI’ve been thinking about this post for a while, but it wasn’t until having some long, deep chats today with staff and students at Simon Fraser University‘s Department of Biological Sciences (with a particular hat-tip to the lovely Nick Dulvy, Isabelle Côté & John Reynolds) that the full idea began to take shape in my brain. It seems my presentation was a two-way street: I think I taught a few people some things, and they taught me something back. Nice.

There’s no question at all that science communication has never before been so widespread and of such high quality. More and more scientists and science students are now blogging, tweeting and generally engaging the world about their science findings. There is also an increasing number of professional science communication associations out there, and a growing population of professional science communicators. It is possibly the best time in history to be involved in the generation and/or communication of scientific results.

Why then is the public appreciation, acceptance and understanding of science declining? It really doesn’t make much sense if you merely consider that there has never been more good science ‘out there’ in the media — both social and traditional. For the source literature itself, there has never before been as many scientific journals, articles and even scientists writing. Read the rest of this entry »

Getting your conservation science to the right people

22 01 2016

argument-cartoon-yellingA perennial lament of nearly every conservation scientist — at least at some point (often later in one’s career) — is that the years of blood, sweat and tears spent to obtain those precious results count for nought in terms of improving real biodiversity conservation.

Conservation scientists often claim, especially in the first and last paragraphs of their papers and research proposals, that by collecting such-and-such data and doing such-and-such analyses they will transform how we manage landscapes and species to the overall betterment of biodiversity. Unfortunately, most of these claims are hollow (or just plain bullshit) because the results are either: (i) never read by people who actually make conservation decisions, (ii) not understood by them even if they read the work, or (iii) never implemented because they are too vague or too unrealistic to translate into a tangible, positive shift in policy.

A depressing state of being, I know.

This isn’t any sort of novel revelation, for we’ve been discussing the divide between policy makers and scientists for donkey’s years. Regardless, the whinges can be summarised succinctly: Read the rest of this entry »

Death of the question

17 12 2015
Zombie apocalypse

Zombie apocalypse

It’s something I’ve noticed over the years going to scientific conferences and seminars — the number of questions, and more importantly their quality, have declined.

Sure, it’s anecdotal and it might just be that my perspective has changed, but I’d bet my left testicle that it’s true.

But why? There are possibly many contributing factors, such as increasingly jam-packed conferences with multiple concurrent sessions, a massive and increasing number of participants and less time for each of us to present our work. However, I think the main reason is that we’re now all glued to our electronic devices.

Yes, I’m talking about the Twitteratti, but also the tablet-tossers, laptop-layabouts and the iPhone-idiots. We have a saying in our family when we spot a smartphone zombie oblivious to oncoming traffic that she/he looks like a “… spastic fingering a sandwich” (not my quote, but I am particularly fond of using it).

Read the rest of this entry »

How to give a scientific presentation

15 08 2015

fearHaving just attended the joint 27th International Congress for Conservation Biology / 4th European Congress for Conservation Biology in Montpellier, France, I have a renewed vigour for proffering advice on the DOs and DO NOTs of giving a scientific presentation.

There are of course many different styles, formats, media and audiences for scientific presentations, so I’m going to outline only general issues of which you should be aware when preparing and delivering that often stress-inducing presentation. There are also many different durations of a scientific talk — including, but not limited to everything from a 5-minute speed talk to a full-on, dazzling, TEDx-like performance that can last for over an hour. Many of these principles apply to the full gamut of talk types, although various elements will have to be adjusted according to format. Only experience and plenty of advice can assist you in the tweaking.

Without further ado, here are the top 15 most important things to consider when preparing and giving a scientific presentation: Read the rest of this entry »

Twenty tips for writing a research proposal

4 05 2015

Proposal FormatThis post’s title might promise a lot, but it would be disingenuous of me to imply that I could cover all of the essential components of this massive topic in one blog post. Many people (my wife included) have made careers out of teaching people how to write successful grant proposals, so I won’t pretend to be comprehensive and insult their expertise. That said, I’ve been reasonably successful on the grants’ side of the science game, and I’ve assessed a fair few grant proposals in my day, so I think I can offer at least a few pointers. As usual, each person probably has her or his own way of doing things, so there’s unlikely to be a single, winning method. Approaches will also vary by funding agency and country of origin. I am therefore targeting the earlier-career people who have yet to get fully indoctrinated into the funding cycle, with generalities that should apply to most grant proposals.

1. A proposal is not an article, so don’t try to write it as one.

In the huge list of things ‘they never taught you as a student, but need to know to be a successful scientist’, this has got to be one of the biggies. Now I’m mainly talking about science here, but grant proposals cannot and should not follow the standard format of peer-reviewed articles. Articles tend to put an elaborate background up front, a complex description of hypotheses followed by an even more complex description of methods and results. Do not do this for a proposal. A proposal should be viewed more as a ‘pitch’ that hooks the assessor’s attention from the get-go. More on this aspect below.

2. Understand what the funder actually fundsRead the rest of this entry »

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