A Cunning Plan for Communicating Science to a General Audience #8 #cong17

By Dr Claire O’Connell.

Claire O'Connell #8 Cunning Plan

As a science journalist, I speak with researchers, technologists and innovators on a daily basis, and it's my job to enable non-specialists to better understand their work. This isn't always easy. 

Sometimes the work they do is complicated and niche. A piece of research often fits into a wider context and can provide an incremental or ‘baby step’ advance in our knowledge, or it might offer a crack in the wall to peer through at a whole new landscape.

Trying to explain that piece of research is like trying to explain a plot or sub-plot in one episode of a soap opera. 

That’s OK if you are familiar with the soap opera – you know the context and whether this new development is an interesting but relatively minor step (Oh great! The police found Jack’s stolen car, he will be relieved), or whether it yields high drama (What?! Her mother is actually her grandmother?? This changes everything and now I understand why the relationships between family members who knew the secret have been so strained).

But what if you don’t know anything about the field of research? Or, in this analogy, you have never seen the soap opera? You don’t know what’s involved, you have no idea what web of information this builds on and you cannot easily fathom what this development will mean for the future. 

My cunning plan to get around these difficulties is to bring out the human element in science stories. No, not whether the researcher’s mother is actually his or her grandmother! Rather I seek to use the humanity of researchers and research itself to encourage and invite non-expert readers to engage with and understand more about that world.  

That understanding can be the gateway to a more realistic understanding of science, technology and innovation. And, unlike Baldrick’s cunning plans in Blackadder, this one usually works.

One way to plug into the human side of a research story is to ask about how the person felt when they realised they had a discovery on their hands, or when they heard they had won an accolade for that discovery.

As an example, I had the good fortune to interview a professor who had made important discoveries about quantum entanglement, a field I can barely understand. A few weeks before we spoke, he had learned that he was to receive a Nobel Prize in Physics for the work, and this seemed like a perfectly human point at which to dive into the interview. 

His description of being out shopping with his wife, aware that the Prizes were being deliberated and then seeing a number with a Swedish prefix appear on his mobile phone is a moment of excitement and anticipation that anyone can appreciate, regardless of whether they know a gluon from a photon. 

And this is how I started the article, inviting the reader in to share in this story of a remarkably intelligent and successful scientist whose humanity and humility meant that we could all relate to him. Once I had their attention, I slowly introduced the physics but ensured that it was liberally couched in the Nobel Laureate’s thoughts about how the often slow process of science is a team effort and how its discoveries can help humans. 

In other interviews, I have asked scientists about what surprises and frustrates them about their work, and I often hear surprising and frustrating answers. These emotions and reactions do not detract from the story of their research, rather they can enrich the storytelling and give the non-technical reader something to hang on to.  

Historical stories can also help to illuminate the importance of research and the struggle or serendipity behind breakthroughs. Who can forget that Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin because by lucky chance a fungal spore contaminated the bacteria growing in his lab? Most of us don’t know the details of the organisms nor the chemistry that went on to build an arsenal of life-saving medicines, but we still get the gist: this fortuitous event happened, a smart person saw that something was killing the bacteria, the science dug into it and ultimately lots of lives were saved.

To be shameless about bringing the human element into science communication, I stuck my neck out and asked The Irish Times to let me run a column once or twice a month called Research Lives on the science page. 

Through a short Q&A with a researcher (usually a scientist), I find out not only about their research but also how they feel about it, the challenges and rewards, the myths they want to debunk and what they do when they are not hunting for exoplanets, screening fungi for new helpful chemicals or trying to figure out how we digest milk.  

This simple yet powerful tool can, I hope, open new ways for people to engage with scientific research and to understand that the answers it finds - just like the people who find those answers - are often complex and extremely interesting. 

CongRegation © Eoin Kennedy 2017 eoin at congregation dot ie