Communicating science: some highlights from the BSA conference, part 1

I just spent 2 days at the British Science Association’s Science Communication Conference.  I haven’t been to this particular shindig in quite a few years; it’s quite a mixture of folk: academics, science popularisers, PR officers, evaluators, artists, you name it.  Five highlights:

1. Tackling obesity through an evidence-based campaign

The ‘Behaviour and Choice’ plenary examined the ‘Change4life’anti-obesity campaign, with input from the Department of Health (who commissioned loads of research), the MRC Human Nutrition Research centre (who converted the science into action points, like reducing your portion size, swapping your snacks and getting 60 minutes of exercise a day); and M&C Saatchi, who developed the advertising campaign.

I had mixed feelings about this one.  It’s working fairly well, God love them, and they have made it highly evidence-based, working hard with the scientists to come up with the best practical advice for families.    The ad campaign and the website (ever seen such an unfriendly domain name?)  seem, um, a bit patronising, and anyone with kids in primary school will know that healthy eating campaigns are two a penny.

2. Getting universities to take communication seriously

After the teeniest conference lunch known to mankind (I had to nip out for a roast beef bap afterwards), it was on to a giant session on the ‘Beacons for Public Engagement’ programme.  This is a complicated set of partners basically trying to get universities to become more committed to explaining themselves to their publics.    The Beacon universities (about 7 of them) are doing this through Action Learning projects, inventing change processes that will enable universities to embed public engagement in what they do.

The speakers were gung-ho and very committed, and were clearly getting a great deal out of the project.   It was a little harder to see what was going on, from a more distant perspective.  As with Change4life, one of the biggest difficulties in evaluating these kinds of projects is that the institutional participants find it life-changing.   One has to be careful that personal fulfilment isn’t obscuring the larger view, which is that you’re actually talking to an external audience and their opinions are what will ultimately count.

3. Evaluation and the power of Three Letter Acronyms

I joined the Evaluation breakout session, as a matter of duty, because, well, evaluation is one of the things I do in the science area.  Leaders from another Beacon-related project described their gold-plated evaluation concept, aka ‘Generic Learning Outcomes’ and put us into small groups to develop GLOs for some science activities.  My wee group found this bloody tricky, as we kept getting sidetracked by greater issues of Methodology.

I might talk a bit more about this when I talk about reactions to the second day.   There’s no doubt that the GLO concept – essentially, measuring interventions on up to 5 dimensions – is fairly sensible.   However, in our group the real question was how to measure response intelligently, and to some degree the actual content was secondary to getting the method right.

I think what GLOs really need is a bit of a makeover, so that the 5 dimensions look pretty and can be summed up by an arresting 5 letter acronym.

4. Scientists doing themselves: blogs, podcasts and Twitter

Final session of the day was an extremely enjoyable tour around the use of new media in science communication.  I didn’t expect to learn lots from this, but in actual fact it was thoroughly novel and highly engaging.

Ed Yong compared his experience with writing a personal science blog (the very lovely Not Exactly Rocket Science), with the approach required in his day job as one of the blogging team for Cancer Research UK’s science update blog. There are lots of science blogs these days, and they are really filling a gap between the abstract language of scientific papers and the dumbed-down media treatment of scientific issues.

Neasan O’Neill talked about using Twitter and blogs for a highly technical worldwide community of particle physicists. Neasan is a veritable Hydra, with many blogs, sites and Twitter identities all maintaining his community in its various forms.

Chris Smith from The Naked Scientists gave a deeply entertaining talk about his radio show and general empire, which has become one of the top podcasts on iTunes, and has pretty much crashed every server it’s ever run on.

Naked Scientists is extremely silly, has a worldwide audience, a website, a forum, and a whole bunch of stupid kitchen-table experiments that you can do at home. I particularly like the home-grown ramshackle nature of this enterprise, which clearly started as a bit of fun and then grew and grew.  The enthusiasm of the contributors is palpable, pretty much to the point where I want to run off and make my own Research Show. Er.

5. Thoughts;  science campaigning; and the power of dialogic methods

I think I’ll save Day 2 for a separate post.  Overall, I was impressed by the ways in which science communication has matured and professionalised itself.  In particular, there are far more scientists who are involved in communicating their science directly.    Scientists have also woken up to the need for proactive communication to prevent certain ethical debates from going postal: so, for example, there was a terrific report (Hype, hope and hybrids) produced on the scientific community’s response to the Government’s original attempt to clamp down on stem cell research.

Government departments are also far more sophisticated and thoughtful, whatever happens at policy level.  At the evening reception, the Sciencewise report on public dialogue methods was launched.  This is worth a read.  Deliberative methods (typically bringing together experts and the public) are powerful ways of looking at public perception and human response to complex problems, and this report outlines the advantages and the issues very clearly.  A good read for anyone in research, even if you’re not a social researcher.  I reckon a few big brands out there could totally benefit from a Consensus Conference…

That’s it from Day One; I’ll round up the second day soon as I can.

Learning to love the stacks

Books in a Stack, by austinevan on Flickr

Books in a Stack, by austinevan on Flickr

I’m just starting a new project that involves doing a literature search before getting stuck into interviewing.

I spent untold years doing ad hoc research, in a cab-style ‘take the next project’ sort of way, and I can’t tell you what a complete pleasure it is to be allowed to go and look at the literature.

It’s maybe peculiar to the places I used to work, but there was quite a disdain towards Doing A Bit of Reading, and a complete horror of exerting one’s database search skills with all the Boolean logic which that entails.

Not all projects need much beyond basic immersion in what went before, but I do projects which involve setting up a new Thing, like a framework, as well as gathering data. What I have learned:

4 benefits of full-on research:

1. Not reinventing the wheel. NOT REINVENTING THE WHEEL!!! So many, many things have been done before, some of them rather well.

2. Allowing time and space for you to really consider the issue Nuff said.

3. Constructing new knowledge Outside well-researched topics, typically you’ll end up synthesising information from a grab-bag of odd-looking books, papers, and commentary.  This is marvellous.

4. You can come up with theories and hypotheses! And then test them! Possibly just me…asking the right people the best questions is a luxury indeed.

And so on to …*drumroll*

7 tips for a successful search 😛

1. Join a university library. This can be hard work without current connections, but there may well be a great, relevant library that you can use.  Online catalogues look like the answer to your prayers but in practice can be expensive and difficult to access, depending on the subject area.  Use your academic or professional affiliations to get access to books and journals.  I use the Wellcome Library,  Birkbeck College,  and Cambridge University Library; I also have access to the British Psychological Society’s collection.  Wellcome has a great cafe.

2. Recognise that opinions are legion but facts can be sparse. Most literature reviews outside academia involve several Emperor’s New Clothes moments: typically, the absence of any evidence whatsoever for strongly-held popular opinions.

3. Web resources look infinite but actually aren’t. This is the never-ending Web Ring problem where you chase promising sets of hyperlinks that eventually loop around themselves in a giant spiral of mutual attribution.

4. Look in parallel fields for great answers. It is quite likely that your particular horrible problem has been discussed and perhaps even solved in a rather different field of operation. In my experience, teaching is a completely overlooked source of great information.  Take e-moderating for example: 90% of the problems online researchers face have already been researched, written up and peer-reviewed by academics working in teaching and online learning.

5. Find the official resources. Government sources are excellent and entirely free.  You can find entire datasets this way.

6. Identify the star papers and books as quickly as you can. In any field, there are some essential pieces of reading.  In a brand new field, one of the most useful things you can find is the high-level textbook.  These are your Little Helpers. Love them and treat them well.

7. Be flexible, don’t print out in too small a font, and carry paper, pens and a USB stick everywhere.

Hitting the wall: inevitable Twitter navel-gazing

The Wall, by _spoon_

Image: The Wall, by _spoon_, via Flickr

I think I’ve hit a bit of a wall with Twitter.  The excitement of all the initial exploration and discovery has been overtaken by some feelings of hmmm, how can I put it?  Weary drudgery. Overload.  Disconnection.

I do recognise this flat phase from other networking – eventually after a bit of wild expansion, you need to regroup and consolidate.  I got really excited at uncovering new people and new blogs via Twitter;  then I went a bit mad adding new people and finally, I got to the stage of being unable to keep up, or remember who this person was.

On the whole, I’m loving Twitter, but it’s such an odd window on the world.

Four things that struck me this week:

  • the excitement and the frustration of online networking

Sometimes you hit a good 140 character ‘conversation’ and you think: dang, this chat would be far better carried out over coffee, or a drink, or even something extremely 2003 like Instant Messenger.   The Twitter chat can be great, at times, but it’s also so frustrating and narrow.  You people on the internet, you’re different in real life.  I know that.  I’d like to see that. I’d like to see YOU.

  • the niche nature of online networks

Few social networks, even the high profile ones, truly capture an audience.   There are so many relevant and interesting people who aren’t there.

In the case of Twitter, perhaps it’s maybe likely that everyone in an intense geekspace is present; but outside of that group, online networks are a partial representation of the whole.    Of course, that doesn’t matter:  we talk to the people who are here; but when we generalise beyond ourselves, we need to remember all the other folk who are too busy or too uninterested to get involved.

  • the sheer VOLUME of virtual landfill (blogfill?)

I think it was the NME (someone will correct me) who coined the term ‘indie landfill’  for a certain kind of indie act that would get 6 months of fame if they were lucky.    With Twitter, I click blindly on posts.  Some blogs are lovely, some are dire, some are OK.


Freshnetworks have a well-written, interesting, pithy post up every single bloody day.   I’m still musing on Tuesday and they’ve bounced on to Thursday.

I can’t keep up.


  • We  are weirder than we realise

So. I tweet, I read, I blog, I comment.   When I come across an interesting blog that I’d like to read regularly, I add it to my Netvibes page (my RSS reader).   In the research I did last year amongst young managers, something like 9 per cent had used an RSS feed.    Now, I know fine well that I am not up there with the technogeeks.  Still, I have a Netvibes page.  THIS ACTUALLY MAKES ME QUITE UNUSUAL.  Add in my demographic details and it makes me an actual freak, but we won’t go there.

There’s a moral here somewhere.   Get out more, maybe (note to self).  This is nice, but it’s not the world; and for the most part, it’s not your customers’ world either.

How do you stop yourselves from being overwhelmed?