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.

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2 Responses

  1. […] Macleod, Communicating Science: Some Highlights from the BSA Conference, Part 1 Hope for advances in science communication, as reported over at The Human […]

  2. Very good article. Can’t wait to read more about this subject.

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