Recently at the Queen’s Medical Research Institute (QMRI) I was present for a Science Communication day to hear from two speakers: Dr Cathy Southworth and Ken McDonald. Both speakers spoke passionately about science and their involvement in its communication. This post is to capture their messages and sentiments as recorded from my notes.
Dr Cathy Southworth from the Centre for Regeneration spoke about her work with Eurostem Cell and OptiStem. Her focus was to lead a public engagement team help enable society to better understand stem cells and the issues surrounding their use. She started by showing examples of “scientific claims”; one being for a skin cream that claimed to use stem cells to boost the skins properties, with no reference to any evidence. This underlined her claim for people to question what they read, especially when supported by supposed scientific claims.
As part of her work at Eurostem Cell Dr Southworth spoke about her participation in a primer event during which the needs of visually impaired elderly people were considered. It was astounding the elderly individuals from Skye had little knowledge about the pathophysiology of their condition never mind the benefits of stem cells and the therapies that there future use could potentially bring. However this event got the people thinking about science and wetted their appetite to learn more, while giving her team unique insights into how bring the subject of stem cells to a wider and lay public.
Dr Southworth’s scientific engagement was continued at music and cultural festivals where her public engagement team got a high level of interest from the festival goers. In fact, it was also a thrill for the scientists who where surprised by how interested the people were. During this key aspects were put forward: hooks, pitching, concepts, simplicity and relatable. These findings were ploughed into the creation of materials that saw a comic themed leaflet professionally produced to encapsulate the importance and benefits of stem cells as well as the ethics and pitfalls.
The second speaker was Ken McDonald, BBC Special Correspondent, who provided a great overview of what mainstream news outlets wanted from scientists. With an admitted background in law, Mr McDonald spoke about how science and scientists need to understand that mainstream media needs to “feed the beast” and that deadlines in a 24 hour, digital and social media driven culture are nothing less than “right now”.
Nevertheless he stated that scientists wishing to get their story across should understand what the news desk wants, and this was referred to as the 3C’s: Contrast, Conflict and Controversy – with the exclusion of Conditionals such as maybe or might. A scientific story that contained at least two of these and that spoke to both the head and the heart would have a high chance of success in being picked up by a reporter. Peer reviewed science was considered of great value as were stories that had high impact – which more and more funding bodies require from their proposals these days.
He concluded by highlighting how scientists can be to modest in their work and often fail to recognise that what they do everyday can be of enormous interest to wider pubic and the world in general.