This blog is currently on hiatus owing to work commitments. Whilst I still keep an eye on the goings on at RiAus, and contribute to the work of the good folks at eLife, little will be added to this blog for the foreseeable future. Simon Says remains open for business, albeit at a reduced capacity. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope the archive of content found here will prove to be of interest.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

The Public Engagement in Science skills challenge!

ONE of the key challenges in science communication is the relay of precise, specific information to a (largely) non-expert audience. A further challenge is to find and use opportunities in which to flex such skills. Often a spark of interest from an inquisitive punter can be quickly dampened by the need to explain background information as a prelude to the correct factual answer; in fact, it might be better to twist the initial question to the more impactful ‘why is this interesting?’, bringing in layers of detail as and when they are required rather than from the start. Nonetheless, one should never shy from explaining the tough stuff, because sooner or later you will need to, and you better be equipped for when your fleeting opportunity arises. Certain topics, by rote of glamour and prior exposure, are more digestible to the public than others, and are consequently easier to talk about.

These thoughts come from a conversation had today between a number of students, scientists and public engagement aficionados on Twitter, and from it I suggested to one of our undergraduate students that he ought to put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, and just write. It is only then that you truly appreciate what certain audiences know, and what makes good communication.

As the idea developed, it became something worthy of a bigger challenge, to which I now invite you to participate. This is open to all who have an interest in science writing and communication, but particularly those who have never tried before.

Don’t worry if you don’t know what you’re doing, that’s precisely why you should join in!

The challenge: 

For five consecutive days, pick a recent journal article (primary literature, not reviews) and summarise it, then publish it on a blog or leave it in the comments box below. 

Aim for 375 words, though I won’t be counting. 

Each day, pick a different intended audience. Your options are:
a) members of the lay public of all ages with a curiosity for science;
b) members of the lay public, aged 18-30, with no prior or assumed interest in science;
c) a scientist, but not an expert in the field of the paper;
d) a GCSE-level school pupil;
e) your grandmother 

On at least one of these days your selected paper must be in a field considered unglamorous by the public, the sort of topic that rarely makes it to news articles or science documentaries because it is dry, dull, painful or simply difficult to imagine (I would not dare to suggest what such topics are, I leave you to decide).

Include some recognition of what was already known in the field, and what, specifically, the new paper adds, all with an injection of vim and vigour to keep your selected audience enthralled. 
Most important of all: do not worry if you write utter drivel. Being good at this takes time, effort and practise, an eye for a story and empathy for audience. Writing drivel is a necessary rite of passage. 

Such a task works best with a deadline. As an initial push then, I propose next week, the week of 3rd-7th September, as a week to try out your engagement skills. I'll be away at a conference, and it'll be nice to have some tasty articles to indulge in on my return. Leave a link to your posts below or through Twitter - I'm @bioSimonUoB.

Good luck, and remember:

Suggestions of amendments to this challenge are very welcome.

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