Can we make science more approachable?

Think of the following scenario. You are in the pub, having a drink and meet some new people. The first thing they ask is, “So, what do you do?”. What do you reply to this? How do you put words together that would make sense to the person in front of you?  I usually have a mild panic trying to assess the level of biological understanding of the person in front of me and lead with “I am training to be a clinical scientist, at the genetics laboratory in our hospital”.   I then wait to see if they ask follow-up questions or are just satisfied with moving on to pub talk.

In terms of genetics, we can all agree that it is a subject that is not that well known or understood. What we do is not a “normal” profession in terms of being a nurse, banker, or sales assistant. But that is true for all other specialised science-y professions, people are not always aware of our specialisms and what we do. Explaining our day-to-day life to someone that has never heard of  it can be a challenge.

So let’s run a quick Root Cause Analysis on our issue. (Remember these three words for your OSFAS people.)

Our Root/Problem: Science is not as visible or understood as other fields.

Source of our problem:

  • Awareness
  • People think science is complicated & hard
  • “Bad Teachers”
  • Jargon
  • Science stereotypes
  • Culture

Our Solution: There is definitely not one right answer/solution for this. Mainly, we need to improve our Science Communication skills and volunteer our time to our cause. So here are some points I think everyone should consider when thinking about this.

First and foremost, you have to try and share your love of science. Just talking about the problem will not solve anything. Volunteering your time is an excellent way to improve awareness or influence people. This can be achieved by participating in science festivals, running outreach activities for schools and children in your area, becoming a STEM ambassador or even sharing something science-y on your social media. Taking part in Healthcare Science Week activities is an excellent example. Believe in what you do and share your love and enthusiasm about science.

Communication of science to the public is more complicated than one might think. We can go into a lot of details about the modes of communication but I do not believe that I am an expert to really try to explain them.  There are three basic models to consider.

  • The deficit model: the notion that the public’s scepticism about science derives from the lack of science knowledge. In this model, the communicator would attempt to “educate” the audience in order to achieve their goal.
  • The contextual model:  Similar to the deficit model, but the communicator tries to understand their audience in order to appropriately adapt their style.
  • The participation model:  Where the scientists and the public participate equally in the form of discussions or debates.

So you now have a time and a date and you are thinking about how to share your science. For this there are three main things to consider:

1. Know your audience

You have to adjust your style and pitch your communication to the right level for your audience. Appropriate considerations would be age, social background, profession and their interests. You might want to think about your language style as well as your communication style. Bombarding people with information and hoping they will understand it is not always the way to go. So assess your audiences background and knowledge and then plan your communication strategy.

Your audience.png

2. Know your message:

Make sure you know what you want to communicate.  Make sure your message is relatable to your audience and be ready to answer questions like “So what?” or “Why should we care?”. Be knowledgeable about your field and share your knowledge in a way that your audience can relate/identify towards.

3. Know your medium:

This is the way you want to communicate your ideas. This might be a hands-on activity, a blog post, a poster, a stand in your local department store. Try and break down complex ideas with visual aids and drawings, or design a game to explain something. The options are endless. All you need is a little bit of imagination and time. As Joe wrote a couple of months ago, STEP outside of your box!

One last thing to consider…

Our Language

The way we speak and promote our work is paramount. It is easy to get lost in our science-y jargon and keep talking for hours to our peers. But what is normal for us, might be “rocket science” for someone else.

I recently went to an evening lecture in our hospital, by Naked Scientists founder, Chris Smith. Whoever hasn’t heard about the Naked Scientists have a look at their website. They started as a Cambridge-based science podcast (5 Live) and have now developed into a wonderful community which promotes science in such an amazing and effective way. Mainly what struck me at that talk though, was the way Dr Smith spoke. The manner of his language and the words he used. Everything was explained so calmly, with no complicated words so everyone can understand it. There were a lot of jokes, some videos of their experiments and a lot of audience interaction. All these are points I want to take on board when I am doing any outreach or science communication projects. But the way we speak is not a natural skill for everyone. I especially find it hard to explain things sometimes (might be because English is my second language).

I started thinking of ways we can improve our lay language. This is by no means an extensive list or scientifically proven ways that work. Just suggestions of how you could potentially train your lay language.

  1. Books: There are so many popular science/non-fiction books from amazing authors/scientists that have put their knowledge into simple words for everyone to understand. You can read (or listen) to such books to gain an understanding of a new topic or get a feel of the language they use to convey their message. Some interesting ones might be:
    • Sapiens
    • Epigenetics Revolution
    • What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
  2. Podcasts & Science Programmes: Bored during your commute? Why not browse myriads of podcasts, listen to people discuss hot science topics and pick on their tone and use of lay language.
  3. Events & Talks: Go out of your normal routine and try and attend interesting events and talks in your area. You might get to meet some interesting people and practice your lay skills.
  4. Interesting resources:


Take home message from this:

Share your love for science.

Even if it just inspires one child to become a scientist, you have done something good for this world.

Thanks for reading.

Author: Adriana

I am a Clinical Bioinformatician based at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge and a Regional Training Lead for Health Education England. I am all for increasing genomics awareness in and out of healthcare and interested in bioinformatics and genomics and general healthcare science.

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