Event Report: ASM Science Communication Workshop

by Kong Yink Heay

The “Science Communication Workshop: Science needs a new language” on the 14th of November 2013 was held in conjunction with the World Innovation Forum KL 2013 at the KL Convention Centre, Kuala Lumpur. This workshop was organised by the Academy of Sciences Malaysia (ASM) and the British High Commission. Approximately 30 participants from ASM, Petrosains and Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre (MABIC) attended this workshop. Its aim was to connect the ‘why’s’ and ‘how’s’ to more effectively communicate science with the public.

The workshop was officiated by a senior fellow of ASM, Prof. Ho Chee Cheong (Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman). In the opening speech, he said,

“Science communication is important because it can generate public awareness on scientific findings and knowledge. Furthermore, the public needs to be in the know. However, scientists tend to use jargons to express science which could be alien language to the public. Therefore, scientists need strong language skills to communicate science to the public more effectively. As there is decreasing number of people who gain information from printed media, science communications should be raised to the next level to deliver the message to every strata of the society”.

In this workshop, speakers from the UK were invited to cover four main topics in science communication: “Science in news media”, “Public engagement targeting students”, “Public engagement targeting the public”, and “Discussing science policy with the people”.

Science in news media

Dr. Fiona Lethbridge (UK Science Media Centre) shared her role in getting scientists and journalists to talk to each other so that the public have access to the best expertise. The UK Science Media is responsible for collecting questions from journalists, and getting scientifically correct answers from scientists. For this reason, the centre maintains an enormous database that documents approximately 3000 scientists. The centre also invites journalists from all newspapers and relevant scientists to meet in their media briefings twice/thrice a week where journalists can ask questions to the scientists regarding a specific topic. The aim of the briefing is to ensure the scientific information is sent across accurately, not only to reduce inaccurate reports but also to prevent reporting false hope and misleading headlines. Media briefings can be divided into news briefing and background briefing. News briefing is held based on new research findings in journals (e.g. stem cell could cure deafness) while background briefing is held based on emerging news or controversial findings (e.g. the horsemeat crisis).

Public engagement targeting students

The workshop participants at one of the breakout sessions.

The workshop participants at one of the breakout sessions.

Dr. Gale Cardew from the Royal Institute (RI) described hands-on strategies for educators to make science appealing to students. RI’s activities centers around the core aim of encouraging people to think further and more deeply about the wonders and application of science. For instance, RI is known for its Christmas Lectures1, which is a series of science lectures presented in an informative and entertaining manner aimed at general audience. In 2009, RI launched the L’Oreal Young Scientist Centre, where youngsters are encouraged to have more hands-on experience on science subjects. Dr. Gale explained that in regular classrooms, students carry out scientific experiments based on only given guidelines and they have no freedom to do other experiments. The centre encourages the youngsters to try something new, to fail and to think for themselves. RI also has Maths and Engineering Master classes on every Saturday morning where approximately 1000 teachers, mathematicians and engineers expose youngsters to the world of maths and engineering. RI also trains engineers and mathematicians on how to teach their subjects to the youngsters.

Public engagement targeting the public

Dr. Amy Sanders from the Wellcome Trust elaborated the ways taken by the organisation in engaging with the public. Wellcome Trust funds media, talks, lectures, publications and exhibitions to inspire and educate the public, as well as to make research more widely accessible. In addition, the Trust funds consultations, panels and discussion events (e.g. Café Scientifique, “I’m a scientist get me out of here”, and science debates in schools among teenagers) that encourage conversations rather than information transmission, and allow opportunity for questions/values/views to be explored. Further, the Trust allows students to participate in real research where students have a chance to publish a peer-reviewed paper with the scientists.

Wellcome Trust publishes “Big Picture” magazine biannually to be distributed to 100 teachers online. They also distribute simple science-learning kits to every UK school, college and science centre so that teachers can teach their students about science in a new and interesting way. To target the youngsters, the Trust designed scientific games such as “Axon” and “Epigenegesis”. In order to reach people who rarely go to science events and museums, Wellcome Trust also organised science exhibitions in balloon fiesta, music festival and agricultural shows.

Discussing science policy with the people

Dr. Alice Bell, a research fellow at University of Sussex and a science blogger at the Guardian UK, shared strategic ways to communicate science policies in ways that garners readership from the masses. Dr. Bell said that science should not be shielded from the public by limiting the accessibility of scientific articles from the public. In addition, raw data from scientific experiments should be made available online to other fellow researchers so that the findings can be checked and/or used for other different research purposes. Sharing methods is also important because by making the research methods available, the validity and reproducibility of the research can be evaluated by fellow researchers. In addition, open methods can also allow the public to do science as a hobby (e.g. Galaxy Zoo). Finally, Dr. Bell explained that opening policy means science policies such as funding and ethics should be made interesting and understandable for public discussion. However, Dr. Bell also suggested some parts of science should be remain undisclosed to some extent, for example in terms of control of sensitive information from research findings which might be misused (e.g. bioterrorism).

During the breakout sessions, the workshop participants were given a chance to interact with the speakers and fellow participants to brainstorm for strategies to solve current problems in science communications in Malaysia, in terms of public and media engagement. To this point, ASM, Petrosains and MABIC have been organising satellite activities on public engagement particularly aiming to boost interests in science among school students. However, all participants came to an agreement that these satellite activities are not sufficient and are skewed towards academics. A collaboration among these centres should be established to organise more diverse public engagement activities with a specific goal in increasing acceptance level among public towards science (e.g. GM food, nuclear power). In terms of media engagement, more work should be done to train scientists to better translate science into layman context, using interesting photos/infographics to attract public to read scientific articles. Catchy headlines, better usage of both mainstream and non-mainstream media to cover scientific information, can also help to reach out to the public.

About the Author

Kong Yink Heay is a research assistant at the Cancer Research Initiatives Foundation (CARIF). She is also an illustrator for Scientific Malaysian. Having passion and experience in both science and art, Yink Heay has always wanted to bridge science and art towards the general public. She feels that science can be better understood when presented in images. She wishes to play a role in science communication using interesting images to aid the understanding of scientific findings. Find out more about Yink Heay by visiting her Scientific Malaysian profile at http://www.scientificmalaysian.com/members/yinkheay/.

Footnote

1 Christmas Lectures was initiated by Michael Faraday in 1825 and has been ongoing ever since. Christmas Lectures is available online at the RI Channel http://richannel.org/christmas-lectures.