In an era littered with misinformation, scientists feel more pressure than ever to make their point and make it stick. Thankfully, Beakerhead is here to help.
Like many other citizens, I have been shocked at recent political events and social uprisings that go against heaps of evidence that scientists have so carefully generated. At least part of the problem is that ideas don’t magically take over the public consciousness when the evidence pours in; somehow, the message needs to be translated from the lab to the living room. Mark Walport, the Chief Scientific Adviser for the UK Government, said it best: “Science isn’t finished until it’s communicated.” However, with most science graduate degrees lacking integrated communication programs, researchers – including myself – are often left to figure it out as they go.
Motivated by a search for formal training, I attended the Beakerhead science communications (SciComm) workshop, hosted at Quest University in Squamish. I was sponsored by Genome BC and Leonard Foster to attend, becoming one of nine humbled students learning from some of the best science communicators in the business: Mary Anne Moser (Beakerhead founder and CEO), Jay Ingram (most widely recognized from Daily Planet and Quirks and Quarks), Thomas Hayden (Stanford professor and editor of The Science Writer’s Handbook), and Niki Wilson (a stellar freelance science writer). For four days, we were immersed in science story-telling and given candid advice on how to do it, and do it well.
The perspectives shared by the Beakerhead faculty have changed the way I think about any form of communication. The faculty’s attitudes were not ones of ivory tower superiority, as we often encounter in academia, and they do not assume that fixing the knowledge deficit alone will persuade opposing opinions. No; they masterfully catch up our emotions in science stories, making them entertaining, memorable, and personal. Then, they slip in the science when you least expect it.
Beakerhead entered the science communication arena before “SciComm” was a thing. From the beginning, Mary Anne made their intentions clear: they were in the business of ‘delight.’ By entertaining people through creative events that merge science, art, and engineering, Beakerhead gets people excited, and this excitement ignites curiosity and motivation to learn more. As summarized by Tom, “half the people go to church for the choir, not the priest.” At the Squamish workshop, we weren’t learning how to organize events, but we were applying the same principles to our writing. We were learning how to tell a good story.
On our first evening together, Mary Anne, Niki, Jay and Tom reflected on what SciComm means to them. “It’s not all about the science,” Mary Anne began. “It’s about the audience and the conversation.” We learned from Niki that good communication starts on the same side of the fence: “It’s about meeting people where they are,” not dragging them to where we want them to be. Jay used the coffee date analogy. “If you sat down for coffee with someone who only talked about themselves, would you go out with them again?” Instead, we need to first tell people what they want to hear if we want a second date at all. These might seem like obvious points, but they are rarely the default tactic. It’s understandable, given that many of us have spent 20+ years acquiring our education via precisely the opposite principles.
Tom elegantly tied all these sentiments together. “Respecting the audience is the most important aspect of communication. People are rational, even though their conclusions may be different than yours. Good communication is about broadening our grasp on the many facets of the human experience and people who are making a go of it in a tough world.”
During the workshop, we applied these ideas while honing our elevator pitches, practicing the power of the first person, personalizing seemingly impersonal science, and learning how to pitch stories to publishers. Finally, we put all our new knowledge into practice by synthesizing a real article intended for publication. Since the workshop, at least three of us have published our work as op-eds or features in magazines.
The real value of the workshop, though, is that the vision imparted to us in the library is relevant to all aspects of communication, whether it’s with family, the public, colleagues, or the whole department. By “meeting people where they are” and switching to story-telling, not lecturing, we can engage with people who would otherwise not be interested in what we have to say.
The impacts of good SciComm stretch far beyond simply translating knowledge into a more digestible format. Good SciComm earns scientists public trust in a political climate where it’s sorely needed. If we all take on more responsibility for becoming effective communicators, maybe we will finally heed Walport’s message and finish some more science.
This article appeared in the Genome BC short-read newsletter.