Monday, August 6, 2012

A look at science from another side of the trench

[Note from Shaun: The following is a guest post from Claudia Mignone. As you will learn from the post, Claudia is a scientist turned science writer and she shares below her thoughts on the divide between scientists and science journalism. Her past lives on both sides of this divide allow her to also see both perspectives of a world that can sometimes descend into acrimony. Enjoy... (all credit/blame for the image captions is my own to bear)]

Heidelberg! A university here sometimes awards PhD's to starving cosmologists.  (Photo by Claudia)

I am an astronomer/cosmologist by training, and have been happily working as a science writer for almost three years now. In this post, I will explore the borderline that divides the people in the “trenches”, who are actively conducting research and producing scientific knowledge and results (what we like to call the “scientific community”, whatever the term really means), and everyone else who has an interest in the outcome of such research (let's call them “the public”). The borderline is quite an interesting grey area. Its width may vary significantly and continuously on the basis of a large number of factors and it remains partly unexplored by many. As someone who has spent some time working on both sides of this blurred region, I thought I'd share some thoughts that might be useful, particularly to the folks who are still locked in the “trenches”.

Before I start doing so though, let me just add some sort of disclaimer: I don't mean to dispense any sort of “wisdom” here. All of my thoughts and observations are based on my own personal experience (plus that of many colleagues/fellow scientists that I've encountered along the way) but are by no means of a general nature. It is very well possible that others have gone through quite different paths and might disagree with the view that I developed along mine. I haven't conducted any study (neither thorough or superficial) on any of the subjects I'll mention – although I'd love to do so in the future! – so I won't draw any conclusions, because I haven't reached any – yet. But maybe I'll try to propose some advice here and there. Feel free to take them. Or not.

The shocking truth behind the "scientific method". Source: PhD webcomic

I've been obsessed with science – astronomy in particular – ever since I can remember. One of my first clear memories as a kid involves the introductory pages of an atlas, with facts and pictures of outer space, from the solar system to stars and galaxies. Without asking myself too many questions (except those related to the nature of the cosmos) I decided to study astronomy and soon after I started a phd in cosmology – the field of astronomy that studies the Universe on its largest scales and that, incidentally, I still find the most fascinating. However, towards the end of my graduate studies, my view on science and research started to vacillate. At first, it was just a little, but then one after the other, I started noticing a few details that I had never considered earlier. Maybe this was because I had never before taken the time to look at what I was doing – at what everyone else in the field was doing – with a wide enough lens to try and figure out what's going on at large (funnily enough, as cosmologists we try to understand what happens in the Universe at large, but we hardly take the time to try and picture what we're actually doing – at large). The more I noticed, the more unstable my nice house of cards became and I was forced to reconsider what I had previously imagined working as a scientist would mean. Eventually, I realised that I was extremely dissatisfied with what I had been doing. It was nothing to do with the specific people that I had encountered along my path – in fact, I had the great luck to collaborate with some amazing scientists from whom (I believe) I've learned at least a teeny bit of what it really means to do research. Still, I was dissatisfied with the whole of it; with the dispersive environment of academic research; and with the short-sightedness of projects, something that is at least in part forced by funding and labour practices. I had the feeling that researchers nowadays, having to focus on their own tiny niche, are growing increasingly isolated from one another, up to the point that they risk losing interest in what is going on in their neighbouring fields of research, in the general context of scientific research, and in the way research and academia are managed. Seeing how easily one could lose sight of the large-scale dynamics that stems from the daily work of researchers in the “trenches of discovery” and that rapidly extends well beyond the scope of labs and faculties – this terrified me.

Increasingly isolated cosmologists. Watch out for that cosmological constant! Source: Michaela Pavlatova

While I admire all those who keep working hard and successfully on research projects, even with such tough boundary conditions, I myself could not stand this state of things and started looking for a career path that would fit my own version of “the dream” a little closer. Since I've always been good at explaining things, plus I love writing, and I've been interested in public outreach of science since I started my phd, I thought I'd move to the other side of the divide and I became a science writer.

As happy as I am now with this job, I must admit it hasn't been an easy transition. After you've succeeded in explaining your field of research to your granny and aunties at the Christmas table (or have you really?) you may have assumed that you're a natural science communicator. Big mistake. There's just so much to learn. I never received formal training for this – not intentionally of course; it just so happened that I found jobs as a science writer that didn't require training (although it's something that I'm considering for the future). So I learned – and still do – everything I can on the job, mostly from the work of those who are more experienced than me.

What I probably found harder to learn at first was reshaping my point of view. As a trained scientist, you might think that one particular detail is the most interesting aspect in the results of a study, but is it really what “the public” is also interested in? Or is there some other angle to this story that they might appreciate more? Trying to get to know your readers and why they want to read, be informed, and sometimes learn about science is essential. Not to mention, asking yourself why it is that we communicate science in the first place (of course, the answer to this is highly sub-structured and you might not agree with all of its facets... this could be the topic of a blog post of its own). Another big revelation for me was the discovery of the long chain of steps that (usually) occur before a scientific result published in a paper eventually lands on the news. This is the blurry and poorly explored grey area that I mentioned at the beginning of the post. If you know people who work in public outreach of science and/or you've been involved in some PR activity with your own research in the past, then you might be familiar with this process. I wasn’t.

In the classic public outreach model, between the scientists and the final users (the readers) there are two further parties: the PR experts, who take the results from the scientists, value their newsworthiness and try to make an interesting and appealing story out of them; and the journalists to whom the PR experts pitch this story. In a typical scenario, a press release from a research institution triggers interest in a journalist, who then delves into the topic by reading the paper, interviewing scientists that were both involved and not involved in the study, and then writes an article. But not all these steps need be active for a piece of scientific research to reach the public. The best journalists don't usually wait for press releases and run their own investigations based on personal contacts and other tricks of the job; however, they seem to be a rare species these days. Today, with the tools of web 2.0, many researchers are directly present on the web (this blog is a clear example). This creates a direct link with either the journalists or the public and by-passes the official PR barrier (something that has pros and cons).

Claudia took this photo at an outreach event in Heidelberg in 2009.  If I claimed to know what is happening in the photo I would by lying; it would however make a great caption contest. Claudia's flickr account

There is material here for several other posts, and if readers are interested I'm happy to write more about the various aspects of this fascinating game. What I wish to highlight for now is that the black box that a piece of scientific research must go through before reaching the newspapers or the TV screens is quite complex. If you've played the telephone game (also called “chinese whispers”) you probably know how a message can be twisted when passing through a sequence of users. In addition to that, the various players in this chain work on extremely different time scales and schedules, are grounded in completely different working environments, and are usually motivated by very different agendas. Often, each player is also unaware of these differences. This could easily cause misunderstandings or even halt the flow of information, which could, in turn, have repercussions on the quality of the news. The final article may end up poorly researched or even contain factual errors; in many cases, it may simply focus on aspects that have been known within the community for ages rather than on what's really new. The typical reaction of a scientist who encounters such a piece of news is disappointment, if not outrage. I can understand these reactions – I've been there too, after all – but I now also see how they partly stem from the lack of knowledge, on the scientist's side, about the science communication process. I am not saying that we should accept factually wrong scientific news. On the contrary. I am just outlining the nature of this complex process to try and identify the possible sources of miscommunication and to improve the process for the future.

So my advice to all of you in the “trenches of discovery” is to get to know the PR experts of your research institution, talk to them and figure out what it is that they do, how and why. Tell them what you'd like them to do for you and, vice versa, ask them how you could help. Try to get to know the journalists who usually write about your field of research in your country/in your language, or at least try to learn more about how they work. Try to close the loop. And of course, try to get to know the “final users” of the news (practice at the Christmas table, although not a guarantee of success, it can only help).

This is my modest proposal, to start bringing all parties involved in the long chain of communication of scientific news closer to one another; hopefully this will, in the long run, produce less disappointment and more accurate, engaging and interesting information. Of course, this is just a very preliminary first step. What I would advocate for, eventually, is to include at least basic knowledge of the process of science communication in the formal training of researchers. This addition, along with a number of other subjects that are usually disregarded but I believe should be part of a scientist's education (history, philosophy and sociology of science; funding and labour issues in contemporary academia; etc.) can only improve the worldview of researchers, enhance their perspectives on science and society, and contribute to making the individuals who will work in tomorrow's “trenches of discovery” better rounded. Needless to say, science as a whole would benefit from this in countless ways.

About the author

Claudia Mignone is an astronomer and science writer who currently writes for the European Space Agency's Science and Technology website. After completing a PhD in astrophysics at the University of Heidelberg, she has been a science journalism intern in the education and public outreach department of the European Southern Observatory. More info about Claudia's current and previous work here

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