🙌 10 ideas to spread the word about your science

Scientists often face difficulties when trying to explain complex research which is why Sparrho has been collaborating with young researchers to help them summarise their expertise in an engaging way. But what exactly are the challenges of communicating science? We asked a range of researcher and visitor at the New Scientist Live and collected the 10 best ideas for you to read below.

Science communicator explaining a technical device to a young person

1. Infect people with your passion

There are still a lot of stereotypes about scientists: one of the big ones is that scientists are lonely people who work on their own, but I think it’s one of the most collaborative careers you could think of. That feeling of joy that you get with science; that needs to come across in how we communicate what we do.

- Dr Radha Desai, Royal Society of Biology

Be passionate, because the second you feel really strongly about something you’ll infect other people, and that’s how it spreads. I love working with children because they are the group that share that passion the most naturally — they have all these questions about the world and all you need to do is feed them the possibility to find the answer.

- Faye Vogely, Science Communications Manager at British Trust for Ornithology

2. Learn from social media - be more public-friendly

I think social media — especially all the drama around fake news at the moment — can be quite a negative thing. We tend to speak in very precise terms and that doesn’t always capture the public imagination, and I think we have to get better at putting science facts across in a public-friendly way.

- Dr Kirsten Pullen, CEO of BIAZA

3. Engage with schools and young people

It’s difficult in this age of social media and sound bites, when a lot of science requires reasoned explanations as to exactly what’s going on and why: we struggle to transmit the broader picture when everything’s got to be immediate and under 40 characters. We’re trying to meet people in classrooms, and getting them involved and enthusiastic at an early age.

- Dr Andy Malcolm, computer scientist at the MET Office

“I was fortunate to come from a family of scientists, so I knew a lot about it, but a lot of people have never met scientists, have got no idea what it is like as a career. [We need to] go into low-income schools that aren’t likely to have been exposed to this sort of environment before.”

- Charlotte Hands, PhD student at Manchester Institute of Biotechnology

4. Step outside of your bubble 

“I’m really interested in communicating science because it’s something I’m so passionate about, and I want to share that with other people and get them energised about the questions we can answer — or try to answer and fail! Sometimes we preach to the choir a little bit — [we should be] talking to people from different walks of life and not just the middle-class, affluent, already-in-the-sciences community. We need to be more open with science — to widen our borders.”

- Dr. Cory Stade, PhD, University of Southampton

5. Talk about why your science is important 

“We’ve got to communicate the work that we do to wider society, because often [science is] speculative investment — people are putting money into scientific research and it’s not always immediately apparent what the benefits may be.

If you’re working on something that you’re passionate about then that comes across — if you can find what you’re really interested in and focus your communication around that, then you’ll enthuse people.”

- Mike Salter, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory electronic engineer

6. Understand your audience

“There’s a lot of people who don’t go and read science blogs, who never hear about science, and it’d be good to reach them. People are receptive and enjoy learning new things — especially things that are controversial or are in the news a lot. Make science accessible for your audience — understand their background, how much they know and what they want to learn. 

Make it interactive, make it hands-on — then people will remember. A lot of people get into science because of a teacher who was really passionate about it, or they see a side of it that they don’t normally see in school, so we should be trying to show people the ‘real’ side of it — the interesting side!”

- Charlotte Douglas + Heledd Davis, PhD and postdoc researchers at The Francis Crick Institute

“People often get hung up on the idea that science communication is standing in front of a classroom of children and presenting your work using smokes and explosions… actually, that doesn’t work for everybody. There’s so many more different kinds of communication out there.”

- Dr Hazel Gibson, postdoctoral fellow at Plymouth University

7. If people challenge you, they are interested

“We’re all facing this challenge of people getting tired of experts, because people have been quite rightly empowered to ask questions and to distrust what they are fed by the media.

That can lead to scepticism about the motives of scientists and what they’re doing. Putting the facts across isn’t enough anymore — half the battle is convincing people that they need to read that stuff in the first place, or that they can ask questions and challenge it.”

- Sarah Day, Earth Science Communicator at Geological Society of London

8. Encourage critical interpretation of science

“A lot of the science that is dished out to the public is based on associations. Even experts forget that you have to wait for mechanisms that demonstrate causation before [research] is published. That’s why people distrust experts — because one day we say ‘eating this is good for you’ and the next ‘eating this is bad for you’. Why? Because people are basing research on associations.

We think that once there is a consensus about something, that’s it — but consensus cannot be taken as fact. How we acquire knowledge is not taught in school — we are just taught knowledge. If we realise that, we will have fewer problems in communicating science.”

- Ken Raj, Scientific Group Leader at Public Health England

“Without a philosophical background in science, science will play to the hands of whoever is in power. [You get] the power of interpretation not necessarily by knowing ‘facts’, [but by] having a philosophy: understanding what complexity looks like, knowing that however rational we get we’re not going to solve everything because the world is not rational.

We shouldn’t necessarily believe somebody who says they’ve got an answer in five minutes. And we shouldn’t necessarily trust a political party that expects answers to come in five minutes. So, even before the teaching of science, I think it would be really good if we taught more philosophy and critical interpretation of science. We need some bedrock.”

- Simon Ings, author & Arts Editor of New Scientist

9. Come at science from a different angle

“Often some of the biggest leaps are made by the biggest twists in thinking: if you can get people from outside the specialist field understanding the information that’s being presented, they might come at it from a slightly different angle.

How do we communicate these ideas to children? Children have far fewer preconceived ideas, they haven’t had certain rules drummed into them yet, and if we can express the data and the discoveries in a format that children can understand, I think children genuinely could start asking some of the questions that could give [us] an alternative viewpoint.”

- Henry Vowden, Key Advertising Account Manager at New Scientist

10. Collaborate across disciplines

“I’m particularly interested in science-art crossovers, people that are using poetry or performance art or dance or painting or quilting or cross-stitch to communicate their science — it might not feel like science communication, because you’re not standing in front of a classroom, but it’s just as important.”

- Dr Hazel Gibson, postdoctoral fellow at Plymouth University

“Getting scientists to work with artists, to work with musicians, to work with authors or journalists — all these people who have different life experiences and would have a different understanding of the applications of something — I think ideas might come out of that.”

- Henry Vowden, Key Advertising Account Manager at New Scientist


by Sparrho

Steve, the sparrow, represents contributions from the Sparrho Team and our expert researchers. We accredit external contributors where appropriate.