I’ve wanted to visit the Wellcome collection for some time. Its array of medical-related curiosities has always appealed to me but, so far, I’ve been unlucky in that it’s been closed each time I’ve been in the area. On the 12th November 2019 I finally got to step inside… this was for a unique conference, hosted by Voice of Young Science. The exhibits will have to wait yet again… but I had a great day learning how to make sure scientific evidence is given due attention in our society. 

The day was structured around panel discussions, and the first was hosted by Prof Jim Smith, a professor of environmental science at the University of Portsmouth, Dr Janet Bultitude, a senior lecturer in cognitive psychology at the University of Bath, and Dr Craig Prescott, a senior lecturer in law at the University of Winchester. It was about science in the media, and how we as scientists can relate to and engage with the way science is reported to the public.

The challenges and importance of reporting uncertainties and risks were quickly brought up. This was interesting to me as a medical physicist, where explaining risks in understandable terms is central to my role. The public needs to grasp the level of confidence that researchers have in their conclusions, in the same way that patients need to understand the risks associated with their medical imaging: in context, with the odds explained relative to other more well-known factors. I think this is really important; you only have to look at a few of the sensationalised headlines claiming cures for all cancers based on one very small, niche study to appreciate the need for clearer explanations of probability, certainty and scalability. (Or just have a quick giggle through @justsaysinmice)…    

It’s often emotion that drives someone to click on such sensational headlines – they cause a gut reaction that makes us feel excited, hopeful, intrigued or even disgusted. When talking to journalists as scientists, the panel advised us to listen to the motives behind questions. Often, the specific questions asked are not hugely important – people will want to know the core of your work; the thing that applies to their day to day life; the thing that tells a good story and expresses the heart of why you do the science you do. The art of a tangent away from a particularly specific question, into the heart of your message, is a good one to practice! 

Getting your science reported in the media is a great way to influence people’s opinions and decisions. The next session of the day took this a step further; how to influence policy-makers and ensure scientific evidence is being consulted by decision-makers at the highest levels. This conversation was led by Tom Sasse, a senior researcher at the Institute for Government, the Rt Hon Stephen Timms, the Labour parliamentary candidate for East Ham), and Dr Olivia Stevenson, head of public policy at UCL. 

This session highlighted the importance of engaging with policy-makers and government when research has a bearing on specific wider issues. A great example was given of a study from 2015 assessing the impact of nurses visiting patients’ homes on public health. This was presented to government and was later adopted as standard policy.

After lunch, it was back to media engagement with a panel of journalists sharing what they look for when reporting on science. This was led by Angela Saini, a journalist, broadcaster and author, Tom Chivers, a science writer, Danny Mitchell, an account manager at LEWIS Global Communications and former journalist, and Caroline Brogan, a research media officer at Imperial College London. 

This session was engaging and reiterated some of the ideas from the first discussion of the morning. It emphasised the importance of relationships and trust between scientists and journalists; they need to have faith in what you are saying as a credible expert in your field. The panel also gave advice for connecting with an audience, emphasising the importance of considering the reaction you want to what you’re about to say. I particularly liked Tom Chivers’ comment that, “You should never overestimate your reader’s knowledge but you should never underestimate your reader’s intelligence.”

The day ended with each of us considering our own responsibility to ‘Stand Up for Science’. We were encouraged to discuss our own work and how we could use that to communicate and connect with the wider world. We used the ‘zooming out’ technique, which involved taking successive steps back from our specialist field to identify broader topics we could individually comment or advise on. I found this a brilliant tool to acknowledge and appreciate the breadth of my expertise, encourage me to speak out more confidently and challenge the imposter syndrome that was already running high as I sat with my BSc in a room full of pHd students!

It was a really interesting day. I met such a wide variety of scientists, working across many fields, all with a shared enthusiasm for getting their science ‘out there’ and making a difference to the world and society we live in. I’m very much one for appreciating the applications of science (surprise, surprise, I’ve gone into a job where I can apply physics to medical treatment each day!) and this workshop broadened my perspective on how all kinds of science can really impact people. 

Science is important; it is one of the best tools we have for learning more about the world, learning how best to live our lives and deciding how best to run our country. It is our responsibility to challenge misinformation and champion evidence in everyday life. Sense about Science is doing a great job at sharing this message, and equipping scientists and non-scientists alike to do just that. 

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