Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Master class in science communication or how to be more like Brian Cox

The launch session of the Innovation Convention exhorted us to take young people seriously - where will the innovation come from if not from them? So working on that basis, young people also need to learn to tell everyone about their ideas effectively, from the general public, to policy makers to their peers.

Hence a master class in science communication yesterday afternoon, with two masters in the form of Claudie Haignere, a doctor, politician, former astronaut and current President of Universcience in Paris, and Leo Enright, Chairman of Discover Science and Engineering, Ireland. The pupils were there to bring their problems and questions to the rest of the panel. Enright started with an apology for not being Brian Cox, well known commentator on astrophysics and ambassador for CERN, who had originally been part of the programme. Assessing the eminent Prof Cox’s appeal to the media in rather tongue in cheek fashion, Enright made the point that the key was probably Cox’s genuine enthusiasm for his subject and his credibility as a scientist. “Good science and good communication may not always go together in your field,” he said, “but if you find the right communicator, it pays off to be sincere, be yourself and get past your nerves.”

As a journalist, he also noted what he called the collapse in the business model for journalism. Staff science correspondents are increasingly rare in the US, for example, where the Texan Houston Chronicle apparently no longer has a dedicated space reporter. Houston we indeed have a problem. An interesting point given the current crisis in the British press surrounding the Leveson inquiry – fewer stories based on phone hacking might leave more space for science journalism perhaps?

Pupil Jeremy Wilks of EuroNews reported that his hardest challenge is to make the science look and sound good for a TV audience. Credibility is key, he’s not looking for soundbites, he needs his featured scientists to talk naturally and honestly about their research. Not to forget also giving air to what went wrong along the way and the problems they successfully solved. Scientists shouldn’t pretend science has all the answers - they need to get across that they, and science, are still learning. Good advice!

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