Standing up for Science: beating the silence

Author: Linda Wijlaars

There are a lot of scary things to face when doing a PhD: supervisor's ideas of 'normal' working hours, reviewers whose sole aim in life is to reject as many papers as possible, or the experimental equipment that only works when the right amount of Blu-Tack is in the right place and you karate chop the on-button. But possibly the scariest of all is the journalist.

This is why sense about science has set up their Standing up for Science media workshop: a one day workshop, specifically for early career scientists that gives a bit of insight into how science gets translated into news. It's a great workshop that combines a session of scientists talking about successful (and less successful) experiences with journalists, with a session of journalists talking about what they actually do during their busy days. But most of all, it gets us early career scientists away from our lab benches for a day to talk about why we think it is so scary in the first place.

Most of us grad students (and scientists in general) are funded by public money, so it is a reasonable expectation that we try to feed our results back to the public. That's easier said than done though. As scientists, we spend a lot of time getting the right results, and even more so, getting them just right on paper. Even though a scientific article might be only 3,000 words, it has to represent years of blood, sweat and tears.

So it might be understandable that we can be a bit hesitant when we have to hand this over to a journalist not familiar with our particular brand of science. We'll just have to stand by while they condense it into a catchy headline and accompanying article that is often shorter than any summary we could write ourselves. Everyone knows someone for whom this has gone horribly wrong. Stories abound about how a basic science paper on cells in a petri dish ended up promising to have found the cure-all pill for cancer, or how bacon is apparently responsible for doubling our (already 100%) risk of death.

It's great to hear from experienced people like Dr Deirde Hollingsworth and Prof Stephen Keevil that talking to media gets easier after a while, and that the mess-ups are rarely remembered by anyone but yourself. Even talking to a news outlet with a reputation like Fox News can be a good experience, according to Dr Emily So who talked to them live on air after the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami.

In the Q&A session afterwards, Dr Hollingsworth advises us not be afraid of silence (unless you're The Doctor, in which case you're right to be afraid). It's up to the journalist to ask questions, and if you try to fill the void you might end up saying things you didn't intend to.

The journalist session is equally enlightening. Jason Palmer (BBC), Richard Van Noorden (Nature) and Jane Symons (former health editor at the Sun) assure us they're not out to get us: they want to get the science right as much as we do. However, they do have a product to sell and a deadline to make (not to mention a mythical sleepy granny to keep awake), so it would be helpful to them if we do pick up the phone when they call. If we don't, they might go for someone even less qualified to answer their question.

Helpfully, sense about science has provided a booklet with some easy tips (and even a checklist) on talking to the media. Sense about science is organising the Standing up for Science workshop again in September (London) and in November (Glasgow).

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