More Bill Nyes needed

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“How to Talk about Science,” a conference hosted by the Centre for Biomedical Research at UVic from May 25–27, provided a thought-provoking look into the realm of science communication. Presenters from an array of backgrounds, from educators and communication professionals to journalists, all provided a consistent message: scientists need to be able to convey their work to the public.

Dr. E. Paul Zehr, director of the Centre, says the conference exceeded his expectations, and that he enjoyed seeing not just scientists but journalists attending as well.

“It was very interesting because it suggests how everybody at every level realizes that communicating science is something that’s got to be done more, and better, by people that are engaged in the enterprise and by people on the media side,” says Zehr.

One topic raised at the conference is the connection scientists need to cultivate with journalists.

“We all need each other,” says Zehr. “The media needs content, and scientists talking about their work want to communicate to the general public and want to get those messages across, because that’s why they did their work; it’s to make a difference in the world, and you can’t make a difference in the world if nobody knows about what you did.”

Dr. Jennifer Gardy, a speaker at the conference, is no stranger to mass communication. She has hosted episodes of the long-running CBC series The Nature of Things. While she contends that scientists generally need to have an outgoing personality like hers in order to succeed in the media, she has suggestions for the less outgoing people in the field.

“No matter what your personality is — you could be boring, dry as a dish rag, shy — if you can explain your science in a really clear and concise way, using language that’s accessible to everybody, that’s 75 per cent of the battle,” says Gardy. “Give it a little life and make it engaging by telling the journey. Throw in some personal anecdotes. Say why you did this.”

Christie Nicholson, another speaker at the conference, produces and hosts Scientific American’s 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science podcasts. She suggests an unorthodox method of training scientists to become better communicators — improv theatre lessons, an idea thought of by Alan Alda of M*A*S*H fame.

“He thought it would make and help scientists come out of their formal shells,” says Nicholson. “The formality and the jargon of science kind of gets removed.”

Nicholson is also interested in how new communication technology, especially tablet computers such as Apple’s iPad, will affect how science is being taught.

“The most important thing about tablets is that there’s actually, for lack of a better word, an ergonomic change,” says Nicholson. “They call it the lean-back effect. It just feels more like a magazine or book. That’s primarily the reason why it’s going to take off so much — you can curl up with it on the sofa.”

What concerns Nicholson, however, is how online media can affect viewers’ attention spans, an ailment she suggests could be alleviated by creating more engaging stories.

“For whatever reason, on the web we’re not programmed the way we are on television to sit there for an hour,” says Nicholson. “The only thing I can think of that’s going to help expand the attention span with video is that we make it become a sort of super-storyteller.”

Zehr agrees with Nicholson, suggesting that communicating, whether for science or for journalism, is about narrative.

“That’s what all this communication comes down to — how do we use it to tell stories?” says Zehr.

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