A Science Graduate in the PR World
by Laura Faulkner
A well-known British scientist and TV presenter was once a lecturer at my university. While he was popular on TV, through talking to other students – and even from some passing remarks from other lecturers – I got the impression that although he did have the requisite qualifications (he was a professor after all), he wasn’t thought of much academically. Had he sacrificed his scientific credibility in his pursuit of communicating to the masses?
In general, there are two ways scientists look at explaining science to the layman. Some do not enjoy the process – they begrudgingly see their work as being ‘dumbed down’ to the point where it is so loaded with generalisations that it’s almost as if nothing new has been discovered at all. Others do see the value of it, if done right. For them, science communication is an important end point of their research – after all, a lot of it is publicly funded through tax dollars these days and the public demands bang for their bucks. Many people in the US scientific community came round to this view in 1993 when Congress decided to shut down the ‘Superconducting Super Collider’ project. They thought this was the wrong decision and blamed the public’s lack of awareness and indifference on the matter as a major reason why the off switch was flicked.
Coming from a background in Medical Biochemistry, I can see both perspectives. And entering the PR and communications industry, I sense the frustration that some researchers perhaps feel when trying to explain to the public exactly why their seemingly ultra-niche findings are so important.
Firstly, to the scientist, everything is relevant – from how the research was conducted to the minutiae of the raw data. When writing an academic paper everything is carefully built up in a case for why the research is significant and how it fits in with already established concepts.
Secondly, after you’ve managed to narrow down the one thing that seems to be significant, then comes the problem of words. No word I thought of could possibly replace ‘phylogeny’ without it losing its full meaning (phylogeny means the evolution of a genetically related group of organisms as distinguished from the development of the individual organism – which is at least 14 words too many).
But at the end of the day, science needs to be made accessible to the public. For example, many people are unaware that antibiotics can’t be used to cure viral illnesses, and as a result may demand antibiotics for every cough and cold. This is a misconception that has contributed in some way or another to the antibiotic resistance phenomenon that has garnered greater attention in recent years.
So as a science graduate now working in PR, I saw the challenge. Here are some tips I’ve found that have helped:
Find the relevant angle
In his memoirs, Julian Huxley recounted the advice given to him by HG Wells while they were writing The Science of Life: “The reader for whom you are writing is just as intelligent as you are but does not possess your store of knowledge”.
During university, my fellow housemates were not science students, but I knew what they were interested in and the general extent of their scientific knowledge. So when talking to them about ghrelin, a hormone that is released when your body needs more food (i.e. the ‘hunger hormone’), I related it to their weight loss and exercise regimes and how it can make you more impulsive at certain times during the day.
Looking at it through the eyes of your audience helps to bring to the fore what is needed from the sea of information available. Once it is relevant, then it has the chance of being interesting.
Make it human
Another way is to humanise the science. Having a case study of even one person who has been affected by the discovery or technology you’re trying to publicise goes a long way in showing why people should care. When working with some of our clients, we always stress the importance of having an interview with not just the researchers but also someone who has benefited from the research – for instance a patient who has taken the medication, or an elderly man whose life has been made easier through a new wearable technology.
Always think about headlines. “How a pill saved my life” goes a longer way than “Scientists develop pill based on newly discovered chemical pathway in cancer”.
There are some stunning visuals in science, and statistics can make powerful messages. Using these to supplement write-ups on processes or concepts helps illustrate (literally) the concepts to the public in fewer words. And if used well, they can help the audience to understand faster.
Take obesity and its link to cancer:
There are several explanations behind the increased risk of cancer among obese individuals, however the underlying mechanism is that extra fat cells lead to the production of excessive amounts of hormones such as insulin, oestrogen, and other growth promoting factors in our body. This causes cells to replicate and divide uncontrollably and leads to cancerous cells being produced. Cancerous cells will then continue to proliferate and create a tumour. Or to put it another way:
(Credit: Cancer Research UK)
There are challenges in communicating scientific research – at the core of it, both researchers and the public have different interests and levels of knowledge regarding the subject matter. But there is real value in communicating science if you can find a way to bridge the two communities – and that’s why I chose to enter the communications industry instead of continuing on to do pure research.