Assessing contemporary science
Assessing contemporary science

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Assessing contemporary science

5 Communicating contemporary science

Communication is a vital component in the process that enables citizens and other stakeholders to engage with and evaluate contemporary science. Indeed, it is at the heart of scientific progress and public debate.

Sir Paul Nurse's advice to journalists in the previous section came, in part, as a response to an example where the communication of scientific information was deemed to have gone badly wrong. That example involved a now discredited suggestion, made at a press conference in 1998 by former doctor Andrew Wakefield, that the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination might be implicated as a cause of autism, as he had recently reported (Wakefield et al., 1998).

Study note 3 Further study about the vaccination controversy

If you wish to learn more about the MMR vaccination controversy that was fueled by Wakefield’s comments, you can study another OpenLearn course ‘The MMR vaccine: Public health, private fears [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ’. (Be aware that studying this course in its entirety would involve around 20 hours of study time.)

How, then, do scientists communicate with other scientists and members of the public when debates about the science in question are less heated?

Activity 5 Communicating and engaging with contemporary science

Timing: Allow about 25 minutes

Listen now to another interview conducted by Richard Holliman, in which he speaks to Victoria (Vic) Pearson. In this interview, Vic discusses her involvement in science communication and engagement as a research scientist working in the School of Physical Sciences at The Open University.

As you listen, make some notes on the following questions, in the box below the audio clip.

  • In what ways does Vic communicate science? Of these, which does she consider to be the most important, and why?
  • How does Vic define the role of a reviewer of scientific papers and other forms of scientific output? How does she evaluate the quality of scientific evidence in her discipline?
  • In what ways does Vic engage different stakeholders and members of the public with her science? Of these, which does she consider to be the most important, and why?
  • What are some of the benefits and drawbacks that Vic discusses in relation to communicating her science to, and engaging with, various members of the public?
Download this audio clip.Audio player: Audio 5
Skip transcript: Audio 5 Richard Holliman interviews Vic Pearson.

Transcript: Audio 5 Richard Holliman interviews Vic Pearson.

Hi. My name is Richard Holliman and I’m one of the Block 1 authors on S350 Evaluating contemporary science.
I’m here today with Vic Pearson, who works in the School of Physical Sciences at The Open University.
We’re here to discuss Vic’s involvement in science communication and engagement as a research scientist.
Vic, in what ways do you communicate science and of these, which do you consider to be the most important and why?
I think the most important way that scientists communicate with other scientists is through the academic journal article.
So, publishing in journals in their own discipline, or in the all-important publishing in Science or Nature if you can achieve that.
But there’s other ways that we communicate too. So, I’ve also written technical reports that are seen by scientists and people in industry, based on work that we’ve done.
And we spend a lot of our time going to conferences where you’ll either present a presentation, or present a poster.
And I have to say I find a poster to be a more beneficial way of presenting science, because it means that you can actually talk to people on a one-to-one basis, and have a much longer discussion.
It’s much more interactive…
It’s much more interactive yeah. So a talk, you’re more likely to stand up and get somebody questioning you after your ten minutes who largely just wants to publicise what they’ve done in the field, rather than contribute to your research.
You mentioned two journals there, and alluded to the fact that they may have been the pinnacle, if you like – Science and Nature – everybody wants to publish in Science and Nature.
So, there’s a kind of issue there about quality of research, so I’m kind of interested in how do you evaluate the quality of scientific research in your discipline?
I think the first thing you look at is which journal is it published in, and I must admit that, if you work in a particular discipline, Science and Nature are the pinnacle.
But most papers are published in other journals, and which are not necessarily easier to publish in, but they publish more papers that are relevant to your own discipline.
So the first thing you’d look at is, ‘Where are they from?’ And then if I’m evaluating evidence in a paper I’d first look at the methodology. So, does their methodology meet the research question that they want to ask?
And then I start to drill down into the methods. Have they used the right instruments? Have they got the right approach? Have they got the right number of samples? So looking largely at experimental design.
And then from that do they actually have results that are reliable? Are they accurate? Are they reproducible? And then, do they actually answer the research question?
And, I think once you’ve got the handle on how reliable the data might be, then you start to look at whether or not they’re using information from other sources to support their conclusions.
You can’t really make a conclusion just based on the data in one paper. Nobody would do that. It’s got to have results brought in from elsewhere to support their conclusions. So, I think that’s broadly how I’d review it.
So you’ve given us some lovely examples of how you work as a reviewer to evaluate contemporary science, and noted the importance of publication in science as a way of furthering science.
I’m interested now in how you communicate and engage with different audiences, so different stakeholders and members of the public. Could you give us some examples of that?
I have spent quite a lot of time talking to school children, and members of the general public, and I feel quite passionate about that.
So that can be anything from delivering a lecture or a talk to a class of school children, or I’ve been into primary schools where we do hands on, very fun activities to engage them with the science, not necessarily with them even realising it.
We’ve also got activities to talk to A-Level students where they’ve already made a choice about their career, and it’s more about enrichment and giving them an additional dimension to what they’re studying.
But I think one important part is also communicating with teachers. Communicating with students is great because it’s depending on which level they’re at. It’s about inspiring them, or it’s about encouraging them to a scientific career, or just about ensuring that they understand what science is, and what science is about. But teachers also need to be able to keep their teaching materials up to date.
So, I think it’s important that they have exposure to some of the contemporary science that’s going on today.
So, if you like, it’s helping them with both content and skills development, and making sense of what science and how it’s changing.
Yes, absolutely, because they will not necessarily have the time. Like the rest of us, they’re under pressure in terms of time, and so it’s a great opportunity, if somebody like me, or you, or anyone else in the faculty is able to go in and talk to their kids, they’ll pick something up at the same time.
You’ve given us a kind of overview of the work you do to communicate with academic scientists, and a brief overview of some of the work in working with members of the public and different stakeholders.
So I’m kind of curious about what you see as some of the benefits and drawbacks of this, kind of, pretty comprehensive set of activities.
So, I think the huge benefit to me is I really enjoy doing it. It’s really enjoyable. Yeah, we could spend all of our time at university in the lab or at our desk or in meetings, but actually going out and talking to people and telling them how passionate you are about your science is the best part of the job, I think. It also helps to raise the profile of your work.
Okay. So, are there any drawbacks?
Yeah, it takes a lot of time. It can be really time consuming, because it’s not just going into a school for an hour to do an activity. It’s the planning that you do before hand, and that’s on top of teaching and research commitments and other commitments that you might have at work.
It’s also quite difficult to persuade people when it doesn’t bring in cash, that it’s a good thing to do. So, we’re always looking at where to get more finances from.
There are public engagement grants that can support going into schools, or work with the general public, or other particular groups, which is one way of doing that.
But I suppose an altruistic way of looking at it is that we should just do it.
I guess another disadvantage, or drawback, is that some people do it who aren’t good at doing it. So, there’s swings and roundabouts. And I guess in some respects it’s self-selecting.
I mean, I certainly feel part of the agenda in this is sorting the wheat from the chaff if you like, saying, ‘You do this really well’, and supporting them effectively. But maybe that’s a conversation for another day.
So, I’ll say thanks Vic.
You’re welcome.
End transcript: Audio 5 Richard Holliman interviews Vic Pearson.
Audio 5 Richard Holliman interviews Vic Pearson.
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Vic Pearson is a senior scientist with a wide range of experience in science communication and engagement.

In terms of science communication, she emphasises the importance of peer-reviewed academic research papers, both as a vehicle for science to progress and as a driver for career progression.

She notes that some academic journals are considered better quality than others, arguing that Science and Nature are two of the most prestigious journals to publish findings from scientific research.

Vic also discusses other routine forms of science communication, including poster presentations at academic conferences, and technical reports. In each case, the form of communication is targeted at a particular audience.

Vic goes on to describe her role as a formal and informal reviewer of other scientists’ work. You should be aware that scientists also informally review scientific information once it is published, as readers of newly-published research findings.

In essence, Vic goes through the same process whether she is formally or informally reviewing a paper. She systematically assesses each element of a scientific paper, starting with the methodology, matching this with the research design, and assessing the findings and the interpretations.

The discussion moves on at this point to consider how Vic engages non-academic groups with her science. Again, she lists a diverse set of activities, delivered to audiences that include school children and teachers. One of the key rationales for her work in this area is to keep young people and teachers up to date with cutting-edge research (Holliman et al., 2017), which is important because new research is being published all the time. In this respect, she reflects the findings of work conducted to explore the attitudes, culture and ethos of physical science researchers (Duncan et al., 2016).

Finally, Vic describes some of the benefits and drawbacks of her communication and engagement work. She is clearly passionate and enthusiastic about the need to work with public audiences, but also notes the time required to do this effectively. Again, this challenge reflects the findings of research conducted to explore the challenges and motivations of researchers as they seek to engage with members of the public (Grand et al., 2015).

This is made all the more challenging because this type of work doesn’t generate the same level of funding as research. It follows that engagement activities can fall down the priority list. This challenge can be exacerbated because, unlike research, there are few widely accepted criteria for what counts as excellent work in this area (Holliman and Davies, 2015).

Vic’s consumption of science news allows her to keep informed of developments outside of her specific scientific discipline. In this respect, she’s acting less as a scientist and more as a citizen interested in the sciences. What role then does science news, and therefore journalism, play in keeping citizens up to speed with developments in the sciences? This will be explored in the next section.

Study note 4 Learning more about science promotion

If you are interested in Vic’s research, you can use the following link to see her Open University profile and learn more about her recent work: Vic Pearson.

Similarly, if you are particularly interested in exploring approaches to science communication and engagement, you can study these issues in more detail with another OpenLearn course, ‘Science promotion’. (Be aware that studying this course in its entirety would involve around 12 hours of study time.)


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