The world seems very different today than it did a month ago. One thing that has been incredible to see is the dramatic increase in the visibility of science alongside policy making. We witnessed the Government Chief Scientific Adviser and the Chief Medical Officer standing either side of the Prime Minister at the initial announcements of the UK’s measures to tackle COVID-19. Since those initial announcements there have been few news stories that haven’t referenced a key figure in the medical and/or science worlds for their insights into what is happening and what may happen with the virus, but also what is going to happen in current and new policy, and what that means for life in the UK.
A month ago, in the days of build up to this very different way of life that we find ourselves in currently, I was part of the Royal Society’s annual parliamentary pairing scheme. The scheme selects a number of scientists from across the UK and brings them to London and pairs them with parliamentarians and civil servants during a ‘week in Westminster’. For scientists it’s an opportunity to get a first-hand view of how government and parliament work, for parliamentarians it’s a chance to engage with science that has a bearing on the myriad issues that they face every day, and for civil servants it’s a way of building connections into the science world to access research that is relevant to their and their department’s work. It’s was an exciting prospect and the scheme certainly delivered.
It was a fascinating week in many different ways, and my main reflection in the days and weeks that have followed has been on our responsibility as scientists. We need to be making sure that we are communicating our research in ways that are not only accessible and that meet current challenges, but to do that in a way that gets the science into the hands of those that can use it to make evidence-based decisions that impact our country and our world.
Our current situation in the UK as we face COVID-19 is a stark reminder that making sure good science gets out into world is always important. Even though this has always been the case perhaps the legacy of 2020 will be to make it increasingly so. COVID-19 promises to change the world, it may change how we work, how we relate in communities, how we look after the isolated and vulnerable, how we support our health services. Whatever happens in the future, this is almost certainly going to be a significant historical landmark that is already disrupting the status quo. We are becoming more resourceful about how we connect and relate to one another. It’s changing how we achieve our roles in the home, the wider family, and in the workplace. It’s also impacting how we consider our own identities as those different roles merge in both time and space.
In all of this change, upheaval and disruption, it is undeniably uncomfortable, and it’s important to acknowledge that we are living in a time where real tragedies are unfolding hour by hour in our world. But one thing is for sure, disruptions can provide new opportunities to be creative in seeing what could be possible going forward. As scientists we have an opportunity to change and develop how we communicate our science. This is the time for science and policy to develop closer and more synergetic links, and to embed an ongoing conversation in to how we design and deliver our research, and how policy is developed. In part 2 of this blog I share five reflections from my time on the Royal Society’s pairing scheme for how we as scientists can embrace this new opportunity and get science out in to the world in a way that makes the most of the new opportunities that are emerging, and helps us address the big challenges the world faces together.
Five ways to communicate science in a post-pandemic world
During my time on the Royal Society’s pairing scheme in March 2020, we had opportunities to get the insider view on parliament and government, and also to get to know a broad range of fellow scientists from across the UK (see part I of this blog). We also had a great team from the Royal Society working with us and giving us insights into their world of bridging gaps and pioneering cutting edge research. It was a packed week and one that gave me a huge amount of food for thought. Here are five reflections from my time on the scheme about how as scientists we can develop a different mindset when it comes to communicating our science in a responsive way to a post pandemic world.
1. Know your audience
Different people in different roles will have different drivers. They will have different pressures on their time and on the goals they are seeking to achieve, and almost everyone has a boss, or a board that they have to answer to. It’s also helpful to remember that everyone is human, and it is human nature to look for the quick and easy high impact wins that meet those pressures and/or goals. So, knowing who you are communicating with is really important for working out how to frame and deliver what you want to say. So spend some time getting to know:
- The environment within a particular government department or within parliament. The way we work and make decisions comes down to how individuals work and make decisions of course, but we are all significantly impacted by the organisational structures and ways of doing things that we work within. It can be a bit daunting but there are lots of amazing resources out there to help such as POST for parliament and GO Science for government.
- The agenda, vision, and goals of a department or key individual. This will really help you work out whether the science you’re doing could help them, and if so the best frame for it that will ensure it is received positively.
2. Give headlines
We’ve all had that email that comes relatively out of the blue from someone asking us for something. How often are those emails long, almost always with a preamble that sets the scene (who they are, what they do, the project they are working on) and by paragraph 4 or 5 in the midst of the detail there might be the ‘ask’ – what they would like from you. In contrast think of that time when you had a short snappy email, where in the first (short) paragraph the sender explained what they were hoping you would do for them with clear parameters (such as when they need it by and in what format). There may well have been more detail and context after that but you can now read it knowing why it’s been provided. Parliamentarians, civil servants (and scientists!) are far more likely to read a short snappy email or brief if they know why they are reading it. Headlines are so important – how would you know what to read on your news feed without a headline? Conversely, when did you last see ‘TLDR’ in a comment board? Make your briefing or email stand out from the crowd, and give the headline.
3. Distil, distil, distil
Parliamentarians and civil servants, like many people, work in an environment where there are lots of voices and narratives, needs and deadlines, the urgent and the important. It can be very hard to cut through and be heard. Again the news industry has nailed this. They are the experts at getting specific stories ‘out there’ and talked about. There are some stories that seem to get a huge amount of bandwidth, that capture the world’s attention and run for weeks. Then there are others that never see the light of day. How do news outlets create a story? They have a pithy headline that draws your attention initially, but they also distil the story into very simple easy to digest components. The main point of the story is in the first line or two, with more detail and context provided in the rest of the article. It’s a formula that means that the reader can absorb the story in one (often cursory) glance.
As a scientist you’ll probably have seen a science news story that once you’ve read it you think ‘yes, but it’s not quite that simple’ or ‘yes, but there’s a lot more to this, they’ve missed out four or five key issues that are rather important’. But it’s here that I think we need to be mindful as scientists.
If we want to get the ‘story’ of our science out there, it is going to need us to distil it down to its essential parts. That’s quite scary because it will almost certainly mean losing a lot of the detail, but the key is doing that without compromising the heart of the science finding. This takes practice and ruthless editing. Is there a key stat that sums up the scale or impact of the problem, or makes it clear why the time for action is now?
If the answer is no, it might mean working out how to do a piece of research to produce that stat because it doesn’t currently exist (see this paper that we published to explain the size of the issue of the misinterpretation of evidence in the Court of Appeal – we showed that 22% of upheld cases at the Court of Appeal 2010-2016 had misinterpreted criminal evidence; or this one where we examined the state of national level funding in Forensic Science 2009-2018 to identify that only 0.03% of national research funding was being dedicated to foundational forensic science research). Having a number related to a specific example means that your audience doesn’t have to absorb a conceptual idea. The stat embodies the idea and puts flesh on the bones, ultimately it gives something very tangible (and easy to remember) to work with. This may sound a bit drastic, but the fruit of that labour is potentially incredible if it gets your great science heard, known about, or even better still, taken into consideration and informing a new policy, or getting an important issue on the right agenda.
Remember step 1 is to get your science noticed by cutting through the noise. If you can get the right person’s attention, there will then be time to have a proper conversation where you can thrash out the details.
4. Be creative
Parliamentarians and civil servants are juggling many different things at the same time, they have a large remit and lots of demands on them from different quarters. In this noisy and usually fast paced environment, only clear, pithy, and critically, well-timed messages are likely to have traction. So, make sure to do your homework:
- Identify who is most likely to have an agenda that could be helped by the science that you’re doing, or the latest finding you’ve generated.
- Create a bespoke one-page (or shorter!) summary that gives a headline and a short summary of the science and how it syncs with their agenda, or how it could help them achieve their goals.
- With a one-page summary, your initial email can then be very brief with just the main point you want to get across.
- Don’t just stick to text, are there other media that could get the message across quickly, succinctly and engagingly? Is there already a YouTube clip or animation out there that summarises the challenge in seconds that you can direct your reader to so that your one-page summary can focus on other important details?
- Don’t just send your latest academic paper – it’s very unlikely to be read if it’s the first thing to land on your intended audience’s desk, and even if it is, it is unlikely that they will be able to easily and quickly ‘join the dots’ from your science finding(s) to their agenda in 2 minutes. These guys are good, but they are also human.
5. Be aware of the political cycles
One of the big differences between the world of science and the worlds of parliament and government is the impact of the political cycle. There’s no doubt it impacts science, particularly in terms of funding, but it’s arguably the north star for parliament and government, permeating everything. In science we’re generally looking to establish broad generalisable theories and patterns that can impact short term behaviours (such as establishing that smoking is not good for your health) and also be a foundation for long term change (such as figuring out key drivers of climate change and how to minimise their impact over the next 100 years).
So, a really important thing to build into our communication is how short-term political cycles can contribute to those longer-term agendas. Is there a short-term issue that can act as a hook to get attention for the research that you’re doing? Is there a way of framing that research to address a short-term need that could then be developed once the conversation has started with that key person or department?
The political cycle will also mean that departments evolve in response to the changes in government, and members of parliament will take on different roles. It could be that the key person you’re working with moves on and you need to develop a new relationship. This takes a mindset of perseverance, it is unlikely to only take one approach, it may take several over a period of months or years. The best way to do this will depend on your area and what you’re trying to share, but factor it into your thinking and ultimate actions.
My overarching reflections from the time on the Royal Society’s scheme (as well as other interactions with government and parliament over the last few years) is that we have people in parliament and government who really do care passionately about making things better for their constituents, for the country, and for the world. As scientists we have a really exciting part to play if we can communicate what we’re discovering and make it easy for them to use their influence for good.
We are in a time when the status quo is no longer set in stone. We have opportunities as scientists to be a part of shaping the new ‘normal’ if we can communicate the value and importance of science and package it in a way that makes it easy to be infused and incorporated into policy and practice. It’s perhaps quite fitting to take a lesson from history: audentes fortuna iuvat (fortune favours the bold).