The worlds of science and journalism don’t always have the same priorities. The work of a chemist is slow and careful, and the work of a journalist is immediate and designed to grab attention. Those differences can create difficulties for chemists looking to draw attention to their research. That’s why science communication is so important.
ACS On Campus held a webinar on December 13 titled Science Communication: How to Talk to Journalists About Your Research. It featured Dr. Pete Licence, Chemistry Professor at the University of Nottingham, and Associate Editor, ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering; Emma Stoye, senior science correspondent, Chemistry World; Dr. Lauren Wolf, deputy editorial director and science-desk executive editor, Chemical & Engineering News.
Science Communication for the Research Chemist
It’s important for chemists to talk to journalists about their work, and know how to get their message across effectively, Licence said. Not only is it important for researchers to spread the word about their work, to gain notoriety, secure funding or even impact the work of other scientists, but also to educate the public about the importance of science, inform the public debate, and allow the public to see how scientists are using research funds.
“In many ways as scientists, we’ve been selected, trained and are now trusted to look after the public investment, to look after the support that funds our research,” Licence said.
When giving an interview, it’s best to be well practiced. Licence said it’s important to take time to prepare the main messages you want to get across, come up with some memorable quotes the reporter can use, and give examples that the public can connect with. Know what your message is, know the key points you need to make, know your audience, and don’t speak outside of your expertise. License also recommended anticipating questions that might come up, so that you can provide accurate and concise answers.
Science Communication the Reporter’s Point of View
Stoye believes that science works best when lots of people know about it. Scientists write their papers for other scientists to read, but it’s up to journalists to translate the research for broader audiences. And since so much scientific research is publicly funded, the public should understand that the work they support is doing.
First, get your research into the right hands, by contacting your press office, using social media, or directly approaching news outlets about your work. Reporters work on irregular deadlines, which can present a challenge, but researchers should make themselves available for interviews when possible, she said. It’s helpful when researchers assume a very basic knowledge for reporters, even the more specialized ones.
“It’s always better to hear somebody explain something in their own words, and you will never ever be criticized for being too clear,” said Stoye.
Journalists are trying to connect the readers with the work that you are doing, so it can help if you highlight the human side of your research – perhaps a personal experience story that relates to the work you have done.
An Editor’s Take on Science Communication
By talking to a journalist, the researcher has a greater degree of control over the story, said Wolf. Part of that is knowing the rules of an interview.
Reporters generally will have a voice recorder for your conversation. They want to be able to go back later and listen to the exact words you said to make sure they are reporting on you accurately. Wolf said that a reporter should always ask for your consent before recording an interview.
After that, you must consider everything you say as on record. If you wish to make a comment off-the-record, say so before you comment, not after, she said.
You may also be approached to provide expert comment on work you were not a part of. In such a case, the reporter is looking for someone in the field to provide insight on what the research means. Wolf said the best expert commentary doesn’t merely repeat back the findings of the report; it adds perspective on how it advances from previous work, and what it could mean in the future.
If a reporter finds that you provide useful commentary on a report, it is more likely that reporter will call you again, and soon develop a working relationship between scientist and journalist.