Sense About Science VoYS Media Workshop

Today I attended a Voice of Young Scientists media workshop in Manchester. For those who haven’t crossed paths with it before, VoYS is a network of young scientists with the aim of bringing together PhD students and early careers reserchers from across all sciences to give them the chance to have a voice in the wider world. That could be anything from helping with media training and how to approach the media with their own research, to getting groups together to challenge public-facing organisations into proving their claims. Today’s media workshop was really part of the latter, getting together a group of around 50 young scientists and giving them chance to quiz academics experienced in dealing with the media and journalists from the BBC.

The first point I think I would like to make is to correct my own sentence above. Scientists often talk about ‘dealing with’ the media and I think if the world of academic research is ever going to be more accessible to the public many of us have to get out of this mindset of Us vs Them. Journalists are just people, just like crusty old professors are (somewhere underneath) just people too. In the journalists panel Victoria Gill, a BBC science journalist, said simply “journalists are just trying to tell a story”, reminding me vividly of my supervisor. I can’t remember the last feedback session I was part of in which my supervisor didn’t remind us that we need to know what story we are telling. What is your narrative? Perhaps its time more scientists, and journalists, realised this common goal we are trying to reach, all be it to different audiences.

Towards the end of the day, the final panel was asked why did they think we were the right people to get in touch with the media and Victoria Murphy, the Sense About Science programme manager, suggested that as scientists, particularly if we are publicly funded, we have an obligation to give some of that back. It’s an interesting view point and one I have to confess I had never thought of before. I know a lot of researchers, in particular PhD students who think public outreach is a waste of time, that we attending talks about media, social science, government science policy etc is pointless and detracts from what we should be doing. I have to say I agree wholeheartedly with Victoria  – if not us, then who? If the tax payers are paying you to discover which ionic liquid is a more effective conductor of charged particles then its your responsibility to go back to them and tell them what you found out, and why its important to them. And if you don’t, how can you expect them to keep funding you? If you refuse to put your science in the public domain, how can you expect your local MP to vote for issues that are important to your work in parliament?

Both of these points represent a change in attitude in scientists and changes in attitude never come from above. If we really want to see the way science is reported in the media, and how it is used by government, to be more effective then it is up to young researchers to bring about this change.

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