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Engineering profile: the 2011 British Science Festival and science communication

Engineering profile: the 2011 British Science Festival and science communication

Engineering profile: the 2011 British Science Festival and science communication

24 August 2011

Alison Jones is a Lecturer in Computational Biomechanics at the Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering - part of the School of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Leeds. She is helping to run engineering events at this year's British Science Festival, and she reflects on the possibilities and pitfalls of science communication.

With the British Science Festival just around the corner, I want to use this blog to inspire you to come to some fascinating engineering activities taking place in Bradford from 10 - 15 September. And I want to talk about what happens when non-specialists try to talk to scientific experts about their work.

Particularly I want to discuss what is difficult in talking about science. The most obvious stumbling block is the scientific jargon which the experts use, but there is another problem: what the experts want to say and what their audience wants to know are usually quite different. The process of deciding what to talk about is just as tricky as the discussion itself.   

As I’ve moved through my career, the task of explaining my day to day work to my friends has steadily become more difficult. My undergraduate degree and first internship were in the area of mathematics, computer science and software engineering. Of course, my friends took a variety of other subjects, each with their own language and ways of doing things. At this stage we all lived in shared accommodation and had a bit of spare time on our hands. Between late night chats and coursework grumbles we understood a decent amount about each other’s work. 

I remember a point, maybe three years after graduation, when things changed. I was near the end of a PhD in Numerical Analysis and my friends were Department of Health strategists, marketing experts, architects and full time mums. We no longer had the time to sit and chew things over in the same way as we had at Uni. Being a chartered this, and an expert that, meant they each of them had a depth of expertise that there wasn’t time to go into. “Trust me, that’s how it works”, became a much more common phrase.

I think the problem that me and friends have is basically the same as any effort to communicate about science or engineering. There is never the time to learn all of the language and describe all of the detail. As the experts we simplify and then chose what to describe and what to leave out. At least we should. Sometimes enthusiasm for the subject takes over and we give a little too much detail.  Knowing which bits a particular person or group of people will be interested in is a tough call.

After my PhD, I worked for several years as a researcher in medical engineering. This role included plenty of science communication challenges. Being a computer scientist meant that engineering was a new area for me with tempting similar but sneakily different rules and terms. Running projects with medical device manufacturers, and with surgeons taught me about their priorities, how they  convey those priorities, and how it saves time to consider them earlier rather than later. 

Alison Jones - Irish TimesLast year I was lucky enough to be selected for a British Science Association media fellowship. I spent four weeks working as a science journalist for the Irish Times in Dublin. This was an amazing experience and one I’d recommend to pretty much anyone. 

Interviewing researchers and academics for articles was much trickier than I’d anticipated. One reason for this is (predictably) the language barrier. My background in software engineering and biomechanics did nothing to prepare me for interviewing a nanotechnology professor. The other main issue was one of priorities. 

At the beginning of an interview, neither of us would know what the main point of my article would be. I didn’t yet know enough about their work to say what was really interesting about it and they were often too engrossed in the subject to identify where public interest might lie. The sub-text of the interview may have read like this…

“Is this what you’re interested in?”
“I’m not sure, tell me a bit about it and we’ll see”

“No. That’s not the one.  What about that stuff over there?”

Communication about science doesn’t work particularly well if it is only one-way. If the professor, seeped in her knowledge of the subject, had chosen exactly what to tell me, the result would most likely be disjointed and incomprehensible. Equally, if I had decided up front to stick firmly to an agenda, then the article would be dull and badly informed. The negotiation over what is interesting is very important.

Since the media fellowship I’ve been involved in organizing the engineering content of the British Science Festival (which this year will be right next door to me in Bradford). The engineering events will include:

- a free tour of a local water treatment works and chance to chat to engineers about their careers
- a chance to give your opinion on whether using cutting-edge technology in sport is cheating or fair game
- details of the latest tissue engineering methods, which are improving the materials used to repair the human body
- a chance to meet women engineering apprentices: they are in a very small minority, but apprenticeships are a great way to build a career 

I strongly encourage people to come along to this excellent (and largely free) festival with events for all ages. While you’re there, make sure you ask lots of questions, because what you are interested in is just as important as what they know!

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