Women in Science and the MediaNovember 19th, 2012

SciConnect has co-developed a new course to help female scientists maximise their communication skills and career success. The first course will be held on 4-6 January 2013  in Windsor, and culminates in a recording session in a radio studio at BBC Broadcasting House. Places are going fast, so please visit the course webpage to find out more. The deadline for applications is 11th December 2012.

HOW CAN female scientists reach the top in their careers? The answer should be simple: just do brilliant science. Unfortunately, reality presents a rather more complicated and depressing picture. Despite growing numbers of women completing PhDs, they remain woefully under-represented in the higher echelons of academia and industry.

In the UK, only about a fifth of senior lecturers in science are women, and just under 10 per cent of science professors are female. Even in fields such as biology, where roughly equal numbers of men and women do PhDs, the proportion of women reaching senior levels is shockingly low.

SciConnect has teamed up with colleagues at Imperial College London, the University of Warwick and Quercus Training to create a course that aims to help female scientists tackle some of the factors that hold them back. Though the medium of science radio and TV production and science writing training, we help participants develop their communication and presentation skills, as well as deconstructing the media portrayal of science and female researchers.

So what is the problem? Although overt sex discrimination is rare, female scientists are battling engrained bias, both at the institutional and personal levels. One recent study, for example, revealed that when shown identical CVs for an academic post application, both male and female faculty members rated the applicant as being less competent if the name on the CV was female.

On a personal level, female scientists are still lumbered with doing twice as much housework as their male counterparts, and are more likely to put their career in second place to that of their male partners, by moving to suit his job or working fewer hours.

These biases and inequalities need to be tackled by enlightened national policies and institutional good practice. But there are also some things that individual female scientists can do to boost their chances of success in a male-dominated work environment. These include developing their ability to communicate and present their science with clarity, confidence and authority.

Another important factor is the low profile of female scientists in the media and the lack of awareness of women’s scientific achievements. This contributes to a social environment that subtly discourages girls and women from pursuing scientific careers. A recent Wikipedia “edit-a-thon”, tied in to Ada Lovelace day last month helped to redress the balance. But there is always more that any scientist can do to proactively communicate their research to wider audiences, be it via traditional mass media or via new media conduits such as blogging and Twitter.

Our new course uses science media to help early career scientists (meaning final year PhD students, postdocs and new PIs)  improve their ability to communicate with different audiences, from other researchers and grant reviewers to journalists and members of the public. It focuses on the barriers facing female scientists in their careers and how developing effective presentation skills and personal impact can help.

The course analyses the media portrayal of female scientists, how it can be challenged, and what female scientists can do to raise their profiles. It also covers the importance of effective networking and mentoring, and participants will be encouraged to network over the duration of the course.

The course involves hands-on science radio and TV production, culminating in a recording session at BBC Broadcasting House. Both women and men are welcome to attend. Please visit the course webpage to find out more, and if you have any questions or thoughts, please add your comments below.

We also have a course flyer available to download (1.8MB) here.

Claire Ainsworth

Unlikely JargonAugust 22nd, 2012

It’s usually easy to spot scientific jargon, but not always. Some everyday words also have a scientific meaning, which can cause real confusion if you’re communicating with a non-specialist audience. As part of our ESOF 2012 session, “Can outreach make you a better scientist?” we ran a Twitter competition, asking people to suggest examples of Unlikely Jargon. Here’s what happened:


Cheerleader or watchdog? The purpose of science journalismJuly 6th, 2012

Too many science journalists are credulous acolytes, merely translating the pronouncements of researchers for the lay reader instead of holding scientists to account. This charge, levelled at journalists during the final session of the UK Conference of Science Journalists (UKCSJ) in London last week, might come as a surprise to many researchers. After all, isn’t it the media’s job to educate the public about science? Well, no, it isn’t. At least, not in the way many scientists think it is.

When I tell scientists this, their faces often drop, as if I’ve just confirmed their worst fears about journalists being feckless science-manglers and hype-mongers. Hang on, though. Of course science journalists want their readers to learn something from the articles they write. But there are two main reasons why they don’t see themselves as science educators, and understanding these reasons can help researchers avoid some of the tension that often exists between scientists and journalists.

The first reason is one of approach. Science journalists have busy, distracted readers/listeners/viewers whose attention they have to earn and hold. Our job is to inform our audiences about science stories that are of interest to them, not educate them about things that are of interest to the scientist whose work we are reporting.

The second reason is that journalists should not be mere mouthpieces for scientists: we are not PR agents. A journalist’s job is to evaluate information objectively and put it into context for their audience. So as well as talking to a scientist about his or her new research paper, a journalist will usually also consult experts in that field of science, to get their opinions on the paper, its impact on that area of research and what it all means for the journalist’s audience.

Some journalists go further: they seek to uncover scientific misconduct and fraud. Thanks to their efforts, several  high-profile cases of falsified data or unethical behaviour have been exposed. This is investigative science journalism, and it aims to hold researchers, companies and institutions to account.

The debate at the UKCSJ centred on the fact that there seems to be far more “explanatory” science journalism in the media than investigative work. Is this because many science journalists are former scientists and hence too close to the subject? Or are newspapers, magazines and broadcasters unwilling to invest the considerable amounts of time and money needed? Is the UK’s restrictive libel law partly to blame?

This matters, because investigative science journalism defends the public interest when science’s own quality-control mechanisms–peer review and replication–fall short. If scientists feel uncomfortable about journalists doing this kind of work, it’s worth remembering that it also serves the interests of science, by acting as another, independent check on researchers’ activities and raising important questions about how science is done.

Claire Ainsworth