By Lauren Cutmore, Bart’s Cancer Institute, Queen Mary University of London
How do you think science is portrayed in the media?
Do you think it’s important to communicate your research with the general public?
These were both questions that were posed at the Stand Up for Science workshop in Manchester on Friday 13 April. The event was organised by Sense About Science, a charity that promotes transparency in science and challenges the misrepresentation of science in the media. The day raised a number of important points and provoked a lively discussion with both the panellists and audience getting equally involved.
The first panel discussion was composed of four academic researchers, who had all had experience of their research being presented by the media. It was surprising what a wide range of experiences people had, ranging from the positive to the disheartening. It was also very interesting to learn about embargos and how to approach the media.
The second panel discussion was made up of policy makers. I enjoyed learning about the structure of government and how new policies are implemented. Before the panel started we were asked to discuss whether MPs should have a science background. It was a very varied discussion which covered many points. I think by the end of it we had all realised that just because there is scientific evidence for something, it does not always mean it is appropriate for society, and this is where it is very important to have people from different backgrounds in politics to represent the wider opinion of the general public. However, everyone agreed MPs must have access to the evidence and be surrounded by knowledgeable advisors. The panel, who included Andrew Miller, past chair of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, encouraged us to get involved in policy by speaking to our local MP about our research, something that I had never considered before.
One of the most eye opening panel discussions was with journalists. They really enforced the point that a story is only news on the day it comes out. If you’re not prepared and haven’t contacted the media prior to that then you will lose your chance. On that note they made it clear that that it’s very important to keep your schedule clear on the day of the story for interviews. One common opinion amongst researchers is that it is the media’s responsibility to educate the public on important scientific discoveries. However, the journalists flipped it onto us and said that it is their job to tell a story which the public will find interesting, but it is our job as scientists to share our science with the public. It was also great to listen to the press officers who talked about the ways to approach the media either via your institution or via a learned society.
The take home message was that there are many ways of educating the public and influencing policy. It is really important to use the media effectively to communicate your research, but there is nothing stopping you from running your own outreach event, starting a blog or writing to your local MP. The people who are interested and who are affected by your research may be much broader than you imagine, and as our research is often funded by the general public we have a responsibility to engage them.
This was a great day that allowed me to meet a wide range of people from different backgrounds who were all involved in science in very different ways. It opened my eyes to other opportunities there are out there after my PhD and made me realise that we are all experts in our own fields and we shouldn’t be afraid to say it!
I’m in the second year of the MRC DTP at Bart’s Cancer Institute, Queen Mary University of London. My PhD is focused on developing a CAR-T cell therapy for pancreatic cancer. When I’m not in the lab I love to bake (my cakes improve any journal club), cycle, read and visit art galleries. I love outreach activities and am currently completing a science related embroidery series!