By Marcos Valenzuela-Ortega
As an early career researcher (ECR), you can struggle with balancing publishable results, reading new scientific literature and keeping your supervisor happy. But you’re learning that the impact of research is not only measured by the journal in which your manuscript is published. You feel that the public sometimes misunderstands science and evidence, and you want to help change that.
This was how I felt but, thanks to the Voice of Young Science, I know that the way out of the ivory tower is easier than it seems. This is my advice to get you started with public engagement (PE).
You are not alone
You may feel that reaching the public is challenging, but you don’t have to do it alone. PE in science is increasingly important, and this is reflected in institutional support: your university probably has a dedicated team to support PE and a press office to help you get your research into the media. Additionally, the Biochemical Society provides a lot of support for PE.
There are organisations that range from local or national to continent-wide. I am a member of the Voice of the Young Science (VoYS) network. The independent charity Sense about Science has built this network for ECRs who are committed to playing an active role in public discussions about science and evidence across Europe. Joining allows you to make connections and support your peers and find out how you can get your voice heard in public debates about science and evidence.
Honing your skills
As a member of the Biochemical Society, I had the opportunity to attend the VoYS: Standing Up for Science workshop at the University of Edinburgh in September 2019. This was really eye-opening: not only did researchers with media and PE experience share insightful experiences and tips, but also journalists and policymakers gave advice on how researchers can best work with them. Professor Andrew Millar shared his experience as a researcher and a Chief Scientific Adviser to the Scottish Government: dealing with policymakers is very different to dealing with academic peers. The ‘public’ is a very broad term and, in general, dealing with different audiences requires different communication styles and channels.
Find the activity that suits your schedule
- Writing your own blog (or making a podcast) can give you visibility if you don’t have much time. Joining an existing network can be a great way of getting writing experience. The Biochemical Society maintains this great blog, and being a VoYS member has given me the opportunity to contribute to it.
- Getting involved with your institution’s PE department. This will help you to practise skills otherwise hard to develop in a research environment. Universities, funding bodies and learned societies can provide funding to support internships and secondments.
- Engaging the public with your research findings. Rather than communicating your results at the end of a project, you should get the public involved early on. Check out Sense about Science’s ‘Public Engagement: a practical guide’. If you are writing a grant application, use the five steps in the guide to fit PE into your project. It’s truly transformative to think about PE throughout your research and involve people right from the start.
Don’t forget to have fun
My last piece of advice regarding PE is simple: enjoy it! The work of Sense about Science has shown me that effective PE can transform the public debate and the way the public, media and policymakers see science. With so many ways of getting involved, you can find the way to engage that is most impactful, effective and rewarding.
About the author
Marcos Valenzuela-Ortega is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, where he applies synthetic biology to industrial biotechnology. As researcher, he is interested on how new technologies can reduce greenhouse gas emission and mitigate their consequences. As a member of the Voice of the Young Science, he is working towards making public engagement a central part of his future research career.