Thursday, 21 April 2016

Communicating science and medical research...

Communication is at the heart of human interaction. 

Everything works better when everyone understands the issues and is as informed as they feel they should be. Sometimes it seems that we in science and medicine have completely forgotten how to communicate. Forgotten except for how to write dense and mostly boring articles aimed at the often slow journals we must publish in, in order to get grants and accrue the necessary recognition which ultimately let us answer the scientific questions we and our collaborators think necessary to address. 

As a result, many fantastic scientists have an almost non-existent public profile at a time when communication and science are needed more than ever to stave off quackery and ignorance. 

Science should be cherished, held aloft and traded in. I do see this more and more in some academic Institutes - they see the value and invest in it. However, some scientists choose to bemoan that communication outside of the familiar stodge of papers and conferences won't be valued by >insert object of their disappointment here<. I agree that this can be true, but it is not a given. Never always. Sometimes it just takes effort, time and a less pessimistic approach. This is a revolution-a redistribution of knowledge that had become increasingly locked up away from the community. 

Communicating science is happening right now but it's doing so at different speeds and in different ways in different places.

Communicating science and medicine should be seen as a basic requirement to successfully addressing any strategy that involves working for, or with, the public. In my opinion, every body that uses public money should have a dedicated communication team or unit, yet communication can still be an afterthought; that thing you put at the end of your grant application, or that other thing you do after the paper is in print but before you start the next project. A pity that projects always overlap. 

Communication is an essential, yet still overlooked aspect of delivering the outcomes from science research and describing the world around us using the latest knowledge. 

I'm not talking here about specifically describing science for other scientists though, but for the public. And the same applies to medicine and to public health and medical laboratory science. Communication using the traditional media and social media (SoMe) can help the public. We can provide clear and digestible background information on complex everyday issues like why I need to get the flu vaccine every year (the strains change - but not always - so why then?); why water doesn't have a memory of something that was in it (without shouting); how are asthma and allergy related?; how does my blood get tested for that thing

Communication may also make scientists and Doctors think more clearly about how they research and deliver health benefits (they say nothing teaches like teaching) and that may help bring the community along with them when something new or exciting or scary is happening.


Sometimes, a lot of time can be required for a scientist or Doctor to obtain permission to speak to the media on current affairs that could really benefit from their input.

  • Should approval be granted at all, it may be too late to be relevant to the enquiring media outlet. The media need an “expert” for their stories and they run on a deadline system influenced by the events of the hour, not the week or beyond
  • Requests for comment should always be considered urgent and are seldom sought for a story “in the future” 
  • Work with your Institution ahead of time to set up clear pathways so that permission can be obtained quickly and your experience and knowledge of a topic can be of use to the public
  • Work with your peers - if you can't comment for some reason, or you don't feel you have the expertise required by the questions, make sure you have some contact details handy for someone you know who can help. If the person who gives a comment is not knowledgeable and also misleading, those comments can cause more harm than good. Think of this as your responsibility to provide quality comment to your community and to help the media tell the most accurate story they can

The personal touch...

Beyond occupation-related media, think about your own direct contact with the community through SoMe. But think ahead. 
  • Make it clear you represent your own opinions and not those endorsed by any workplace or Institution you are affiliated with nor do they represent medical advice. This can be important because their are the rare confused, petty and grumpy people out there who will try and lash out at you or your organisation and you need to be mentally prepared for that to come from anywhere
  • Be polite, be humble, be human
  • Be active. Yes, it can feel like you are sitting on the park bench talking out loud to yourself and the passers-by sometimes - but if you have something to say, it will draw a crowd. If you sit there saying nothing, no-one can hear you. If you only say mean or angry things, you'll attract attention, but not for long. Being useful in the SoMe space takes a lot of time and hard work-and a lot of research
  • Use multiple platforms - I started with a blog, then used Twitter to advertise it, then used Pinterest to catalogue "captured" pictures, then spoke more on Twitter and I also use LinkedIn. Facebook is everywhere - tell me if you learn how to use it to communicate science well. It's my next challenge
  • Be polite but not stodgy. Losing your temper, being arrogant or constantly crass is not all that attractive in this sphere. Or any sphere really. Think of this as respectively communicating stuff to your kids. And leaving yourself on he interwebs forever. Being a boring blow-hard will just reinforce rubbish stereotypes about scientists and Doctors. Being an angry twerp may not be the way you'd like your kids to remember you. Be a good human being
  • Humour - people like to laugh and laughing helps create an environment people will want to come back to. They may learn something in the process - by accident. Remember: people coming back is kind of the point of communicating science well
  • If you're an academic - forget being an academic. Step outside the CV, the self-promotion and the verbiage. Learn to write with more space.
    Learn to communicate in shorter, less dense clips.
    Learn to use English not Scienglish. 140 characters is an excellent self-teaching tool for communicating in a confined space. And most of all - don't use SoMe to dump your latest paper or conference abstract then walk away as if that is a job well done. You won't grow your followers/audience/minions that way. You get back what you pour into SoMe. In that way, its a but like friendships in real life.
    If SoMe isn't emotionally self-sustaining, then you have the approach or the balance wrong (or you've run afoul of bullies - in which case, fight back or take a break)
  • Typos - embrace them. Learn to correct them. But if you change or correct your writing - own up to it and explain it on your blog or in a new Tweet. Deleting stuff without a trail breeds mistrust
  • If you choose to write - one academic carry-over that is well worth retaining is the reference. For the love of Pete, make sure you don't deliver facts without references to them. People like to do their own reading. They like to check up on you before the invest their trust. Give them proof that others have done actual work that lead to that conclusion you just made. It's science. It's data-driven. It's respect.
  • Not everyone is a good communicator, a good writer or good at graphics. That's okay. You don't have to do this. You can still take part by partnering up with someone else to co-write stuff, edit stuff, have ideas about stuff or you can just chip in on SoMe conversations - everyone can communicate.

Communication with the community...

Doing this can be important and could be helpful. Here are some thoughts.

  • Every large science Institute today has a dedicated and proactive strategy for engaging with its clients. In Australia, science research and public health are largely funded by taxpayers; the community is our client.
    A communications strategy should aim to display, and explain, the work being done by the Institution's scientists and will suitably brand the Institute into the space it intends to occupy. This brand can then be leveraged for community consultation, cooperation, raising awareness on hot topic issues and even for raising funds to do the work
  • Concern exists that public comments may sometimes contain errors. This is not unusual for normal human day-to-day conversation. Mistakes can be corrected and should not be used as a reason to avoid making comments in the first place or for not engaging with the community or failing to build an exciting, strong and useful brand
  • Stick to the initial point of a conversation and see it through before chasing tangents off into the distance. SoMe can be a quagmire of misinterpretation, misunderstanding and people who come preloaded for a fight. Stick to your point until you are ready to move on. 
  • In my area there are times (many lately) of outbreaks, epidemics and pandemics. The community looks for trustworthy voices that speak using a language they can quickly and easily understand.
    It is important to be trustworthy and to establish trustworthiness and a range of ways to communicate widely pitched at appropriate levels, ahead of an urgent need. After the need arises mean playing catch-up. Building trust is every bit as important as any long-term investment you make in life whether as an Institute or an individual. Plan to engage the community, don't just run at it but remember to be flexible and adaptable.
    Establishing trust takes time, requires a strategy but above all else it requires a user-friendly and very human and permanent presence in the community
  • In the absence of trustworthy logical and science-based voices, all manner of misinformation, hysteria, self-serving ego, conspiracy theory (tinfoil hats) and mysticism (woo) may fill the information void.
    These bodies drive confusion and anger and shatter any evidence-based reassurance.
    Lack of scientist engagement also underutilizes those who know what the narrative should be and that ultimately fails the community. Standing back may potentially lead to more real work for those in some science and medical roles. For example, an increased load of doctor visits during public concern stirred up by poor media reporting which can also translate to more medical laboratory work. Poorly researched or informed reporting can spark a fearful community which can in turn drive reactive and expensive political decision making. There can be important fallout from failing to speak up as a scientist but also from failing to seek out a scientist
  • SoMe methods can certainly “promote”, or in some way discuss, new scientific publications beyond the confines of niche and often pay-walled (not open access) scientific literature. Media and SoMe can also reach far beyond relatively tiny scientific meetings and can in fact amplify the signal from such meetings to great effect. SoMe promotion of scientific publications can be captured as “Altmetrics”. These can add considerably to an organisation’s profile, indicating how well publications impact beyond traditional measures of citation by their peers. Scientific articles that are published using an open access model attract “clicks” (assumed reads) probably because they can be freely read as full-length pieces. The number of SoMe-promoted reads will often far outstrip the number of peer citations making much better use of the extensive resources involved in producing the data that is at the core of each publication
  • SoMe can also be used to put a “human” face on what might be thought of as a stern entity. For example, the Queensland Police Twitter profile in 2015 was expert at messaging risk in the context of appropriate levels of humour, a strategy that may have grown their audience which in turn helped get their messages across
  • Non-traditional academic story articles are an extremely good way to reach a much greater number of readers. The Conversation is one example of this platform which may generate over 100,000 reads from a single well-pitched, topical story. These stories have the potential to underpin existing or future scientific publications or to better describe “behind-the-scenes” events occurring in an organisation. They may also be a great way to collaborate on story telling both within and between other organisations. 
  • SoMe is also seen by science and medical writers worldwide. Information placed into the public domain by experts in a field can often find its way into media articles, either with or without an interview or specific attribution. This should be considered a good thing. We do not always need to be attributed to be good and useful communicators for society. That can be a hard concept to grasp in some corners of academia. An unmeasurable task. Eek. While such indirect engagement with the community is not currently quantifiable, it should nonetheless be considered as an important contribution to communicating science to your community and to the highly interconnected world of which your community is a part.
Get into it!

If you want to chat further about any of this - eMail me or your Institution's communications team.

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