Tag Archives: Science Communication

The Science Writing Process, Demystified*

You’re browsing Science Direct on a Saturday evening, as you do. Now, here’s an intriguing abstract. Or, as us freelancers see it, a potential …

1. IDEA! Woohoo!
2. Then again, will anyone except me give a crap about this idea?
3. Can I be arsed to write anything this weekend, anyway?
4. Even if I can, am I going to a) pitch it to my editor, or b) put it on my own blog?
5. I could do with new shoes. Will try my editor.
6. Shit. Better write a pitch.
7. Reads outline of article
8. Reads first author’s research summary. Yeah, I get it now.
9. Pitch sent. Displacement ritual coffee-making may now commence.
10. Clicks autorefresh
11. Clicks autorefresh
12. Checks Twitter feed
13. Clicks autorefresh
14. Response! Accepted! Woohoo!
15. Shit. Better write the bloody thing.
16. Downloads full article PDF
17. Reads full PDF
18. Looks up from PDF. Gazes at radiator
19. Yeah, I don’t really understand this.
20. I never was that great at statistics.
21. I wonder if Dr X understands it?
22. Emails Dr X
23. Copies and pastes Dr X’s response into Word. That’s 80 words down of an 800-word piece
24. Displacement ritual coffee-making.
25. Reads PDF again
26. Oh, hang on. Yeah, I might be starting to get this.
27. Finds related papers
28. Reads the PDFs
29. Yeah, this is actually pretty bloody interesting stuff.
30. Drafts article. 700 words down.
31. Reads draft.
32. Yeah. Yeah, I think I get this well enough to talk to the corresponding author now.
33. Emails corresponding author. Briefly wonders whether freelancing means I can introduce myself as “ …  and I write for the Guardian.” Decides it does.
34. Moment of British self-doubt re: point 28.
35. Thinks – fuck it, I will. I’ve got the Style Guide, anyway. I mean, I don’t know where it IS right now, but possession’s got to count for something.
36. Response from corresponding author. Woohoo!
37. Corresponding author is amazing. Why wasn’t I that brilliant, that articulate, when I was a scientist?
38. Realizes corresponding author is 11 years younger that me.
39. Displacement ritual coffee-making with added self-loathing.

Image: Flickr/jpoesen

Image: Flickr/jpoesen

40. Reads more PDFs
41. Re-writes draft with new, essential information that readers NEED to know.
42. Word count: 1287. Shit.
43. I wonder if my editor will mind me going over?
44. Meh, I think he’s used to it.
45. No – I will try to be professional.
46. Cuts out the howevers and the indeeds. Uses lots of contractions.
47. Word count: 1056. Shit.
48. Cuts out Naguib Mahfouz quote. Momentary regret that readers will now never know what a well-rounded science blogger I really am.
49. Word count: 897. Close enough.
50. Decides to sleep on it. Will send during tomorrow’s lunch break.
51. Notices grammatical howler. Removes.
52. Submits.
53. Repeat steps 7 through 9, with a bit more of 34.
54. Editor notices second grammatical howler. Removes.
55. Published. Woohoo!
56. Tries to concentrate on Very Important New Exhibition. Fails.
57. Awaits reader comments. Vaguely remembers something about sticks and stones. Decides memory will not protect against the monster, galoopojng ERROR in my reasoning that some reader WILL notice. My career will be over. I will have been EXPOSED as a try-hard, also-ran.
58. Thinks: Lager: slanty glass. Ale: straight glass. Yep, still got my back-up skills.
59. Oh, wait … they’re not too bad so far. Huh.
60. Well, yeah, he’s got a point. To be fair.
61. Did I say that? I’m pretty sure I didn’t, mate.
62. Repeat steps 7 to 10. No new comments. I may be off the hook. Goes for walk along first floor galleries.
63. I don’t know why I do this to myself.
64. Vanity, probably. Or a desperate need for validation. Maybe I’m subconsciously hoping a TV producer will notice me.
65. Back at desk. Repeat steps 7 through 10. Two new comments.
66. Oh, thanks! Yeah, I thought it was a cool bit of research, too.
67. No, I don’t choose the images.
68. Really need to concentrate on Very Important New Exhibition. Switches off internet, and feels nerves begin to settle.
69. Give it a week. Maybe two. Then, head right back to Step 1.
70. It’s worth it. Honestly, and entirely seriously – it is.

*It wasn’t very mysterious to begin with, frankly

Diversity, etc.

Image: Flickr/jaydedman

Image: Flickr/jaydedman

*knocks hesitantly on door*

Ahem. I’m back. Well, I’ve been busy … No excuse, I know. In fact, here’s an awesome demolition of all that “I’m so BUSY!”  talk.

Anyway, I’d like to pimp my latest Guardian article, which I wrote together with @CherryMakes.  We were talking about the many laudable initiatives which, broadly, aim to encourage young women and girls to consider science as a viable career.

However, I sometimes wonder if such initiatives are a little counterproductive. I’m not convinced that gender is really an issue in science. I’d even say that science is one of the few places left where no-one really cares if you’re male or female, plain or attractive, fashionable or couldn’t-care-less. For those reasons, I think science is a pretty good place to be female – and I can truthfully say that I have never encountered sexism within a scientific environment. Not to say that it doesn’t ever occur, but I don’t think it is systematic (that is, in Europe. Of course, things are different in many other parts of the world).

So I wouldn’t like young girls to get the impression that science is a tough place to be female, and that they’re going to experience sexism and need lots of support. In reality, it’s unlikely that anyone will make an issue of their gender*. Several degree courses (medicine at veterinary science, for example) are female-dominated.

What I DO feel science still lacks is diversity of economic background – it’s still a pretty middle class enclave, and whenever I’ve felt like the odd one out it’s been for my working class background rather than my gender. My co-author felt likewise.

So we wrote this piece to try to highlight some of the fantastic initiatives which are focusing on young people from disadvantaged backgrounds – kids who may feel that science is something Other People do. We argue that to really increase he diversity of characters within science, we need to actively look for, and then welcome, these young people – boys as well as girls – into our outreach activities.

Anyway, here it is:


*To be fair,  there is still a massive shortage of women in more senior roles in science, largely as a consequence of the UK’s lack of subsidised childcare. I think this is an economic rather than a gender issue – although obviously women are held back more than men simply because women do tend to take on the primary carer role within a young family.

Sci-comm for scientists: a field guide

I very rarely advise people – mainly because the life experience I’ve accumulated to date consists largely of knowing which type of fart can be squarely blamed on the dog, and which is more suitably laid at the cat’s door.

Gratuitous cat-in-Christmas-tree photograph

Gratuitous cat-in-Christmas-tree photograph

Lately, though, a couple of people have asked me how I got into freelance writing (mainly for the Guardian, but also for specialist magazines and websites). It’s no mystery – I was an academic; I thought my research was interesting enough that people would want to read about it; and I knew my ellipses from my elbow. Given that the same probably applies to you, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t try it. It feels pretty liberating to be able to write in a more personal tone than is generally appreciated by the Journal of Poorly Maintained Mass Spectrometers C: No-one’s Changed the Oil In the Rough Pump.

I submit three types of pitch – straight science, reporting on my, or someone else’s, latest results; personal stories – again, either mine, or someone else’s  (the experience of women engineers in motorsport, for example, is one that I’m especially proud of); or “event pieces”, which are timed to coincide with exhibitions, conferences or anniversaries. But science articles are much more varied than that – you could try commentary on science policy, biographies, reviews or conference reports, and probably more that I can’t think of because it’s past 10 pm and I’m overdue my nightcap.

As with any kind of freelance writing, prepare a pitch of around 150 words outlining the story. Write the pitch in the same (approachable) tone in which you plan to write the article – it’s not an abstract! Then, before you lose your nerve, email the pitch to the commissioning editor – you can usually find their details in the FAQ or Contact Us section of the paper’s website. So far, so generic. The rest of my advice, such as it is, is tailored to the blossoming science writer:

  1. You ARE good enough, and you DO have something interesting to say. You’re a scientist, dammit.
  2. Read the bloody news, will you? It’s much easier to get pitches accepted if you write in the correct style for your target paper. Start with the paper (or blog) that you habitually read.
  3. Write your first article on what you know best – your own research. How will what you do affect people’s daily lives – either now, or in the near future? Interview your supervisor, or your PhD student.
  4. What’s Dr Mistry doing? She’s clearly up to something, with smells like that (fucking pyridine? Again?) coming out of the bloody door before your coffee’s even filtered. Interview her.
  5. Right then. Other sources. Keep an eye on Science Direct for articles in press – what looks interesting? Remember that you are an academic and probably have very, uh, focused interests. The rest of the world is less focused – try to look for research that will interest a wide readership. Relevance is crucial – people must be able to relate to the science in some way. Food, animals, cars, environmental stuff, cognition and psychology (especially evolutionary psychology) are always popular. But that In Press malarkey is really important – I’ve found that editors won’t usually accept articles about research that was published more than a month ago. Set search alerts to warn you by email if something good has just been published. Oh, and do a quick online search to make sure that no-one’s beaten you to it.
  6. Go to as many public lectures as you can. One of my first Guardian articles came out of a public lecture by Prof. Bob Cywinski , about the potential benefits of thorium as a nuclear fuel. A few months later, me and David Robertson developed Bob’s research into an exhibit at the Science Museum. I almost didn’t go to Bob’s lecture, ‘cause it was pissing down in Leicester that evening. Rain never keeps me away now, though.
  7. If you don’t want to write a straight science piece, try a personal viewpoint. What’s it like being the only woman in the Aerodynamics department? What made you go for your PhD at the age of 47? How are you finding the research infrastructure in the UK, compared to South Korea? These don’t have to be YOUR stories – again, interview your colleagues.
  8. Editors like a “hook” to hang the article from. That could be Valentine’s Day, or Christmas, or the birthday of a great scientist. Hooks can also be a conference poster, a lecture, a documentary, or an exhibition. Anything can be an excuse for an article.
  9. Always try to get an original comment from the scientist you are writing about. Pretty much everybody is accessible these days – if you can’t get an answer by email, tweet them. I’ve done that many times, even with well-known faces, and it usually works.
  10. Don’t take rejection personally. It took me almost a year to get a pitch accepted. Nowadays my hit rate is about one in three. I’m not sure if that’s average, ‘cause no fecker will discuss it.
  11. (Yeah, eleven. I’m just so damn unconventional.) Last note: if you’re getting paid, you’ll need to register as self-employed.

That’s it. Remember: good articles are contemporary, relevant, accurate and accessible – and, above all, a pleasure to read. Just because it’s science doesn’t mean it can’t also be poetry, darn it.

Talking of poetry – everytime you feel like giving up, remember what John Masefield said:

I have seen flowers come in stony places

And kind things done by men with ugly faces

And the gold cup won by the worst horse at the races,

So I trust too.


Science and art: can one exist without the other?

Arts or sciences? That’s a choice that many of our sixteen-year-old selves were faced with when we began our academic careers  – a science degree requires three science A Levels, and that’s that. Furthermore, those of us who self-identify as “techies” don’t necessarily see ourselves as “arty” – and vice versa, of course. There’s a degree of distance between these two aspects of human culture.

But, increasingly, scientists and artists are sharing intellectual space. Daisy Ginsberg uses art to explore the potential of synthetic biology. The Cape Farewell project takes artists and scientists on joint expeditions to the Arctic, and encourages the co-creation of public engagement projects on the science of climate change. The Maya Project, currently touring Europe and Central America, uses photographic exhibitions as a way to personalise epidemiological studies of modern Mayan society.

In all of these cases, art is used to draw the public into the perhaps unfamiliar arena of scientific debate.

And it goes the other way, too – technology can (even inadvertently) create what we perceive as “art”.  Art exists in the colourful fluorescent proteins of Brainbow Mouse. It’s in  Fordite, the pseudomineral formed as a waste product of automobile manufacture. Muse even feature an image from the Human Connectome Project on the cover of their recent album.

Brainbow Mouse, from the Wellcome Collection. Digital photomicrograph by Jean Livet, Joshua R Sanes and Jeff Lichtman.

In the near future, the rise of home-based 3D printing is predicted to make us all more conscious of the aesthetics of our technology. So could we be heading for a new kind of Renaissance – one in which we don’t self-define as either techie or arty, because advances in both cultures mean that neither could exist without the other?

(Inspired by an awesome Talk Science seminar, organised by the Science Museum Learning team.)

Science on TV: Cheerleader or Educator?

I don’t usually put opinion pieces on this blog. That’s partly ‘cos a lot of my opinions are pretty dumbass (I could give examples here, but I won’t. I’ve got a Twitter account that’s more than exemplary in that respect), but it’s mainly because I think I’m better at simply sharing the ring-all-the-bells brilliance of science and technology. Other people can opine, balance, and criticise.

Thing is, though, It’s All Kicking Off. Well, a bit. Amongst science circles, the topic of the moment is whether we should be doing science journalism, or science communication. The former is investigative and critical. The latter is, allegedly, simply one-sided science evangelism. And since it is now illegal to discuss science communication without mentioning Professor Brian Cox, let’s bring him in right away. Last year, as part of The Guardian’s ongoing mediation between scientists and science communicators, Martin Robbins quoted a complaint made against Professor Brian Cox: that, for all their good intentions, presenters like him are “… not teaching people how to think about science – they tell them about science”.

But – if that’s even true – is it really a problem?

As BBC4, the standard-bearer for science broadcasting, celebrates its tenth anniversary under the threat of losing one-third of its science budget, now may be a good time to think about the whole point of putting science on TV. Should science programming serve, primarily, as a cheerleader for the fabulous achievements of science – or should it, instead, try to educate us about the slow-burn of the scientific process?

The “isn’t-science-brilliant” approach of Engineering Connections may be very different to the television-as-education tone of (say) Science And Islam –  perhaps because the former is fronted by a professional TV presenter, and the latter by a university lecturer. But I reckon that both approaches are equally valuable:  getting skeptics and newbies to love science is just as important as debating complexities with the already-converted.

And there’s probably a limit to how closely a sixty-minute documentary should reflect the realities of day-to-day research, unless you want to see forty minutes of COSHH forms and Fisher catalogues, fifteen minutes of blocked HPLC tubing, and five minutes of actual bloody science. But I’m ranting rather, now. My point is: whatever form it takes, we need a lot more science on TV, not one-third less. Happy birthday, BBC4.

On Tuesday 13th March 2012, the Royal Institution hosts a discussion entitled Scientists and journalists need different things from science. Discuss. Click here for more information.

Follow The Guardian’s debate on science communication at Notes And Theories 

One of my older blogposts about TV-as-science-communicator here