Friday, 21 October 2011

FameLab - Oxford Heat 1

Last night was my first foray into the world of "FameLab": a science communication competition which I've been told about for years from friends who do the science/communication double act. It involves talking about science for three minutes. Simple, right?

I have to admit, I was going to enter back in 2009 and ended up having an important meeting on the day and not going... So I was pretty happy when I found out the competition was back on this year, and that I only had to go down the road to Oxford to take part in it.

I know it seems a strange thing to do, so I feel that I have to answer the question "why enter?" As I explained to judge Andrew Pontzen after the event - I've spent 10 years doing "outreach" and science communication mostly to school students where the presenting has been about the demonstrations and most definitely not about me as a presenter. So this competition is my chance to learn and develop my own presentation skills without having a demo or prop as a crutch to fall back on. This is me challenging myself to do something new.

My FameLab journey actually started a couple of weeks ago when I made the choice to sign up for the first Oxford heat - ever since then I've been thinking, watching videos of previous contestants (who are SO amazing!) and having occasional moments of absolute dread thinking "what AM I going to SAY?". I started out with one idea, developed it, practised it and then decided to throw it away a week before the competition. I've never thought in so much detail what to say (and what NOT to say) in 3 minutes. It was tough! What I ended up presenting last night was a topic which I work on and find really interesting, which I thought was a good place to start.

Everyone at Science Oxford on the night was really friendly and helpful, and by the time it got to the second half and I was about to give my talk I was feeling quite (surprisingly) relaxed. It appears I got the nerves out of the way in the week building up to the event - I was SO nervous until that point!

I performed what I'd practised and while it came in a bit short - I'm told I'm the only contestant ever to have finished before the 2:30 bell - I was happy with how it went. It was really great to get the judges feedback and I particularly welcomed Andrew Pontzen's comments about dynamic range. Intentionally changing volume and pace was something which I'd always tried to let happen "naturally". I was really pleased for the tip to intentionally emphasise and create drama by using dynamic range, I'll definitely use this!

My FameLab journey, I'm pleased to say, is not at an end. I was really thrilled when the judges announced that I'd be going through to the South East final in just under a month's time - I'm looking forward to having a chance to really use the tips they gave and get some further feedback.

I feel like I've learned so much already, and can't wait for the next part. The only problem is... what AM I going to SAY!?

Monday, 10 October 2011

Are you a scientist, or a science communicator?

Where do you draw the line between "scientists" and "science communicators"? Do we need dedicated people just to communicate science? Should scientists be trained to do this themselves? And if the "communicators" have to be trained as scientists to degree level, shouldn't they just call themselves "scientists"!?

To a certain extent all scientists communicate their work to other people, even if it's just to their funding agencies, colleagues, family and friends. However well - or badly - they do it is not the point, it still counts as the communication of scientific ideas. 

On the other hand we have the professional science communicator, who still needs to be a trained scientist to degree level, but who has carved out a career by translating complicated concepts into palatable (but not "dumbed down") ideas.

I wonder if it is confusing to members of the public to see science communicated by people who talk about the work of "scientists", but don't profess to be one themselves. [I use the term "public" with that kind of cringe that is reserved for times when I'd like to find a better word to describe "lay-people" but can't think of one.] 

Particularly for the case of school children, doesn't this just create an extra barrier between themselves and the "real" scientists? It's all very well that the communicators are generally young, gender-balanced (as a group, that is) and enthusiastic people, but do the audience walk away wondering what the "real" scientists are like? Do they still assume that they are white middle-aged men like they see in textbooks and in pictures on the classroom wall? (Newton, Einstein, Rutherford anyone?)

It's great that we now have "real" scientists who are also fantastic communicators on TV, and I think this is definitely the way it should be. But... does this make 'science communicators' redundant (except perhaps in science journalism)? How much does credibility matter? Should science museum presenters be part-time researchers? What if they are presenting something out of their 'field'? What if a scientist is presenting something that isn't their research?

I would love to believe that we simply play complimentary roles where communication experts can help science experts and vice versa. But of course, when it comes down to it the communicator has to make money from this whereas the scientist doesn't. That, if nothing else, must surely change the game.