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This is a guest post from one of our judges for the Chemistry World Science Communication Competition
Robert Winston recently said ‘If you cannot communicate science it may as well have not been carried out’. I rather agree.
Communicating science is important because, to paraphrase Alan Alda, science surrounds us. Alda’s ‘flame challenge’ recently illuminated the importance of communicating science by challenging Science readers to explain what a flame is to a class of 11-year-olds. Of course, it helps if you’re a famous actor, but both Alda and Winston make the same point: science cannot be separated from society. Each supports and improves the other. The problem is that science journalism is often outside the mainstream, appearing further down newslists than it we would otherwise like it to be, Higgs and Dolly the sheep-type stories excepted.
There are consequences to this. In the most recent Public Attitudes to Science survey, just over half of those who took part said they hear and see too little information about science. The research also highlighted the challenge of public engagement with science. The majority of people surveyed said they did not feel informed about science, and scientific research and developments.
And not every scientist is an excellent communicator – that’s where you can step in.
So how do you go about telling a science story? Well, try and imagine you’ve a good tale on your hands and you’re itching to tell someone – now imagine you’re face to face with that person and you’re telling them about it: the most important part of the story will naturally come out first, then the next and so on until you’ve got it all out. Your friend will no doubt have some questions – if they don’t, then well done, you’ve explained it perfectly. When you’re writing the story, follow the same format. Go back and read it again – ask yourself whether any questions remain unanswered. If so, get answering them. You can do this for an article or script: both need to convey the facts and detail without leaving people scratching their heads.
Let your enthusiasm for the story shine through the copy and remember you’re writing for a wide audience so avoid jargon that can be confusing to non-specialists. There will be times when a particularly long sentence is necessary and you have to cram as much detail in a single line as you possibly can, at which time bear in mind that using a shorter one to follow on is often the best way to balance the paragraph. Just like this one.
I’m looking forward to seeing your efforts.
Lesley Yellowlees is professor of chemistry at the University of Edinburgh and president of the RSC
And you can find out about the Chemistry World Science Communication Competition and submit your entry here.