We’re running a series of guest posts from the judges of the 2013 Chemistry World science communication competition. Here, science writer and broadcaster Quentin Cooper  explains his interpretation of ‘openness in science’.

How do you feel about judging a science communication competition?

I’m always a little resistant to judging, because it’s always dangerous to judge anybody else. One of the things you’re trying to encourage in science communication is innovation. There’s always a slight danger of turning up and being the ‘old guard’ accidentally – those of us who already do it standing in judgement of those who are finding new ways to do it. We have to be careful because something that we think is not a good way, because it’s something terribly new and terribly different, might actually turn out to be something brilliant. With that caveat, I’ll do anything I can to encourage good science communication.

Science is everywhere, it is everything, and yet there are still too many people around who think it’s not relevant to them.  That’s not down to the science, that’s down to the communication of the science. Therefore anything we can do to make that science reach everybody it deserves to reach, which is the entire population of the planet, is only to be encouraged.

That brings us on to the theme of the competition, which is ‘openness in science’.  What does that mean to you?

I can’t be the only person who has spotted that what we’re doing at one level is awarding individuals for their ability to talk about how a lot of science isn’t about individuals – it’s about collaboration and helping each other. So many of the great advances of science are not, as we like to think, down to one lone genius, but to ideas that the time has come for.

There are obviously lots of meanings of openness: there is not concealing things; there is being full, free and frank. But openness, as I see it, is more about the historical advances that have depended to some degree on collaboration, on pooling knowledge, on sharing.  And on modern systems, for instance, the way that the internet allows almost instantaneous feedback to experts and access to people on other levels.

There are all these different aspects which have to be both good in themselves, and to echo the real nature of science. This is not, as the public like to think, about one person who has an amazing brainwave, but has always been about ideas, and by a back and forth between scientists that is accelerated by modern technology, they’re able to come up with the next advance.

You don’t have to go back very far at all to find a situation where someone would publish something in a peer-reviewed journal, and then eventually there might be another paper that would pick up on it, saying ‘We’ve tried to replicate those results, but we can’t’ or ‘Could there actually be another explanation for these findings?’ The whole dialogue will take place, but it would take place in almost geological time. Now what can happen is that because that person will have an email address published in there, there will almost instantly be feedback. Suddenly the whole speed at which you advance and go on from an idea is greatly accelerated.

But ‘openness in science’ is not just about greater communication between peers.

It’s getting people to meet up who would never previously meet up. Partly because of the nature of the technology, but also because a lot of universities and academic institutions are pushing this idea of bringing people together from different disciplines and seeing what happens when you put together a particle physicist with a fashion designer, or a geologist and a systems biologist. Sometimes they end up with crazy projects that go nowhere, but now and again you are finding new things happening. It’s a proactive evolution that is taking place, and you can encourage that by bringing people together.

What are you expecting from the competition?

I don’t know yet, is the honest answer. At one level, you need a good idea and you need clarity of expression. But if we’re talking about good communication, it’s dangerous to be prescriptive. There could be somebody who comes along and bends the rules in a weird way. This year, as well as written entries, we have storyboards and scripts, so that opens up all sorts of possibilities. If I said now that ‘this is what I’m looking for’, then somebody might come up with something that completely doesn’t fit that. And I rather hope they will, I’m looking to be a little bit surprised. I’m hoping for some adventurous science communication.

 

Quentin Cooper hosts a diverse range of events in Britain and beyond as well as appearing regularly on radio, TV and in print. He’s one of the most familiar and popular voices of science in the UK, writing and presenting many hundreds of programmes – including fronting Britain’s most listened to science show, Material World, on BBC Radio 4 for over a decade. He also holds several honorary science doctorates and is an honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

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