Lessons from a Serial Science Communicator

Two key ingredients to successful science communication: Keep it simple, and Make it replicable. “Repeat performance is promoted by simplicity,” said science communicator Frank Burnet in a presentation at CUNY Graduate Center on Friday about his work over the past several decades.

Burnet, who started out an as actor and later earned degrees in biochemistry and neuroendocrinology, founded the science communication unit at the University of the West of England in Bristol, UK. Calling himself a “serial science communicator,” he has worked on projects as large and complex as the professional symphony performance of an original piece (“Peter and the Flu”) as well as informal science tables set up at local supermarkets (“check-out science”).

While the scale of “Peter and the Flu” was impressive and the performance was a success, the cost and number of people involved made it difficult to perform more than once, said Burnet, thus limiting the program’s reach. Alternatively, science trivia at pubs (Pub Genius) has turned out to be one of the most “infectious” of his initiatives—“I think it’s because it’s the most…gratuitously straightforward,” he said. To appeal to the pub audience (“know your audience” is also a key takeaway in science communication), his quizzes focus on science related to pub life such as drinking and driving limits, the effects of fast food, how whiskey is made, and so on.

Burnet thinks that the sufficient amount of “dwell-time” spent in pubs—meaning people spend a lot of time not doing a lot—make that type of venue ideal. But in order to gain people’s interest at a place like that, you must supply interactive activities, not just lectures, he said.

Once you develop a successful quiz, Burnet advises repeating its use at several pubs or similar venues. “Better to devise things that have their own life,” he said, and not worry about copyrighting material.

BAW-2014_DABIThough not trivia-focused, science cafes in Europe have been popular for some time, and similar programs have made their way across the pond to the US. Nerd Nite, Story Collider, and Secret Science Club are popular science-themed series that take place in bar settings in Brooklyn. All three are also hosting events this week for Brain Awareness Week (BAW), which promotes science communication by increasing public awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research. Hundreds of events are happening all over the world, so check out the international calendar of events to find activities in your area.

Looking through the variety events, you can see that many of the scientist participants in BAW embrace Burnet’s science communication tips and it’s inspiring to know that so many of them—especially early-career scientists—see the value in communicating science to the public. Science communication as a discipline is gaining traction; just a few years ago, SUNY Stonybrook developed the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, which trains scientists to share science on a lay-level with the public. According to a New York Times interview, Alda was “the most popular speaker” at February’s American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago.

The days of scientists keeping to their labs is done, as they realize the public’s hunger for relatable science knowledge—and the need for public support for future research funding.

–Ann L. Whitman

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