Tag Archives: science communication

science communication

Book ‘Regenesis’: Science marketing or Science journalism?

The 30-year old Dutch Association for Science Journalists (VWN) is going to change its name in ‘Dutch Association for Science Journalism and Science Communication’. A good decision. Most members, including me, earn their money mainly with communication. But actually the term communication is rather vague. ‘Communication’ conceals it is often marketing: well-written stories increase the chances to catch up new research funds. Nothing wrong with that, but shouldn’t we call ourselves science marketers instead of science communicators?  We are always advocating for plain language.

I had already decided to sign my mails with ‘Marianne Heselmans – Science Marketer’,  when I received ‘Regenesis. How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves. Written by system biologist George Church and science writer/philosopher Ed Regis in 2012. That book makes me doubt. It may not always possible to say: ‘Now I am a marketer. And now I am a science journalist, searching the truth to support democracy.  

George Church is a leading synthetic biologist, professor at MIT in Harvard and founder of the young company Gen9. Gen9 makes synthetic DNA on microchips. Synthetic DNA can be used to construct more effective bacteria, plants or animals for industry.

The authors have used the writing techniques of thorough science journalism. They have based their stories on published research results from different research institutes and not on vague expectations, or on only Harvard’s results. All stories can be checked and are full of fine (historical) details. 

Meanwhile, the wider story is a sketch of a future world in which all kinds of industrial bacteria, plants and animals are made with….. synthetic DNA. That new ‘synthetic’ organisms are then going to deliver us thousands of new, convenient products such as bio plastic cups and carpets, disease free plants and animals, bacteria for data storage and resurrection of the Neanderthal man. 

So we get a clear impression of the results and goals of the synthetic biologists. The book serves democracy too: who is against genetic modification, has got more idea’s, names and research programs to ‘attack’.  And possible negative side-effects of synthetic biology are described in detail.

But this convincing sketch of a world in which ‘nature and ourselves are reinvented’ is also the ultimate marketing for the company of George Church. The more believers in new bacteria, plants, animals and men  with (only) synthetic DNA, the more synthetic DNA Gen9 is  going to sell.

Do they promis too much? Not really. Gen9 now sells its synthetic DNA for 20 dollar cent per letter (per base pair). Still far too expensive to make bacteria and plants with only synthetic DNA. But if you realize how fast the price of sequenced DNA has been lowered in the last ten years (from 1 sequenced letter for 1 dollar in 2003, to 3 million sequenced letters for 1 dollar now), it is not 100 % unlikely that the Church’ and Regis’ world  becomes reality. In 50  years or in 100 or 200 years (the authors don’t mention a time).

So what I see in Regenesis is that thorough science journalism may well support democracy and science and technology marketing. And that writing a book together with a science writer is also a good marketing idea. 

Communicating citizen science: ‘Your wildlife’

On 6 th October, we will give a workshop Writing for the we for 50 ‘web-writers’ from Wageningen UR. It is only one afternoon for many attendants, so our goals are modest. However, in this blog I have space to come up with a really good example of science communication. Excellent work is now being done by the group Your wild life a group of scientists, science communicators, students and citizens based at the North Carolina State University in Raleigh.  Why?

Blogging to change a malpractice

Yesterday I gave an in-company-training The art of blogging at the environmental research school Sense in the

Netherlands. Our question was: How to start a blog? None of the 32 participants had experience; half of them were intend to start a blog.

According to me, the best way to start a blog is getting inspired by a great idea, or rather, by a strong drive to change a certain abuse. And one of the best examples I have seen is the site/movie/blog/tweetaccount Theygotodie from epidemiologist  Jonathan Smith, lecturer at the Yale School of Public Health ( US). Smith investigates the epidemiology of HIV and tuberculosis (TB) among mine workers in South Africa. These diseases are preventable, but many miners still die from them.
During his Phd research, Smith realized that nothing will change if he only publishes in peer reviewed journals. So he decided to mobilize people to improve the working conditions for the many thousands of people who continue to work in South Africa’s mines. He first made a 4-minutes-movie (trailer), to attract funding for a larger project, a one-hour-documentary in which he should follow he life of four miners. He succeeded and now his group has a professional site with video’s, blogs and tweetaccounts. These provide news about the miners (some of them are already dead), and about the campaign- and research results.

So Smith’s’ blog is embedded  in a broader strategy to change an injustice, using science and other means. That seems successful: more awareness makes it more likely that mine companies and politicians improve the working conditions. And also more likely that the research – visible changing an injustice – can continue.

Excellent talkers are self-confident and choose one key-message

On 9 July, I will be participating in a workshop for Phd’s at Wageningen UR. The theme is: How to tell a good story about your research? Well, here is an answer.

Three participants from the storytelling game Famelab, including the winner Pádraic Flood, will give their winning talk, and tell the attendants what they have learnt from the training they have received. For the discussion afterwards, I have selected three characteristics of an excellent speaker and I will then use the Famelab stories to illustrate these characteristics. But for this blog I will use three famous TED talks. Because we need to watch and analyze as many good (TED) talks as we can to become an excellent speaker. So what have excellent TED speakers in common? 1. Excellent TED speakers are self-confident. Watch the American sports coach Ivan Joseph. He is not only extremely self-confident himself, but he also clearly explains that self-confidence is not a gift (either you have it or you don’t). It is a skill that everybody can learn. And this is his key-message: practice, practice, practice. Joseph’s talk seems spontaneous, but he himself, he tells his audience, had practiced many times. He has given presentations for friends, for students, and for colleagues. Dozens of times he had to overcome his fears. Repetition has made him self-confident. Speaking for myself: I am very self-confident when it comes to writing stories. However, I am less experienced in telling stories. So I have to continuously practice to improve my self-confidence. 2. Excellent TED speakers choose one key-message. Take the communication expert Simon Sinek’s TED talk. He presents a simple model for how leaders inspire action, starting with the question ‘Why are I am doing what I am doing?’.And that is his key-message: Organizations need to focus more on WHY they are doing what they are doing, instead of what and how they are making their product. They will then have more success. ‘People buy why you do things, not what you do’, he repeats several times in different words. (By the way, his key message is useful for researchers too. They sometimes forget the why-part of a story, which is what interest the general public most.) 3. Excellent TED speakers illustrate their key-message with appealing examples and beautiful images. In fact, the stories from the best researchers I have heard, were built up with only anecdotes and examples. Author Simon Sinek’ examples include Apple, Martin Luther King and the Wright brothers. Renowned Italian plant physiologist Stefano Mancusa has the key-message: ‘Plants are much more intelligent than we have always learnt’. Accordingly, he starts with some drawings from the bible, illustrating Noah’s ark. Only animals went in the ark, plants were forgotten. He then switches to a page from Darwin’s book ‘The movement of plants’, in which Darwin had wrongly compared the plant movement with the ‘lower animals’ movement. Furthermore, also David Attenborough was wrong in telling us that the whale is the biggest creature of the world. No, the giant sequoias (a tree weighing in excess of 2000 ton) is the biggest living organisms. Did you know that a rye plant has 13,815,672 roots. Mancusa goes from example to example to illustrate his key-message. Sometimes, he takes his own research as an illustration. Of course, there are more characteristics than these three. After the meeting on 9 July, I will report further on this theme.

Research site that stimulates debates about controversial themes

7-12-2013. Are you struggling to create and maintain a website for a research program? View the Water, Land and Ecosystems CGIAR research program for a while. In my eyes, an inspiring site that excellently serves readers, the blogsite is particularly interesting.

In my role as a science writer, I follow research news in controversial fields including ‘land grabbing’ in developing countries. The greater the contribution from research to a topical issue, the better. Yesterday, while surfing on that CGIAR-site, I found an interesting blog about the amount of agricultural land (in hectares) that has been ‘grabbed’ in developing countries. A couple of years ago, Oxfam claimed that an area almost the size of Western Europe had been taken over by foreign investors. But then a recently published report claimed that most of these big ‘land grabs’ never got beyond the planning stage. So what is the truth? Accordingly, journalist Fred Pearce (author of ‘Land grabbers’) started researching different sources and figures (including figures from CGIAR). The result is a convincing blog/story that NGO”s such as Oxfam are probably right, but that they used the wrong figures to support their claim. Well, such analysis – with links to different figures and sources – really help a discussion further.

The homepage contains ‘news articles’, ‘Upcoming events’, ‘About’and ’Twitter’ (5000 followers). But three years after the start of this CGIAR research program, the blogsite is the most interesting and relevant part. It meets the program’s goal of providing a ‘platform for discussion and networking on ecosystems services and resource management’.

‘Critical opinions can be expressed here’, to quote the site, ‘but discussions must be forward-looking and solution-oriented.’ In this way, (blog)sites are fulfilling the traditional role of a professional journal, but with a broader based, more diverse audience. Journals calling themselves independent have a comparable goal of being a platform. And when research programs start inviting or recruiting good journalists such as Fred Pearce to actively participate,  the difference between the professional journals and quality blogsites are negligible.

Young African bloggers present the results of a Science Week

Asking young people to blog is a good way of publicising symposium results, as the Africa AgricultureScience Week (AASW), held from 15-20 July in Accra (Ghana), has proved. More than 150 young Africans, organised into a ‘AASW Social Reporting Team’ are right now writing blogs and tweets about agriculture in Africa. The Social Reporters do not need to attend the workshops, they can also track them on line.  
Idowu Ejere, a young Nigerian diplomat, came up with the idea a few months ago. A born communicator she already had accounts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Blogger but she used them mostly for personal purposes. Until she attended a Social Media Training in Uruguay. In one of the blogs she explains that this course was a turning point in her life as she came to understand the power of social media’
Ejere knew from previous meetings that one of the challenges was to ‘get the message out to people outside the usual audiences, including policy makers, young people and the general public’. Her organisation (the FARA) teamed up with other stakeholders and together they started a capacity building program for Social Reporters.
Today, the second day of the Week, three o’clock in the afternoon, there are already more than 25 blogs on the new blog site; 1720 followers including me (in Wageningen) get every new blog in their mailbox. The blogs provide (research) news and opinions. Several blogs seem to be from a program leader or communication officer at a NGO or research institutes. But other young people (traders, students, maybe even farmers) will definitely follow. The last blog, ‘Learn to farm from your computer’, is from an experienced Ghanian blogger, Dominic Kornu, who had nothing to do with agriculture before this Week. You can find out more about the training he got in his blog from 14 July, entitled Quaphui’s Cafe.
One thing is a pity. The Science Week homepage shows mainly pictures and descriptions of the official speakers – ministers, famous professors and company leaders. Although the F (for facebook), the T (for Twitter), and the In (for LinkedIn), mean a visitor is only one click from the blogsite or the tweets, I am not sure if this is clear enough for older people. I for one  (> 30) had missed it.

According to the blog of the CGIAR (one of the stakeholders): ’87 blog posts and over 2800 tweets were published at the end of day 2, reaching almost 800,000 people’.