What it really takes to communicate science in 2019

Words: William Ham Bevan / Photography: Angela Moore

From left: Olivia Mulvahil, Isabella Stafford, Bridie Kennerley and Tanya Hughes (all Science Communication 2018).
From left: Olivia Mulvahil, Isabella Stafford, Bridie Kennerley and Tanya Hughes (all Science Communication 2018).

It has the potential to unlock some of the most important discoveries in the universe and is the world’s largest and most complex piece of scientific kit. We’ve all heard of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN – the proton beams and the Higgs boson, the so-called ‘God particle’ – but who really understands what it’s all about?

The task of keeping the public informed about the mind-bogglingly complex developments at CERN falls to Kate Kahle (MSc Science Communication 2004) and her team. As Head of Editorial Content Development, she is responsible for publishing news of the LHC across websites and social media channels and says it’s all about finding stories that will make people care.  “We’re pushing the boundaries of technology, so the story isn’t just about what the physicists are searching for, but the accelerated development of technology to achieve it,” says Kahle. “And then there are the human stories – the people behind the science. Above all, we need to reach out to the public, so the first thing we ask is this: what’s the audience for the story?”

Communicating science in the public sphere is a complex task that comes with some misleading preconceptions, says Katherine Mathieson (MSc Science Communication 1999), Chief Executive of the British Science Association. The first assumption to be challenged, according to Mathieson, is the idea that communicators simply ‘translate’ science into a more accessible form.

“I think that’s how people used to see it,” she says. “There was this idea that we should turn this hard stuff into something that the lay person could understand. But when I came to Imperial, I realised this was wildly over-simplistic. It’s actually less of a translation job and more about bringing together people and skills from different sectors to ensure that as many people as possible build up a positive relationship with science.”

And for all the controversy about whether the public has ‘had enough of experts’, science content has lost little of its audience. Carlo Massarella (Physics 1995, MSc Science Communication 1996) is Creative Director of Windfall Films – a TV production company he joined straight from the MSc course – and an Emmy-award-winning executive producer and documentary director. “I think it’s a great time for science,” he says. “Global broadcasters are looking to British producers because they have a very good skill set in making science accessible in an entertaining way.”

A current project is The Fifteen Billion Pound Railway, three series of BBC documentaries about the construction of Crossrail underneath London. Massarella says: “You have a whole wealth of people coming together to make the project possible, from people doing heavy engineering to soil scientists, geologists, electrical engineers and designers. We’ve been trying to convey the passion of those people with the skill and expertise to make it happen.”

Springboard to success

Like many who represent the public face of the world’s greatest scientific establishments – and countless others who report on them – Kahle, Mathieson and Massarella are graduates of the Imperial College London MSc in Science Communication. Earlier this year, the 25th intake of students received their degrees in the Royal Albert Hall, pushing the number of alumni past the 800 mark.

Since 2000, Imperial’s Science Communication Unit has offered two MSc programmes: the original MSc degree, and one in Science Media Production. Although the latter is more geared towards documentary film-making, the content across both is similar. Dr Stephen Webster, Director of the Unit, says: “In all cases, we’re trying to get the students to look in to science and look out to society. We want them to take a broader perspective on how science fits with the wider world.”

The core syllabus includes five types of professional skill: writing, TV and film-making, museums, web design and radio. However, students also take a wide range of courses in the humanities and social sciences – something they may not have done since choosing A-level options at the age of 16. Webster says: “What I mostly do, for example, is teach philosophy of science. That’s really to undermine the beliefs of the students that science is a bunch of facts that everyone would love, if only we could explain them more clearly.

“We tell them that it’s not like that: science is not about certainty. What do we even mean by scientific progress? And is it really true that the public are ignorant of science, and that’s why they resist ideas?  We look at all these things from a humanities perspective.”

Graduates of the MSc programmes are highly sought-after in all areas of science communication and journalism. Webster says: “About 50 per cent go into communications teams at scientific institutions, working on websites, public outreach, press releases, videos and so on. About a quarter go into print journalism, TV, documentary films and radio. Then we have a steady minority – perhaps five in every group of 50 – who go into museums and exhibitions. Finally, there’s a small stream who go into policy, such as in think tanks.”

It’s a fast-changing world, and many alumni end up taking on a multitude of different roles. Since graduation, Alok Jha (MSci Physics 1998, MSc Science Communication 1999) has variously worked as a science correspondent for the Guardian and ITN, a TV and radio presenter for the BBC, and an author of books including How to Live Forever and The Water Book. He says: “Before new media came along, journalism used to change once a generation. Now it seems like the format changes with every generation of iPhone.

“When I started, I’d have a day or so to write and edit a news story, or perhaps several days for a feature that would appear in the paper some days later. Today, it’s so much faster. Often, you just have hours to try to do the same thing. But the fundamentals of the journalism are still the same: you take into account what your audience wants to know, you speak to expert people who know what they’re talking about, and you make sure what you produce is accurate.”

So, has the rise of social media, and the ability for anyone to broadcast their opinions to an audience of millions, fuelled a reaction against scientific expertise in favour of a post-truth free-for-all? Imran Khan (MSc Science Communication 2008), Head of Public Engagement at the Wellcome Trust, is not so sure.

He says: “One of the things we’re looking into at the moment is the narrative around vaccines and how social media may amplify poor debate.  But we shouldn’t be too quick to make assumptions. It may be that while the quantity of poor information being shared is significant, people are actually quite resilient to it.

“It’s something we’re trying to test, rather than jump to conclusions. And we’ve got plenty of examples of poor debate and misinformation from before social media arrived – like the MMR vaccine, or controversies around BSE (‘mad cow disease’) and GM crops – so we should be careful of imagining a pre-Twitter golden age of scientific debate.” 

Time to connect

Mathieson (who succeeded Khan as Chief Executive of the British Science Association) likewise thinks the ‘backlash against experts’ narrative is too simplistic. “My view is that experts are not less trusted than they were,” she says. “But public audiences have become more sophisticated at understanding the nature of expertise.

“I don’t think it’s the case that, 30 years ago, everyone just accepted what scientists said. I just think those conversations are now in public rather than private spheres.”

It all comes back to the idea of science communication as a conversation, rather than just a megaphone to amplify research findings. Webster queries the idea that any scientist can remain in a hermetically sealed laboratory and expect not to get tied up in real-world debates about the consequences of their research.

He says: “Students often want to believe that science is above politics, but is there really any science that’s not political? It’s a wonderful idea, the researcher locking themselves in the lab trying to understand nature. But because science is so anxious to be useful and have a role – not least so that its funding remains secure – it’s inevitable that it will get mixed up with politics.”

And ultimately, the greatest lesson for students on the MSc is that the public should not be seen as passive consumers, to be handed down digestible morsels of wisdom from the high table of science, but as active participants.

“The organisation I work for was formed in 1831,” says Mathieson. “At the time, there was no such thing as a scientist as we now understand the word – research was done by amateurs. In the transition to a professional science environment, perhaps we’ve lost that ability to connect with scientific method to understand the world about us. We feel that science only belongs to the professionals.

“Trying to bring back that connection is an important objective for me. Yes, there will always be professionals, who know their stuff best and do most of the work; but that’s true of music or sport as well. It shouldn’t stop the rest of us having a relationship with science and making it part of our lives.”

Reporting on tomorrow’s world today...

Dr Stephen Webster
Director of the Imperial College London MSc in Science Communication.

Kate Kahle (MSc Science Communication 2004)
Head of Editorial Content Development at CERN

Carlo Massarella (Physics 1995, MSc Science Communication 1996) 
Creative Director, Windfall Films.

Katherine Mathieson (MSc Science Communication 1999) 
Chief Executive of the British Science Association.

Alok Jha (MSci Physics 1998, MSc Science Communication 1999) 
Author and science correspondent

... and into the future

Olivia Mulvahil
"David Attenborough first got me hooked; I’m fascinated by the natural world as there’s still much to learn and I’d love to be part of the teams that bring it into people’s homes.”

Isabella Stafford
“The unlimited nature of knowledge keeps me excited – alongside being part of an emerging sphere focused on protecting and preserving nature’s wonders.”

Bridie Kennerley
“I’m inspired by the natural world itself – fascinated by the interactions that take place between organisms, from animal behaviour right down to deep sea bacteria.

Tanya Hughes
“My holiday reading – Steven Pinker, Thomas Kuhn, Simon Singh – reveals a love of science that has been deeply buried under a 30-year career in fashion and lifestyle.”