You've spent years on your scientific research and made some amazing discoveries...but how do you connect this information with the people who need to know about it?
An authority on the topic of connecting scientific research with the public is Kylie Ahern - award-winning science publisher, tech entrepreneur, CEO of STEM Matters, and co-founder of Cosmos Magazine.
Kylie Ahern's top 5 tips for researchers wanting to connect their scientific research with the public:
1. Update your researcher profile
I find most research profiles are pretty boring. So, one really easy thing that you can do is to update your academic or researcher profile on your departmental website to be more appealing or engaging to the public or journalists who might stumble across it.
So, if you want to broaden your audience appeal, you can update your researcher profile to include stories, images, or videos about your research work and the wider topic, or even a personal anecdote about your research work. What drew you to that type of research? What questions do you want to answer? What difference do you hope your research might make to the world?
Think about what kind of profile you would be comfortable with, and what you want it to portray about you, your work, and your wider research area. You do still need to have your listing of publications and awards, and I understand how important that is for researchers. However, you need to be aware that the audience for these things is fellow academics. The audience for that is not the public, it's not industry, it's not government - it is no one else beyond your peers.
So, get your researcher profile updated and see if you can get your IT department or your marketing department to add a tab or links to further information so that you can explain more about your research or the wider context of your research. Which brings me to...
2.Share stories about your wider research area
Sharing interesting stories about your wider research area helps to give your research some context. Explain your research and the context of your research, but don't just talk about you, talk about the wider scientific topic. If your research is to do with whales, then why not have a story or an explainer around why whales strand themselves? It doesn't necessarily have to be about your research. But giving this wider information helps the public to understand how your research fits in and why it's important.
You can also connect the research you are doing or pursuing to an even bigger theme. Is it the environment? Climate change? Public health? To continue the whale example, you could connect to several major themes including climate change, ocean health, and pollutants - all of which have resonance and interest to the wider population. If you can, try to find the story and storyline in your research. How do the results of your research creatively link and connect to the global challenges facing humanity? Tie your research to the current issues of the day to show how it’s timely and why your research matters right now.
This can really help if a journalist comes across your profile because they are hungry to know this stuff and you've done a lot of their work for them! They want to know how you and your research fits into the wider discussion. It helps when they are pitching a story to their editors too.
The point of this is to become an authority and a destination for anyone who is out there looking for information on your topic. You need to help people understand how your research fits in and why it's important. Become that authority. Become that point of destination.
3. Research your audience
You really need to think about who your audience is - who do you want to communicate to, and should how you communicate with them? Communicating to an external audience is very different from building an audience of your peers.
If you want to reach the public then you really have to think about and research what the public reading and sharing. Use Google: look up search terms and see which are the top results and analyze the first pages of those results to see what they are saying and how the information is presented. Google is great - if you type in a few words it will show you what the popular terms are around that topic - Google's really helpful that way.
Also, look at social media. Look at what people are sharing and whats resonating with people on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn. This will help to focus the way that you present your research. Do the research. If you're going to go and be on Twitter, then get to know Twitter first. If you want to understand social media, do a bit of research around it, see what people are doing, who’s popular on social media. Look at your peers and what they are doing too.
Finally, use language that your audience can understand. This doesn't mean that you need to dumb down your research, it means that you have to write better. So get help if you need it and be open to the feedback. You can be brief.
Ultimately, it is important that scientists share their problem-solving innovations with the public in accessible ways, by using everyday language. The general public is not being engaged by academic or technical writing, so openness and accessibility is important and needed.
4. Communicate in a way that you are comfortable with
Do what you are comfortable doing! If you prefer to talk, then it might be that you want to start putting together podcasts or a regular piece for the university radio network. You don't need to become an expert writer. If you're someone who talks well, you can get your verbal speech transcribed and use that as the basis of a written piece. If you don't mind being on camera, film some short clips and start a YouTube channel about your research area. You've got to work with the tools you have and that are available at your university.
If your burning ambition is to write then you might want to look at writing op-eds, which are opinion pieces for a publication. These let you present arguments on one side of a topic, and you can include your own research findings in the discussion. The Op-Ed project has a terrific guide for anyone wanting to write opinion pieces and their goal is to encourage under-represented experts to take thought-leadership positions in their field.
5. Share your images
Importantly, if you've got great images about your research, share them! Scientists often sit on unique and hard-to-find images that people find incredibly fascinating. Images are going to help with the appeal because people are engaged by beautiful images and they're part of the storytelling. Media love them. It's going to help with story appeal people are engaged by beautiful images
Images are absolutely as important as the words!
In general, remember that if you need help you can always seek out the science communicators at your institution for advice. Increasingly, scientists, university and research institutions, government institutions and others are putting money and resource into hiring science communicators. I'd say most universities and research institutions now have professionally trained science communicators and media specialists that can help scientific researchers share some of their published cutting-edge scientific discoveries with the public. And I'll bet they'll be interested in your stories!
We hope that these tips help to make science easier, by helping you to connect your scientific findings with the people who need to know about them - the general public!
More tips for scientific researchers:
Kylie Ahern Full Seminar: Publishing research? How to connect your scientific research with the world!