Jonathan Amos has been working as a science specialist for the BBC since 1994, and has won major awards for his online science reporting. He attended the European Geosciences Union General Assembly 2013 to write about the latest geoscience research and we saw some really popular stories emerging as a result of his reporting.
We spoke to Jonathan about science communication.
Should scientists leave science communication to the communication experts?
“No, absolutely not. Scientists do need to get out there and communicate their work to the general public.
“You can’t expect scientists to do all of the research and all of the communication, it’s asking a lot of them, but they are the best people to explain the work they do, if they can. They can use communicators to help them get a message across.
“In the UK a lot of grant application come with the proviso that people get out there and talk about their work, which I think is absolutely right. At the end of the day we are all being funded by tax payers.
But don’t you think that bad science communication can do more harm than good?
“It can go wrong, there’s no question of that. There are people here (at EGU 2013) who are poor at communicating, even to people within their own field. I’ve seen posters that are a complete mass of calculations, and you think, there is no way that work will have impact. The same rules apply to anybody that gets up and speaks in front of people.”
When you are sitting in talks at a conference, what makes you think ‘this could make a good story’?
“I look for a narrative. It could be a fact, a picture or a quote. Something that you can build a narrative around. It’s got to be obvious.
So if the scientist makes it easier to turn their research into a story, you’re more likely to write about it.
Do you get most of your stories from press conferences? Is this the best way for journalists to find out about the latest research?
“It’s a mix. The organising body will talk to the different session convenors and ask ‘what’s interesting, new or topical’ and they will make suggestions. It may be new results, or an area that’s hot.
You do see the same topics again and again, and other fields are overlooked.
“Rockets and dinosaurs are what kids like when they grow up, it stays with them and it gets them into science. Different things come into vogue. Stem cells were very new in the late ’90s – all scientists wanted to write about them. The topic has now lost some of that freshness. Climate is another one, it was very hot in the 2000’s, but that has now gone over the crest of the rise, despite being a hugely important subject. Particle physics is hot at the minute, and physicists are riding the crest of the wave, but the water will thin out for them and we’ll move onto the next topic.
So you have to be adaptable as a journalist.
What level of understanding of scientific principles and statistics do you think somebody needs to be a good science correspondent?
“When I didn’t have any qualifications, I thought that this would be a bar to me being a science correspondent. Having gone and got some qualifications, I now have a slightly different view. Just because you’ve done a PhD on the hind leg of a locust, that doesn’t mean you can write about particle physics. Some of the very best science correspondents I know have an arts background. It’s not about what you know but the questions you ask. Remember that the people you are writing for have even less knowledge than you do about particular subjects. It doesn’t matter how well you understand the topic if you can’t explain it to people.
“In my twenties I had virtually no science education, and I then went right up to degree level. Through this process I discovered that past first year degree level, you already have enough knowledge. It’s best to be broad rather than deep. You have to write about a locust one day, and the higgs boson the next.
“Although having a science background can be an advantage as you are able to join the dots between certain facts and put things into context. You can see why some things are more important than others.
Do you ever get it wrong? Do you publish a story and then realise you misunderstood the science?
“Everyone makes mistakes, the trick is to make as few as possible.
“A press release will be viewed by many people multiple times, but in a news room it all happens too quickly for that. After you get the first reports, the information evolves. The public often misunderstand how information is processed. They think that when an article appears that that information has come down on a tablet of stone. It doesn’t work like that.”
And finally, if the BBC were looking to recruit a new science correspondent, what would you look for in an application?
“I administer an internship, and what I want to see is a passion for communicating. There are some people whose lives are on rails, you can see that this is what they’ve always wanted to do and they’ve pursued it and not let anything get in the way. Those are the people that really impress me. They also have to be able to write, clearly. Some people are natural communicators, but some also have a passion to do it, and those are the people you are after.
“Every university is its own publishing house now. They used to post out press releases to journalists 10-15 years ago and now you can find them all online. Bloggers are just journalists without the qualifications that some of us journalists have.
“In the science community there are some very, very good communicators, and those sciences where those people exist should make more of them.”
At Geology for Global Development we encourage geoscientists to develop the skills needed to communicate their research to the public, and particularly to relevant charities and non-governmental organisations. We believe that if you are going to learn something new and exciting about a particular volcano, for example, then it is important that the people living near that volcano can benefit from your findings.
We are grateful to Jonathan Amos for his insight into the world of science journalism, and hope that it will benefit our readers; both those aspiring towards a career in science communication and academics that want to improve their ability to communicate their own research.