About Me

My photo
London, United Kingdom
I am an engineering academic at University College London where I work on the sustainability of urban water systems. I am interested in the role of engineers and technology in sustainable cities.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Working with the media: a guide for scientists and engineers

Last summer I decided to have a change instead of a holiday. It was just as good. Instead of the beach I went to Londonist, as part of the British Science Association's Media Fellowship Scheme. They let me pretend to be a journalist. I also skived around the media centre at the British Science Festival in Bradford in September. I learned a few lessons about the media and what engineers and scientists can do to improve their relationship to it.

Answer your email

Most people get a lot of email. Most of it is junk. An email from a journalist is not junk. If you see one in your inbox, reply promptly.

Unless you have a very good reason, your reply should be 'thanks for getting in touch, I'd be happy to talk, please give me a call'. If you do have a good reason you should reply 'thanks for getting in touch, I am sorry I can't help, please contact our media office who may know of someone who can'.

That sentence took me 16 seconds to type. We are all very busy. We can all spare 16 seconds.

Good reasons for not speaking with journalists

There aren't many. Scientists and engineers spend a lot of time congratulating ourselves about how important our work is. We moan that the public doesn't understand or appreciate us. Those of us in universities spend a lot of tax payers' money. When someone from the media needs our help to explain a complex topic or to find out what we are doing with all that money, our default position should therefore be to say yes.

A good reason to decline is that you physically can't respond before their deadline. This is not 'talking to journalists isn't going to help with my next promotion or grant application so I don't want to waste my precious time'. This is 'I am lecturing all day, my baby has a fever, and my partner is in prison'. For a feature article or a documentary the journalist might be prepared to wait until your baby is healthy, your partner's legal troubles have been resolved, and you have a break from teaching. For a news story they'll need a quick response, so spend that 16 seconds and say no.  

A very good reason not to speak with a journalist is that their query is truly outside your area of expertise. Every field has its blabber mouth professor who spouts theories based more on insights from their wine collection than their research. You don't want to be a blabber mouth.

Journalists don't want blabber mouths either, but sometimes those are the only people who will speak to them. Before you turn down an enquiry it is worth checking what they want.

What journalists want

Journalists might be looking for an alternative view on a story that has been picked up through the news system of press releases and conferences. Good journalists will always want a second opinion. You might be asked to comment on the work of a colleague. Think of this as public peer review.

If the work is truly ground breaking and flawless, say so. If you think their work is good, but overlooks an important issue, this is a chance to demonstrate the complexity of science. If the work is rubbish, think carefully about your answer. You probably don't want to get caught in a public slapfest, but you also don't want bad science getting a free ride because no good scientist was prepared to speak up.   

Sometimes journalists are after a simple explanation of a general scientific or technical concept - closer to a talk you might give at a schools careers fair than your latest Transactions of Arcane Scientific Microdiscipline paper. Explaining basic science and engineering to journalists is a worthy public service.

Occasionally science and engineering expertise is needed to respond to a news event, like an earthquake or plane crash. You may be the expert the media are looking for. This is when your friendly local press officer comes in handy. They can filter media enquiries for you. They can give you advice on how things work, what the journalists are looking for and what pitfalls to avoid. They might also provide some training in advance, so that you are ready when events call upon you.

A journalist might just be looking for a fun story to inform and entertain their audience. My most successful article for Londonist was about the impact of the 24 hour tube on tube mice - High Science. I love tube mice. The 24 hour tube had been a big story in London (strikes). Prof. Bill Wisden and colleagues from Imperial College had just published a paper on the brain chemistry of sleep deprivation. Brain chemistry isn't the kind of thing Londonist usually covers, but anything to do with the tube is. Bill was incredibly generous in speaking with me about tube mice and how they might compare with their gentile cousins in their lab at Imperial. I managed to squeeze some science in, and the article played well with Londonist readers.

Be like Bill. Science doesn't have to be serious all the time. If you want science and engineering to be meaningful for people who think it is dull (most people?) then you might need to be playful.

Don't be a snob

Secretly, a little part of many of us wants to be the dazzling expert in the newspaper we read or the TV and radio shows we watch and listen to. That is, most academics want to be in The Guardian, The Times and on the BBC. We want to talk to 'people like us'.

The middle classes need good science. There is nothing wrong with speaking to the good people who work for high minded news outlets. A problem arises if those are the only journalists that good scientists and engineers engage with.

185,000 people read The Guardian. 1.9 million read The Sun. You might despise its politics and editorial policies, but The Sun is what people read.

A journalist from The Sun will have a particular set of priorities and pressures in coming up with a story that will make it into the next edition. Nonetheless, for the most part they want to report good science. Take a chance. Work with them. They aren't monsters (mostly) and their readers probably need to be informed about science and engineering more than 'people like us'.

This is a lesson I first learned from Dan, a writer for FHM magazine, and I wrote about it at the time.

The media machine

At some point in your career your work might become a news story. Someone might write a press release about it. This could be a client, your employer, your professional body, your funding agency or the journal where your work is published. For really big stories - a space mission, a new species of hominin, a new cancer treatment - this will be highly orchestrated. For smaller stories this might just be a press officer hoping it gets picked up for a bit of publicity.

When you are in the midst of a news story things can happen very quickly. Beforehand you should have plenty of time to prepare. Spend time with your press officers. Get any training you need. Don't be caught out at the last minute, flumoxed by a question you didn't anticipate, unable to clearly explain what the story is.

Once the press release is out, the press conference is over and you've given all the interviews, there is not much you can do. In some cases it is OK to ask a journalist to send you any quotes they plan to use. It is never reasonable to expect to approve their final copy.

The story might not come out exactly as you would have liked. Some scientists have been treated very badly by the media, but this is rare. Mostly scientists and engineers are worried that journalists have sensationalised their work, or haven't reported the nuances of their findings. Some science actually is sensational and should be reported as such. Sometimes the nuances just aren't important.

Most scientists and engineers write stuff that few people will ever read. When a journalist takes on our story to get our work out into the world we should expect that a few of the finer details will be lost in translation.

The truth

Engineers, scientists and journalists are ultimately after the same thing - the truth. It sounds old fashioned and high minded, but that is our basic, shared purpose. Journalists need to sell newspapers, click-bait readers, keep people watching or listening. Parts of the media are cynical, and sales trump truth. Science and engineering can be cynical too, when grant income, self-promotion, journal impact and profit trump rigour. We all have different pressures and priorities, but ultimately our work is important to underpin a well informed democracy, an innovative economy and a fair society.

It is easy to focus on the superstar scientists and engineers who are on our airwaves every day. We might adore them or loathe them. The 'science communicator' has an important role and can be an exciting career path. Most of us, however, are happy beavering away doing the science and engineering. This does not mean we can leave the media work to the people with the shiny hair.

Working with the media can feel risky for scientists and engineers, but it can also be rewarding. Sharing our love for our work, helping people to understand the complex world we live in, and showing them why it is worth investing in science and engineering are all good reasons to spend 16 seconds saying yes to a journalist.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Love, fear and science

The older I get, the more I find the anger and outrage of my youth replaced by sadness. It was with sadness that I listened to Sir Tim Hunt's apology on the radio for his terrible little speech and have watched some of the fall out, including his resignation from an honorary post at UCL. My sadness is in small part sympathy for Hunt the person. This is an ignominious business. He messed up royally, and I feel sorry for him. Mostly my sadness is just the usual disappointment that these things even happen. It is not a surprise that an eminent scientist at the end of his career has made such a schoolboy error in remarks to a professional gathering, nor is it a surprise that he holds such views, but it is disappointing nonetheless. This is nothing new to me or to any woman in science and engineering, but there is something unusual in this case that has made me reflect again on the deeper problems of gender in science. The problem of love.

Hunt's main problems with women seem to be about love. In his view it is bad for science if scientists fall in love with each other. Workplace romances make life complicated in all sorts of sectors, but the idea that science works best without love is heartbreaking. Hunt and other scientists insist that science is objective and therefore works best when it is undertaken without emotion. Love is the most complicated and powerful of all emotions, and therefore a most dangerous force in the lab. This representation of science not only discourages lively, passionate human beings, including women, from engaging with important and exciting work, but it is inaccurate. Laboratories are full of emotion. Unfortunately the dominant emotion in too many laboratories is fear.

Laboratories run by great and powerful scientists in elitist, competitive institutions, driven to raise large amounts of funding and achieve external prizes and recognition, are too often very fearful places to work. Students and postdocs on precarious employment contracts live in fear of their livelihoods and careers. Workplaces where 'scientific brilliance' provides immunity from the norms of basic human decency can too easily condone bullying and harrassment, creating cultures of fear which induce many more tears and are far more dangerous to science than love.

Love and fear go deeper in science than workplace culture - in many ways they shape science itself. A lot of science is based in fear, particularly research associated with military and security applications, or driven by a desparate race to boost 'international competiveness'. Other research is founded in love, particularly research that aims to improve human health and happiness or probe the deepest wonders of life and the universe.

Which leads us back to the gender problem in science and engineering. Women seem to be more attracted to workplaces that are free of fear and research areas that are founded in love. Of all the complex reasons why women are still under represented in science and engineering, perhaps the answer is simply love.