Science outreach : Getting started is easy!

Sharing scientific knowledge is a fundamental part of university life. Regardless of whether you're an undergraduate or a tenured professor, everyone has the responsibility of spreading their knowledge as widely as possible.


Why would you want to, though? “For a variety of reasons,” answers William Raillant-Clark, Press attaché at Université de Montréal's Office of Communications and Public Relations. “The media is an excellent vehicle for communicating your ideas or your discoveries to the general public, and it can also draw the attention of your research peers to your work. This is one of the reasons why funding partners and potential research directors take into consideration science outreach work.”

While science is currently rigorously debated in public spheres, the voice of scientists themselves is ironically all too often absent, he added. “The consequences of this can be tragic. Look at the misinformation being spread in the so-called climate change debate, for example. To put it simply, if scientists don't speak to the media, someone else will speak for them.”

If you are interested in spreading your knowledge, there are many different ways you can go about it, including traditional media, social media, blogs, public conferences, and popular science magazines and debates.

For beginners, William Raillant-Clark suggests starting out with a blog or a profile on a social network like Facebook or Twitter. “Because they're easy to set up, these platforms offer an ideal way to experiment with science outreach. You could share your own research activities or very simply any information you happen to find interesting. These first baby steps allow you to get involved without having to add your own comments or interpretations.”

Unlike traditional media, social media enables you to engage in a dialogue with the public. Raillant-Clark explains that “colleagues and the wider public will comment on your activity, which will enable you to refine your message.”

Traditional Media
When you're giving an interview to a journalist, you need to think a little differently. Who are you trying to reach? An everyday citizen? People who already know something about the subject? Children? Your language and your message will need to be adapted according to their needs. “When you are trying to reach out to the general public, imagine that you are speaking with your mother or grandmother,” Raillant-Clark says.

Regardless of the context, turn the “information pyramid” you've been taught to use upside down. “Start with the most interesting part of message, the part that directly concerns people,” Raillant-Clark explains. “If you're talking about research, it'll be the conclusion. You can then go on to explain your hypothesis and methodology.”

Go straight for the key information and communicate one single, clear message. Avoid technical jargon by using analogies, metaphors and examples. “Scientists often try to explain everything, but they forget that people who are interested by their work will go out of their way to find out more details by searching on the Internet or by contacting them via email,” Raillant-Clark notes.

What about if you a journalist asks you a question about a subject outside your field of expertise? “It's very simple,” Raillant-Clark says. “All you need to do is respond that you are unable to address the question as it does not relate to your area of knowledge.”

William Raillant-Clark advises scientists to never accept to give an interview without knowing who the journalist is. “Do some research – find out who she or he is, for whom the journalist works. Have they reported on your subject in the past, and if so, how? Do you feel comfortable with the journalist's work?”

To help you with your science outreach, Raillant-Clark's services are available to the entire Université de Montréal community. “I ensure that researchers get the most out of their efforts in terms of coverage in the local, national and international media.”

This article was translated from an original text in French written by Marie Lambert-Chan.

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