PD Grant Recipient reflects on #PCST 2018

Shanii Austin

Four days, nine concurrent sessions, six keynote presentations, so much food and wine and an endless selection of science communication researchers, practitioners, scientists-in-communication and everyone in between; PCST 2018 has been the most intense, exhausting, mind-blowing and valuable experiences of my academic and professional career so far. I was incredibly grateful to receive the Professional Development Grant from the Australian Science Communicators to help me attend the Public Communication of Science and Technology Conference in Dunedin, NZ from 3-6th April. It taught me so many more things that I expected, and has made me appreciate the value of what we do even more!

As a science communicator, I was taught to ensure my communications are clear, concise and brief. In order to keep this review short and sweet, I have written an acrostic of sorts. If you’d like to read more detail about my adventures at this conference, please find my daily blog posts about PCST2018 at shaniiscicom.wordpress.com.

#PCST2018
# is for social media savvy. While at the conference, a friend of mine convinced me to join the wonderful world of Twitter, and I discovered the rabbit hole that was #PCST2018. I was amazed at the avid social media presence of the people attending the conference, and got incredibly excited when big names in the field (like Bruce Lewenstein and Jenni Metcalfe) were retweeting and liking my posts! I’ve also discovered it to be a great way to share my work with the wider science communication community that I wouldn’t have access to otherwise. Follow me @ShaniiSciCom #shamelessselfpromotion #ASC

P is for people and practitioner-researcher collaborations. I met so many amazing people at PCST2018 – not only researchers whose names I recognised from reading their work, but also Scicom practitioners or scientists dipping their toes in science communication. It was also great to meet other science communicators doing similar work in different countries, including Dr Graham Walker (whose research has heavily influenced my own!), Mikko Myllykoski (Experience Director at Heureka, the Finnish Science Centre), Erez Garty (from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel) and Claire Concannon (a science communicator at Tuhura, the Otago Museum science centre), as well as countless others. One of the strong themes highlighted at the end of the conference (and something I feel quite passionate about) was the importance of researcher-practitioner collaborations. One of the great ironies of science communication, in my opinion, is that we are excellent at communicating to our specific target audiences, but not with each other! Both science communication researchers and practitioners have so much experiential and empirical knowledge that we can learn from one another, and continue to improve science communication as field.

C is for culture. The best presentation that I attended from the entire conference was titled Science Communication as Culture: Entertainment, interaction and emotion. Culture was defined as “the production and exchange of meaning”; instead of simply sharing information with your audience, it encouraged us to think of science communication as creating meaning together, with inputs from both the audience and scientists. This session really resonated with me because it encourages new ways of thinking about what science communication really means. I think this presentation sparked a wonderful opportunity for all of us to rethink how we define science communication – not simply as telling our audience how great science is, but starting a proper conversation with them or creating a safe environment for people to discuss science and science-related issues in society. If you’re keen to learn more about this session, you can find more of my musings at: https://tinyurl.com/y8th5t29.

S is for stories and sharing. It is no secret that use of narrative and storytelling as a communication tool is a powerful way to help people remember information and compartmentalise new knowledge. Prominent paleoanthropologist Prof Lee Berger, best known for the excavation of Homo naledi at the Rising Star Cave in South Africa, shared his story of the value of sharing science research. Throughout the entire process of the study, from using social media to ask for “skinny scientists” (a team of amazing women who became known as the ‘Underground Astronauts’), to having National Geographic livestreaming the excavation of the fossils as they were brought to the surface, but also making all the research open-source, including 3D-models available to download and print so scientists around the world could scrutinise and learn from them, Berger made sure nothing was hidden from view. Despite being ridiculed by other scientists in the field on the dangers of sharing ongoing research with “the public”, making the research open-access from day one not only awarded Berger several awards such as Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, but also made the research some of the most highly cited in the field. Sharing the failures of science was also an interesting idea that was proposed. Science communicators often fall into the trap of hyping up the value of new discoveries and research. If everything is the “most amazing, new, exciting, fantastic contemporary discovery ever”, it can be hard for our audiences to work out what is important and can cause people to tune out. By sharing our faults and how we learned from them is a way we can humanise science and make it more relatable – that way when we do share something amazing, hopefully everyone can appreciate its true value.

T is for talking – as in, stop it! As science communicators, we love to share amazing new discoveries and cool facts about science – but is it really what our audiences want to hear? Listening to your audience and asking what they actually want to learn or hear from the world of science was a very strong theme throughout the conference. We’ve done well to move on from the Deficit model, but most science communication is still based on those with “science knowledge” disseminating it to those with “less knowledge”. Moving forward, we have an opportunity to imagine new ways to ask our audiences what they’d be interested in learning – which I think ties in very nicely with the idea of science communication as culture, and creating meaning together.

2018 is for moving into the future. Science communication has come a long way since our early attempts at Deficit model style communication, but PCST 2018 has helped highlight that there are still improvements to be made for us to continue moving forward as a professional and research community. By continuing to keep sharing ideas with each other, asking our audiences what they’d like to hear and discovering new ways to create meaning together with scientists and society, we have a busy and challenging, but definitely exciting future ahead.