Sunday, 5 September 2010

Why I love Sense About Science by Tulpesh Patel

Sense About Science is a charity organisation started as a reaction to the way  the media was being swamped by bad science stories. It was set up to actively work towards improving the public perception and understanding of science and campaign against bad science coverage. Rather than give a rambling introduction to all the stuff they do and how amazing they are, you can read for yourself here, and watch Alice Tuff,  Voice of Young Science Coordinator, talking to the British Pharmacological Society here.

I first came across Sense About Science a couple of years back when I got an email about one of their Voice of Young Science workshops, which are aimed at early career researchers who are interested in getting involved with science communication. Whilst I haven’t been directly involved with the organisation, I’ve followed their work closely and can honestly say that the workshop I attended really impacted how I consider science in the media and how I could become actively involved to improve media coverage of science. In fact, it was one of the motivations behind my starting the Aston Humanist Society.

Although it was a while ago, I remember the panel discussion at the workshop really well because the speakers were so engaging. Dr Dominic Williams from the University of Liverpool demonstrated his personal experience of how a peer-reviewed, published piece of research into the toxicity of food additives to murine neuroblastoma cells in culture snowballed into ‘Combination of additives, food colourings toxic to brain cells’ in the online paper the Crime Times, a publication which aims to ‘link brain dysfunction to disordered/criminal/psychopathic behaviour’. Professor Raymond Tallis (one of my humanist heroes) had a very positive message: don’t be afraid of ‘putting yourself out there’, promote the work you do and speak up for what you believe (this was the kick up the backside I needed to finally get moving with starting the Aston Humanist Society). Dr Trevor Cox from the University of Salford explained the other side of the science-media relationship: how scientists can take advantage of television, radio and newspapers to engage with the public and make science accessible, interesting and fun. Incidentally, Dr Cox will also be at the British Science Festival as part of the judging panel for the Radio 4 competition amateur scientist competition, So You Want To  Be A Scientist?, which will be well worth checking out.

I have wanted to write about just how important Sense About Science is, especially in the current climate, where unreason seems to be increasing exponentially and in surprise correlation with the number of people actively getting involved to combat it. Sense About Science have a whole series of articles on their website  covering the MMR vaccines, food additives and climate change, which collate the views of experts and those working in the area to help explain the science and combat the misconceptions propagated in the media. The malaria campaign  got a lot of coverage as it formed part of the huge (and ongoing) Ten23 campaign to raise awareness about the absurdity, and danger, of homeopathic remedies.

Their latest campaign is ‘You too could have a Diploma in Old Wives’ Traditional Medicine’ (#oldwivesmed), which highlights the Department of Health’s  ludicrous scheme to register and regulate practitioners of traditional medicines. If you’re in and around Whitehall on Wednesday 8 September at 11:30, give them your support at the flashmob! As well as the event at Whitehall on Wendesday, Sense About Science are holding a Standing up for Science event as part at the British Science Festival. I urge everyone to attend, especially if you are involved in science research; if it’s anything like their workshops it will be fascinating and very inspiring.

For scientists, especially young career scientists like myself who are interested in wider science communication, the goal is to perform sound research, report findings and share opinions with due care, accuracy and diligence; when trying to get the work further than publication in a specialist journal, it is up to us to do our level best to maximize the understanding of the science and minimize the opportunity for the research and ideas to be misconstrued. This is where Sense About Science’s excellent Voice of Young Science guides come into their own. These clear and concise handbooks are full of full of practical tips on how young scientists can confidently engage with the media to their advantage, and also challenge bad science reporting.

Standing up for Science and Standing up for Science II– nuts and bolts contains great hints and tips on things like contacting the media, companies or MPs, or putting together blogs and podcasts, and the best bit is that they’re all written by other researchers and science communicators. There Goes the Science Bit… is a series of reports on what happens when I bunch of young scientists took on companies who made ludicrous health claims about their products.  The results are by turns both a scary and (not necessarily intentionally) funny account of the state scientific understanding of some companies (or at least their marketing departments). It’s an excellent example of what people with a little science knowledge and the ability to ask the right questions can achieve. My favourite might just be the Making Sense of Statistics guide, which should be made required reading for all undergraduates. I might even go as far as to say a copy should be posted (or emailed – better for the environment of course) to every household.

I’m only just getting round to embracing blogs, Twitter and Facebook, which offer limitless opportunity to voice your opinion and join the debate. Part of the reason it’s taken me so long is that I haven’t always been confident about sharing my ideas and opinions for fear of being shot down or coming across as an ill-informed moron. I unhappily admit that I used to find it far too easy not to bother reading yet another crazy science story, or give a sad shake of the head when I saw something in the media that was blatantly ridiculous, put the newspaper down or click to Football365 and do nothing more.

The more media-savvy young scientists become, the broader the range of voices that are available to speak up. I am slowly learning to be to be more assertive with my love for science and the defense of the good science that is being done. Reading blogs written by peers and others that I admire, and being armed with guides like the ones produced by Voice of Young Science, has made me more confident about following up stories that rub my brain the wrong way and sharing my opinions on them. We definitely need more Sense About Science, and they deserve all the support they can get.

You can donate to Sense About Science here and @voiceofyoungsci on Twitter. 

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