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Posts Tagged ‘communications’

Before I began working at TRIUMF, I knew that science communication was a thing; much in the same way that I knew that there was someone, somewhere manufacturing tissue paper. It was just something that was. Reading an article in Scientific American or, to an extent, Wired, I never paused to consider who had written the article and what made an effective piece of science writing. I simply read it and moved on. Now that I have written a few articles that discuss science—nothing too long or in-depth, mind you—I have caught a glimpse of the harrowing plight of the science communicator and it is one fraught with frustration and self-doubt, but it is not without hope.

I, along with the majority of the communications team at TRIUMF, attended a talk at UBC called, “STORYOMICS: Proof that Scientists Evolved from Humans,” presented by scientist and documentary filmmaker, Randy Olson. I won’t go into too much detail about what he talked about because, to me, it was somewhat commonsensical. (Note: This may be because I’m an English major, whose sole purpose is to be painfully familiar with the components of a story.)

After the talk, a man named Dave Ng joined us for lunch. While we were chattering away, he said something that, initially, seemed like just an insightful observation. However, It has been ricocheting around in the damp recesses of my brain ever since. The observation was this: when news broke about the faster-than-light neutrinos, everyone covered it. Everyone. Of all the people who covered it, what percentage do you think knew—without reciting the Wikipedia entry for it from memory—what a neutrino actually was? Very few, I would bet. Judging from what I had read at the time, it seemed that everyone had reposted chunks of CERN/OPERA’s press release with bits of fluff around it to make it look like an original work. The main thrust of my scattershot thought process, the philosophical question that has me wandering the desert of my psyche looking for an answer is: can you ever effectively report on/write about something that you don’t have a deep knowledge of?

I used to write for a university newspaper and, while I did write about current events and physical fitness (which, if you know me, is not my forte), I gravitated towards the Arts and Life section. I wrote about books, movies, television, and video games.  What do all of these things have in common? I know about them. When I wrote about books, I was in my natural element because I understood the underlying principles that govern narrative and I knew the significance of things that the woefully uninitiated don’t pick up on (I once wrote an entire paper on the use of en and em dashes in a play, so don’t even dispute me on this). The writing was full of verve and wit (if I do say so myself). It had a confident, singular voice behind it. Confidence is the key to communicating anything effectively, but it is rare to find someone who is confident speaking about something they are not knowledgeable of. That’s why we see this paradigm: The head of the communications department at TRIUMF, Tim Meyer, is an excellent science communicator…who has a PhD in physics. Randy Olson is an effective science communicator…who has a PhD in biology. The list goes on: Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, etc. The point is that there is no doubt that scientists can become communicators. Can communicators communicate science, though? That seems to be a point of contention for scientists and communicators alike.

Before we go any further, I should probably establish my credentials: My background in science is less than negligible. I took Physics 11 in high school and Biology 100 in university. One of my (many) problems is that I was born with the curiosity of a scientist but without any of the skills to back it up. My interest in science is what made the opportunity to work at TRIUMF so appealing. It promised the opportunity to write about science, which is something that scared me, still scares me.

I recently wrote about the controversy surrounding the CERN/OPERA faster-than-light neutrino experiment and I was nervous the entire time. The prose was shaky, too reliant on quotes, and meek. It was listless and gray, devoid of all effervescence or joie de vivre. It was a passable science article. I felt how I think many science communicators feel in the beginning: gutted. The lack of “myself” in the article called into question whether I could communicate effectively, or if I had ever done so.

Science communicators are in the enviable and rare position to be attacked from every angle: from scientists for not being thorough enough and from communicators for being boring and ineffective. Both parties are assailing disparate aspects of the work and no one is pleased. If you heard a funeral dirge in the back of your mind while reading this, prepare for the tinkling, inspirational piano number because, in my mind, there is hope. I’ve only been at TRIUMF for three months, but I already feel like I’ve learned a great deal about science communication.

1.)       Always collaborate, when possible, with someone who is deeply familiar with the science you are discussing. I know it’s easier to Google, but this is the Internet. I’m a doctor on the Internet. This way, when you cite your sources, you don’t have to cite Wikipedia, you can cite a professional, which will confer a lot of credence to whatever you wrote.

2.)       Metaphor is your new best friend. You already have a best friend? Too bad. You might not know the dictionary definition of metaphor, but humans have been using it forever (hyperbole) to communicate complex ideas to the many. The more complex the concept, the more important the metaphor becomes.

3.)       Don’t be afraid to imbue the work with a sense of style. This is what I see most often. People think that because something is about science, it needs to be antiseptic. It doesn’t. If you’re a communicator, you have a unique voice, or I hope you have, anyway.

With the modicum of experience that I have in communicating science, I realize I’m no professional—yet—and this is by no means an “answer” to the questions posed earlier. These points are, however, a jumping off point for people who may be thinking about communicating science, but are afraid it has to be the written or verbal equivalent of gruel. They are also for the people who are communicating science but it has become so mechanical for them that they can’t see themselves in their work anymore.

My time at TRIUMF lasts five more months, and the journey will, without a doubt, involve more frustration and failure in the face of this nigh-rhetorical question. Instead of gently weeping into that good night, I will use the words of Charles Kettering, an engineer I just Googled, to give me hope: “99 percent of success is built on failure.”

–Written by Jordan Pitcher (Communications Assistant)

 

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Getting Access…and De-Vilification

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

–by T. “Isaac” Meyer, Head of Strategic Planning and Communication

Today, I witnessed a de-vilification.  It was intense, it was scary at times, and we held hands and talked quietly afterward to ensure we were ready to go out and face the real world again.

What happened?  I attended a 1-day seminar on lobbying.  Yes, lobbying the government.  As part of my job at TRIUMF in communications, strategic planning, outreach, education, external relations, public affairs, community and media relations, and whatever else I do each day to support the noble cause of the laboratory, I went to this seminar put on by the provincial Registrar of Lobbyists and Simon Fraser University. What we learned is that “lobbying” is NOT a bad word. In fact, we learned that is could be made whole, perfect, and complete: de-vilified!

What is lobbying?  Well, in simple terms, it is an undertaking to influence decisions made by government(s).  The Magna Carta granted every citizen the right to petition the crowd with his or her ideas, needs, and opinions — the first “right to lobby” was instantiated nearly 800 years ago!  Legend has it that the term “lobby” arose from the U.S. or the U.K. where people gathered around the politicians in the “lobbies” around the legislative chambers during breaks in session.  “Lobbyist” was therefore someone trying to get the ear of a politician weighing choices before voting.

In the modern world, lobbying is a dirty word. We complain about the undue influence of special interests in Washington, D.C., or Ottawa or even Victoria.  We associate lobbyists with people who just rotated out of government and are using their old rolodexes and networks to have an improper advantage in setting up meetings or having conversations with decision-makers. Worse, we see that many of these “lobbyists” are for hire! That is, they sell their ability to get access and their ability to influence to the highest bidder.

But what is really going on?

When the federal Minister of State for Science & Technology visits TRIUMF and we show him what we’re doing with isotopes for science and medicine, are we lobbying him?  Or when we are in Ottawa for a physics conference and we stop by to brief the clerks at the Ministry of Finance on our annual financial statements, are we lobbying them?

Turns out that most jurisdictions in North America have tried to do two things: (1) register lobbying activities, and (2) disclose these activities in the interests of transparency.  What qualifies as lobbying?  Well, in British Columbia, an organization is considered to be lobbying  the provincial government and must publicly register when the following criteria are all met: (a) there is an intent to communicate with government about an issue in front of it in an effort to support or influence an outcome (even if you’re requesting to maintain the status quo), (b) the people doing the communication are being paid (i.e., employees of the organization), (c) the effort expended by the entire organization for that communication exceeds 100 hours per year including prep time and travel time and meeting time and summed across all the people working on the communication, and (d) the person/people you’re meeting with government are at a certain level of decision/hierarchy.

It sounds complicated, but you can imagine what they’re trying to do: make sure that an average citizen’s letter doesn’t have to be tracked and reported but DO make sure that when larger groups meet on a regular basis with government representatives, there is some record of it.  We don’t want our democracies being run with secret advice in secret meetings!

And sometimes the lobbying registering and reporting rules are complicated. They are different for each part of each government, so one type of meeting might be considered lobbying the provincial government but not the federal government. Or a meeting with the Executive Branch might be lobbying where it wouldn’t be for the Legislative Branch.  For instance, we learned that staff of the Executive Branch cannot accept anything more than a cup of coffee at a function; staff of the U.S. Congress can have food “as long as it is not related to a meal.”  Now what does that mean?!

So what happens when you “register” as a lobbyist?  It means that you then have to keep track and “report” on the meetings and discussions you have with the government on the topics you’re interested in. For instance, a meeting to discuss the federal budget for science would qualify as well as a meeting to learn about the selection criteria for an upcoming research program.  Check out what happens when you register at the Government of Canada’s Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying website.

One of the themes of the workshop was how the system could be revised to allow more participation by interests that don’t have millions of dollars.  One suggestion was that responsibility for lobbyist registration and monitoring should also rest with public servants: when THEY meet with with YOU, they should record/report it and at the same time consider if they need to request a parallel meeting with another stakeholder group that also has a view on the issue up for discussion.

So, my meetings with the federal government do count; now, if the government person initiates the meeting, then it doesn’t.  But when we invite them, which we do ona regular basis, it does!  And TRIUMF certainly spends more than 100 hours per year collectively preparing for and meeting with government.   So that means we are lobbying…or rather, we are exercising our right to petition “the crown” to encourage them to favourable support the future of public funding for Canadian science and technology.

So lobbying is not dirty, its not evil.  You could even argue that lobbying is critical to a free, democratic society.  Its just that when conflicts of interest arise or improper advantages are used or sold that society runs into trouble.  So, what do you think?  What is lobbying for you? When does it cross the line?  Is it an intrinsic part of democracy or is it the path to corruption?

Go ahead—write back and lobby ME.

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