Published: 09 May 2014

Surrey hosts Science Communication Conference 2014

Some of the best minds in science communication recently gathered at the University for a packed two days of discussion, debate, idea sharing and networking.

The vision of the British Science Association (BSA) is a world where science is seen as a fundamental part of our culture – not just the professional activity of scientists – and where people from all walks of life engage with science.

Providing a forum to discuss the key challenges to achieving this vision, the BSA’s Science Communication Conference 2014 was hosted by the University from 1 to 2 May. The 12th annual conference of its kind, this marked the first time the event has been held outside London and the first time on a university campus – reflecting Surrey’s commitment to increasing public engagement, and widening participation, in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects.

Organised in partnership with the Wellcome Trust, the conference brought together over 300 of the most prolific science communicators in the UK – from researchers and representatives from research institutes to festival organisers and science comedians. It also welcomed high profile figures in science including Government Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Mark Walport.

Setting the tone for the two-day event, keynote speaker Matt Locke – founder of Storythings and former Head of Innovation at BBC New Media – talked about the digital attention patterns that are being driven by new media. As audiences increasingly move away from traditional broadcast media, it will be important for science communicators to find new ways of telling science stories – capitalising on opportunities such as pledge platforms and “long live” events as well as social media.

This theme was echoed in a number of the lively discussion sessions scheduled throughout the conference, such as ‘Facing the altmetrics data divide: can we highlight important, under-reported science in the media?’, ‘The art of popular science writing’, ‘Setting content free’ and ‘Discussing contentious issues on social media’. Other sessions explored a diverse range of thought-provoking issues including how to give and receive feedback, engaging under-served audiences, the use of comedy to communicate science, and the value of involving schools in scientific research.

Speaking at a special evening drinks reception hosted by the University’s President and Vice-Chancellor Sir Christopher Snowden, Sir Mark Walport stressed the importance of understanding your audience when developing public engagement strategies. “You can only communicate if you know where the other person is coming from,” he said. “We have to communicate honestly and we need to engage people in their normal environments. We must also remember that data isn’t just about speaking – it’s about how we visualise things too.”

Chief Executive of the Association Imran Khan said, “By portraying science in a particular way, many of us – whether scientists, educators, policy makers or broadcasters – accidentally exclude a huge number of people from identifying with science. Science communication is vital to changing this picture, and this conference has been a valuable forum for accelerating this change – through conversations, debates and sharing what works and what doesn’t.”

Surrey’s Professor Jim Al-Khalili commented, “We are proud to have hosted the 12th BSA Science Communication Conference on campus. As a forward-thinking university, we are highly aware of the importance of communicating what we do to a broader audience, and of the role we can play in nurturing the next generation of science communicators.”

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