SpaceTEM seminar: how to explain science to non-experts?

Kairi Janson | 13.10.2017

On October 5th, 2107 the SpaceTEM team held a seminar which focused on effective science and innovation communication. Below the article there are some guidelines from the seminar on how to communicate science to the public.

2017-10-05 SpaceTEM media seminar.jpg

“Every scientist or engineer has to be able to talk about their work: why it is important and how it can benefit the society,” said Janis Dalbins, a SpaceTEM students' supervisor from Tartu Observatory, who participated in the seminar called „Communicating research and innovation“. In his opinion making a clear message also helps scientists and engineers to explain the importance of their work to funding sources.

The seminar was ran by experienced science journalist and science communication teacher Arko Olesk. He said scientists are more and more starting to realize that communication skills are necessary in order to be successful in their work. “Communication with the society is important and it can be done understandably and interestingly without losing in accuracy or in the complexity of the topic,” Olesk noted.

Olesk believes that “democratic citizenship in a modern society depends, among other things, on the ability of citizens to comprehend, criticise and use scientific ideas and claims“. Right now there is a lot of talk about science-based economy, about students to pick science or engineering as their majors in university, or about the social attitudes about science – for example the anti-vaccine groups or the flat Earth theory. Olesk said that the precondition for finding the best way out of all of those questions is the scientists making their work clear and understandable for the society.

In the seminar, theory was combined with practice. In the theoretical part Olesk encouraged the participants to discuss how to communicate science to general public: how to gain interest and how to keep their attention. In the practical session the participants had to come up with a short, interesting and clear introductory paragraph or sentence which would attract the reader to the topic.

There were 14 participants in the seminar. Most of them were young and wanted to find out more about the topic, but there were people that wanted to improve the communication side of their current work as well. There were a lot of scientists, but also journalism students, communication specialists, and so-called intermediates of science and business. As the seminar was held in English, people who don’t speak Estonian could also participate.

The event was a part of the Interreg Est-Lat programme student project SpaceTEM. SpaceTEM is an Estonian-Latvian space collaboration project that started this summer. Next the SpaceTEM students will visit schools in Tartu and Riga to introduce their activities in the observatory this past summer and the practice opportunities in scientific institutions. SpaceTEM students will also take part of the Space Hackathon taking place on November 2 to 5, 2017 in the Physicum of University of Tartu.

Some guidelines for better science communication (written by Tartu Observatory’s communication specialist Tiia Lillemaa):

  • always try to set the focus of the story first – one message. Then it will be much easier to add everything else;
  • the formulation of the lead idea is important as well – that decides whether you interest the reader and make them want to keep reading or lose them before they even start;
  • there should be about seven words in the headline and 25-30 words in the lead;
  • dare to ask until you get it: and then ask if you got it right;
  • do not use slang in your news story: different generations might understand the meanings of words or phrases differently (for example snowflakes).