Voice of Young Science workshop blog by RMetS student


Adam Bateson, an RMetS student member, attended the Voice of Young Science (VoYS) workshop in September 2017. He has written an excellent piece about the day, by combining it with an interesting take on climate change:

'Everybody wrap up, forget climate change, we’re heading towards a mini ice-age. Or at least that’s what recent headlines are predicting. These claims stem from predictions by Professor Valentina Zharkova at Northumbria University that the sun is about to enter a period of particularly low activity, which in turn would lower the net solar radiation entering the Earth’s atmosphere. It’s unlikely a surprise to hear that the headlines are a gross exaggeration; as this Guardian article discusses in detail, such a minimum in solar activity would at best temporarily moderate the observed temperature increase. We will not be skating on the River Thames any time soon. Nevertheless, most newspapers jumped at the opportunity for the shock headline, because their priority is drawing readers in. Similarly the recent abnormally cold weather in the US has provided further opportunity for newspapers to run stories questioning the legitimacy of climate change. Even the BBC has been criticised for its platforming of climate change sceptics; the organisation was forced to apologise after failing to correct false claims Lord Lawson made about the temperature record in a radio interview.  

Do these headlines necessarily matter though? Recent opinion polling has found that the vast majority of both the British and American public believe that man-made climate change is real. Similarly a survey across 40 countries found that a majority in every single one believed that climate change is a serious problem. Two years ago it seemed like the argument had been won when representatives from almost all countries agreed on the terms for the Paris Agreement, committing to ensuring that the mean global temperature increase is limited to no more than 2oC above pre-industrial levels. Sure, there were plenty of examples of politicians who were unconvinced, a highlight was this particular gem from Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe, however overall the signs were promising that decisive action would finally be taken. Unfortunately, this attitude proved to be complacent. Suddenly one of the major contributors to global carbon dioxide emissions looked set to withdraw from the Paris Agreement with worrying reports of censorship and obscuring data. Even in the UK, where the Prime Minister Theresa May has recently reiterated her support for combatting climate change, there are concerns that the country will fail to meet its legally binding emissions targets.

It’s clear that the scientific community needs to continue to engage with both the media and Government to ensure there is understanding of the evidence for climate change and why a significant response is needed urgently. I write this as a member of that scientific community. My days are spent modelling and trying to understand the impacts of different physical processes involved in the break-up of Arctic sea ice. Even as an early career researcher, I could and should add my voice to the many others already committed to talking to policymakers and discussing climate science with the media. However, explaining climate change in a way that is both simple and not misleading isn’t an easy task. An accurate description involves the words complexity and chaos, neither of which instil confidence in either policymakers or the public that scientists can be remotely confident in their projections of the climate (if you want to learn more about climate modelling however, Carbon Brief have recently produced an informative series of articles on the topic). Alternatively I can simplify the description down to its bare bones; I can tell a story about the sun, carbon dioxide and the greenhouse effect. However this opens the door for sceptics to introduce the complexity themselves and make a valid complaint that I am being misleading. 

The Standing up for Science workshop hosted by Sense about Science as part of the Voice of Young Science scheme seemed like a great opportunity to develop my understanding of interacting with the media and policymakers, and furthermore to pick up tips on how best to effectively communicate climate science.  The day consisted of three panel discussions: one involving scientists and their experiences with the media, both positive and negative; one involving journalists who work in the scientific remit; and one regarding how young scientists can contribute to debates in the public forum. 

A frequent theme which came up is that as scientists, we need to understand how journalism in the 21st century works, and be prepared to ‘play the game’. The two journalists in attendance, Oliver Moody, a science correspondent at The Times, and Jane Symons, a freelance health writer, both reiterated how much pressure they have to work under. They have tight deadlines and must produce multiple articles a day (generally around 6 – 8 stories a day for tabloid newspapers). Furthermore most reporters in science journalism do not have science backgrounds and hence it’s not surprising that journalists sometimes misinterpret research. Hilary Jones, a senior press officer at the UK Medical Research Council, suggested an effective way to counteract such issues is to work with the press officers for your organisation to produce a comprehensible, accurate and interesting press release to make the job of the journalist as easy as possible. In addition, being flexible and quick in responding to media requests enables them to meet their deadlines and ensure they publish high quality and accurate content. Oliver made similar points, suggesting that many errors in science reporting can be avoided by having a scientist on hand to answer any queries the journalist may have. 

When Dr Helen O’Neill, a researcher at UCL, was offered an interview, she was excited for the chance to share her interest and passion for her research with the public. At the interview she focused on trying to communicate the key aspects of her research and to contribute to the public understanding of fertility. However, when the interview was published, she was dismayed to discover that off-hand comments she made became a focal point and furthermore, the interview felt the need to compare her to Scarlett Johansson.  This is deeply worrying. It’s important that female scientists engage with the media to dispel the stereotype of the male, pale and stale scientist and they shouldn’t have to deal with comments on their appearance to do so. We shouldn’t tolerate misogyny wherever it is found. However more generally if we want to work with journalists we need to understand how the media industry works.

Jane Symons in particular highlighted that she ensures her articles are engaging by adding small personal details which humanises stories that may otherwise come across as quite dry. 

In terms of providing quotes Oliver Moody suggested that often the space allocated to a particular story can be drastically cut as new stories develop, and hence providing short, snappy quotes is the best way to ensure they are replicated in full and you get the point across that you want to make. He added that whilst his newspaper had a policy not to run  an article through interested parties, you are able to check through the reporters understanding and the quotes they will use (whilst this may seem unfair, it is worth remembering that newspapers also deal with politicians, and they need a consistent policy).

Whilst media engagement is important, it is just as important to be able to contribute to the political discussion. In the UK at least, this is possible. One of the day’s panellists was Martin Smith, a representative from the House of Commons Science and Technology select committee. Select committees are cross-party groups which collate evidence from experts to produce reports which scrutinise government policy. It is also possible to contribute to such inquires online. The government itself will also have consultations on new policies. These methods provide an opportunity for all young scientists to have a voice, and potentially to influence new policy. By contributing to these online consultations and inquiries, select committees can identify suitable people to provide evidence in person, potentially opening the door for a conversation with policymakers.  

During the panel with the journalists, I asked about the difficulties of reporting on something so polarised and politically divisive such as climate change. The response was relief from both journalists that this area was outside their remit. This is particularly striking considering they both worked within health, which has its own set of divisive topics. As somebody who came to the workshop wanting to be a public facing climate scientist, this is hardly a comforting reaction! However, one important piece of advice was to ‘think like a politician’. If you are being interviewed or providing a quote focus on your key message and keep responses succinct. Consider carefully what you say and recognise that your words can be spun. Develop your ‘elevator pitch’. Be prepared for scrutiny. If you want to be presented as an expert then scrutiny is important to ensure you are a thorough scientist presenting robust research. People will criticise you; some complaints will be valid, some ignorant and some hurtful and unfair. However, this is surely worth it, to make sure the science you do is understood and valued? Scientists remain one of the most trusted professions by the public, but we should not be complacent.  Especially with climate science we have a time limit before irreparable damage is done. It is a race against time to ensure both the government and voting public is on board to drive through the significant lifestyle changes needed to reduce emissions to sustainable levels. We need to be having these conversations with the public and politicians to address their doubts and concerns to bring them on board, whether that is regarding climate change or the potential benefits of GM crops.'

For a chance to win a place at the 2018 VoYS workshop, submit an abstract to this year's RMetS Student and Early Career Conference >>

To find out about VoYS, click here >>


News Date: 
Wednesday, January 31, 2018