Banff Science Communication Workshop – 1 year on!

6 09 2010

Our brains were rewired at the 2009 Banff Science Communication Workshop. Now a year later, how have we fared? The friendships we made there have really stood the test of time, pretty much everyone is still in contact through facebook or email. So how has the workshop changed our lives?

Well after tens of thousands of kms in flights, 33 blog posts, 600 tweets, 3 podcasts, 2 TV show pitches, 6 public presentations and cafe scientifiques, 9 articles in the “The Mark” and an Alternatives Journal cover story , not to mention research(!), it’s been one helluva year!

First up, thanks, Jay & MA, Mark, Jane for all your post-workshop support and encouragement. Always prepared to answer emails and provide comments, your help is worth more than its weight in gold.

The biggest event of the year has to be have been Ecogirl being selected for the Top 40 under 40. She met so many amazing people and had an awesome three days at the workshop. It’s hard to say how the connections will play out in the future.

Cosmoboy had a lot of fun writing the “Planet B” article for the “Out of Box” issue of the Alternatives Journal (thanks Niki!). The editing process was not smooth sailing though. The idea that ecological arguments would be even more powerful if there were no other planetary oases didn’t sell like hot cakes. The editor wanted a few more popular hooks and in the end a compromise was found (although not before the article had been withdrawn!) It was definitely a learning experience, and even spawned an article of its own, although the editor was promised it wouldn’t see the light of day.

Writing for “The Mark” happened by accident. They actively recruit people to write for them  and are looking for new content all the time. They’ll post whatever you want to write about, from politics to science. That said, it’s not clear precisely who their audience is or how many visitors the website gets.

The podcast idea was The Mark’s too, although Cosmoboy came up with the title, “Universal Ideas” and pretty much everything else. Thumbs up to Tascam for their DR07 recorder and Audio-Technica ATR-3350 mics, put them together and you’ve got a portable studio that fits into a 4×6 hard case! The biggest problem has been getting new stories out there. Legitimacy is the one thing a new face doesn’t have.

In terms of science communication, the highlight of the year has definitely been going out and talking to people. Nothing in this world beats human interaction. It’s so real. Whether it’s ten people in a cafe, 200 people in lecture theatre or something in between, nothing beats talking and answering questions (thanks for the invite Nathan, still trying to figure out a SciComm conference in Halifax!).  If you want the other hand in the clap, people give it to you instantly!

So that’s the good. What about the stuff that’s a struggle, or just outright bad?

The hardest part of all this communication is the ingratiating self-promotion you need to do to stand out in social media. The “content is king” mantra might be true if you have something like “Charlie bit my finger” on YouTube, but for blogs and articles how on earth do you avoid that cringe-worthy post with the sub-text “Please read my blog post”? It’s got so bad we’ve often not bothered to let people know about a number of new articles. Something’s wrong when you feel like this.

We both hate self-promotion. While we love to meet new people and making connections, we both hate networking solely for the purposes of self-promotion. Don’t people who ask to be your facebook friend for the sole purpose of telling you about their latest thingamyjig feel any sense of remorse? Yet how do you successfully reach out to a wide audience without this skill?

So where do we go from here? Apart from ramping up our self-promotion efforts, which is unlikely for us, there seem to be three options.

(1)    We concentrate more on our own science research and let the science communication effort go into teaching and the occasional media interview.

(2)    We can carry on as we are. Writing a couple of blog entries and articles a month in addition to the weekly Project 52 post. Fifteen or so blog hits a day, I guess is OK. (More when Lori & Dave mention us on facebook — thanks 🙂 )

(3)    We can change our tack and try something new. Really make an effort to get into the wider media. Does this mean concentrate on magazine articles? Or newspapers? Not sure.

While we are now at crossroads when it comes to science communication, we agree that it is an essential skill for all Kent Brockman interviewing Professor Frink from the Simpsonsscientists and researchers. It is important that average citizens and taxpayers understand the excitement and importance of research going on in all sorts of fields. However, how much effort should we put into this?  We already speak to journalists and media people regularly, explaining research. Is that sufficient? Should recognition be given to professors who devote much of their time on outreach and knowledge brokering?

In any case, we still cherish every memory of Banff! If you are interested in science communication, consider enrolling in this two-week adventure at one of the most beautiful campuses in Canada. (To our 2009 alumni friends, we can’t wait for the “Iron Dialogue”! MA – make it so! 🙂 )

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