'Plebs' finally get to understand a bit of 'lab-coat lingo'

Scientists are not villains in lab coats, hoarding knowledge in ivory towers closed to Joe Public. But unfortunately, there are those scientists who insist by default that non-scientists won’t understand the technical details of their work.

This becomes a problem when they’re confronted with a farmer their research is meant to help, a journalist seeking the facts on a contentious issue, or even a private funder prepared to offer a large research grant.

It’s not that such scientists necessarily deem the public too stupid to comprehend the facts. Rather, in the face of common public opinions such as “they must know, because they are scientists” or “scientists cannot be trusted”, academics may find the responsibility of explaining the uncertainty associated with scientific enquiry daunting.

They’re also wary of being misquoted, or of being wrong, especially on issues of public concern like genetically-modified organisms, vaccines or climate change.

This, at least, is how many of the 28 young scientists who wrote about their research in last year’s Science Voices supplement explained the general reluctance of scientists to communicate their research.

Sarah Wild, science editor at the Mail & Guardian, coached each and every writer, encouraging them to use anecdotes and a narrative style, and to focus on what ordinary people care about.

Welcomed with open arms
For most of these budding science writers, Science Voices was the first opportunity they’d had to tell anyone outside of their niche about how exactly they’re spending taxpayer money to help solve South Africa’s problems.
And the public – farmers, filmmakers and funders, friends and family – welcomed their stories with open arms.

For example, Thembinkosi Xulu (University of Zululand), who had written about how inbreeding threatens Zulu sheep in KwaZulu-Natal, reports that the very farmers he works with to solve the problem of inbreeding had read his article. Since gaining a clearer understanding of his work, the farmers have committed their full co-operation.

Meanwhile, Petri Jansen van Vuuren (University of Pretoria) got a call from someone who had set up a trust to fund research into brain disease, in response to his article about Zolpidem.

Abigail Moffat (University of Cape Town) and her study of iron age mining caught the attention of Anthony Irving for his archaeology documentary Tales in the Grass, which will appear on SABC3 later this year.

Others reported that since participating in Science Voices, they’ve been able to speak to journalists, laymen and their own students with more confidence. They were reminded about what is and is not common knowledge, and they gained new insights into the relevance and impact of their own work.

They also gained non-academic writing skills, which many say is actually quite useful for drafting research proposals and grant applications.

Basanda Nondlazi (University of the Witwatersrand), who had written about bush encroachment, described Wild as a kind editor, who focussed on making the research understandable without reducing its scientific accuracy. “She showed me you don’t need a super-special skill to be a good writer; you have it in you and you just need practice,” he said.

A big challenge for many was to stick to the word limit, which was quite a bit shorter than the academic pieces they were used to. They learnt, as chemist Clinton Veale (Rhodes University) put it, that “if you have to use lots of words to explain your work, you’re doing it wrong.”

Preventing public hysteria
The M&G specifically asked last year’s Science Voices participants why it is important for scientists to communicate their work. Some of their answers have been mentioned already, but here are a few others of equal importance:

  • Much of the research performed in South Africa is funded by public money, so the public has the right to know how their hard-earned cash is being spent;
  • Exposing young people to science through the media helps encourage them to pursue a career in science;
  • Scientists have a duty to help create an informed public, and to prevent public hysteria concerning commonly misunderstood issues by sharing and defending the facts;
  • It generates publicity for scientists and their institutions, which may lead to further benefits, like research funding;
  • It facilitates cross-disciplinary research by helping experts in different fields to understand one another; and
  • South African research holds a wealth of untold “good news” stories in the public interest, many of which relate to creating and finding solutions to the country’s socioeconomic challenges.

The need for scientists to communicate with the public has been recognised by policymakers the world over, including in South Africa. In fact, scientists funded by the National Research Foundation (NRF, which also sponsored Science Voices last year), are encouraged to publicise their research within and beyond academia, says the NRF’s Dr Bernard Nthambeleni.

Internationally, the common academic motto of “publish or perish” is becoming “publicise or perish” – you have to advertise your research like any other product out there. That said, it is true that public outreach about science may be more important for some researchers than others.

Take Nicolette Hall’s (University of Pretoria) research, which found that local beef is rather lean compared to imported varieties. In her article, she showed how South African livestock farming contributes positively to the economy, and that in our local context many of our negative perceptions around the health and environmental consequences of meat consumption may not apply.

“The science generated through my studies now forms part of the consumer education project of Lamb & Mutton SA,” she says, having written some content for the organisation herself.

But Hall is not the only one to have expanded their science communication efforts beyond Science Voices. Some have started blogging, and Elana Vorster (University of the Witwatersrand), who wrote about a genetic muscle-wasting disease, is creating a cartoon for a National Health Laboratory Service newsletter.

And then there is of course quantum biologist Adriana Marais (University of KwaZulu-Natal), who lists her research passion for finding out what life really is, as a major reason she should be chosen to colonise the red planet as part of the Mars-One project. She’s made it to the top 100 shortlist so far; there will be another two rounds of selection before the final 24 astronauts are chosen.

Nearly every contributor interviewed by the M&G said they would do it again if they could, and they would certainly encourage their peers to write for Science Voices.

Even, as insect-farming advocate Cathy Dzerefos (University of the Witwatersrand) said, if it’s just so that her mother-in-law can finally reveal to her bridge club what it is her son’s wife actually does.


To make a submission to Science Voices, go to sciencevoices.mg.co.za

How to enter, what to do

We need more science in South Africa. We talk about how we need engineers and scientists to grow the economy and develop skills, but we also need science and scientific thinking to inform our national debates.

A professor once told me: “Once your science finds its way onto a bumper sticker, you’re screwed.”

Unfortunately many of our debates – whether it’s nuclear, fracking or genetically modified foods – are on bumper stickers and are fraught with hyperbolised, emotive nonsense, which degenerates into political mud-slinging.

We need scientific writing in newspapers to up the ante of our debate. Unfortunately science journalists are a rare breed; only a handful of newspapers in the country have one on their staff. And yet we have thousands of researchers in our country’s tertiary institutions, who seldom speak out.

Part of that is a fear: of the media, of having their science sensationalised and misunderstood, that they will have to “dumb down” their research to make people interested. Another part is that most space in South African news media – be it print or broadcast – is consumed by politics, and even a scientist who wants to share their work will find it difficult to pitch his or her research.

Platform for postgraduates
This was why the Mail & Guardian launched Science Voices last year, a platform for postgraduates at South African universities to learn how to write for a non-academic audience and to get published in our newspaper. We are calling on masters and doctoral candidates in South Africa’s universities to submit writing about their research. I will select pieces and work with those postgraduates to show them what newspapers are looking for, and how to write in “non-academese”.

This year, the Mail & Guardian is also partnering with SciDev.Net, a global science news agency, which will help to train students chosen to be part of Science Voices.

Many scientists are daunted by the idea of writing for a non-science audience, and you may think that squeezing your masters or doctoral research into under 1 000 words is impossible. So here are a few pointers on how to start, and how to go about writing your submission for Science Voices.

Don’t underestimate your audience

Personally, I find it incredibly irritating when someone patronises or talks down to me as though I was a child, so I try not to do that to my readers. Just because your reader has never heard of angular momentum or RNA polymerase does not mean that they are not capable of understanding it; they have simply not been exposed to it yet.

What should you write about?

There is something about your research that fascinates you: one thing that you are trying to understand. What is it? (Say it aloud in a sentence.) It may not be the focus of your field as a whole, or the most topical issue. But there is something about your research that gets under your skin, and that passion and interest will usually make your writing come alive.

Also, you don’t need results. You may have just begun your masters or PhD, and don’t have data to back up a hypothesis. That doesn’t matter. What are you looking for, why is it important, how will understanding this one thing inform your field?

Referencing

In journalistic writing you need to reference where someone else’s ideas and research comes from, but not to the same extent as a journal article. You don’t put things in brackets after the statement, or have footnotes or graphics. You also need to be selective of the references that you use: you don’t want your piece to be a collection of references strung together.

Format

Science journalism is a narrative about trying to understand a piece of the world: whether that is how a virus behaves in a body (animal or human), the jets of radiation from pulsars, carbon capture in the Southern Ocean, the transcription of DNA in cells into RNA. All of these things, and many more, are parts of the story of how things work.

Your research is a part of that story. These stories can take on different formats. You may choose to start with a lyrical introduction, putting your research into context. You may want to start with a hard introduction, an in-your-face approach, where you state at the outset what you’re planning to tell your reader.

Whichever format you choose, your story needs to include these aspects: What is the research you’re doing? How does it fit into other research in the field? Is it contested by other academics? Are there other hypotheses about why/how it happens? And importantly: Why is it relevant? (Use the “So What?” test. If you can’t answer that question, your story won’t be published.)

Jargon and acronyms

Jargon and acronyms are the kryptonite of popular writing. They are off-putting, confusing and intimidating and unnecessary.

Tone

The best way to understand journalistic tone is to read science journalism. My personal favourites are Ed Yong, Ian Sample, Carl Zimmer, Virginia Hughes and Kate Wong. Remember that many of them were full-time scientists before they turned to science journalism. Here are some pointers:

  • Keep it brief. Don’t use 100 words to say something you can write in a sentence.
  • Avoid using “I”. “I feel”, “I believe”, “I did”. It can work in opinion pieces, but it takes a while to be able to use it without sounding self-indulgent. Also, it can erode the authority of your piece.
  • Stay away from qualifiers such as: “One could possibly postulate that the allegedly unproven hypothesis …” It’s wordy and confusing.
Spele chek is ur frend

One of the most important rules of writing: always spell-check your work before you send it through. –
Sarah Wild

To make a submission to Science Voices, go to sciencevoices.mg.co.za

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