More than 90 per cent of people believe – if the straw poll conducted on this site recently is accurate – that communication is essential for a scientist to be successful in his career. This result fits all the anecdotal evidence that is available.
This is quite something. It means that most people believe that no matter how good a scientist is in the lab, they will not have e successful career if they can’t effectively communicate the value of their research to their peers and non scientists alike.
Being a top scientist in the lab is not, it seems, enough. Over the 20 years I have spent working as science journalist, I have found that – almost without exception – the top scientists are also superb communicators.
The leading scientists today, those typically aged in their 40s, 50s and 60s, have managed to become brilliant communicators without any training whatsoever.
Indeed in the 1980s in my own period as a undergraduate, talking to the press, or lay people about science, was not encouraged at all. It was even frowned upon.
Today there is no argument; everyone agrees; whether it is writing a grant proposal, or pitching for funding, or talking to a group of 15-year-old school students, scientists absolutely need to have very good communication skills.
Against this background, it is remarkable that science communication training in Ireland, and lots of other developed countries too, only happens – if it happens at all – at post-graduate level. This is a case of far too little, and far too late.
Doctoral students, and their research supervisors, often resent being dragged away from the lab, to do a science communication module, which they see, at that stage of their career – and rightly so – as being less than their number one priority.
The Danish model
So, how do other countries ‘do’ science communication? Could we be doing things better? The answer is, most certainly, yes.
Perhaps the best model around is that of Aalborg University in Denmark. This highly progressive university was set up in 1974 with the specific remit of having communication ’embedded’ into undergraduate science degrees.
Thus, learning about how to communicate science goes hand in hand, from day one, with the actual learning of scientific concepts. How better to test whether learning has happened or not, than to test students’ ability to explain a concept or an idea to others?
Undergraduates thus see communication of science, as part and parcel of the learning of science. The students realise that they will be judged by examiners on their learning of science, as expressed through the quality of how they communicate it.
In short, the students must become good communicators to make it through their degree. The better they are at communication the higher the grades they will achieve.
This is a totally different, and much more productive approach, than lumping communication modules on post grads. It’s too late at that stage, as post-grads will have already spent four, five or six years in a system that has ignored the need to communicate.
That’s sorted then.
So, all universities in Ireland you have been served notice – It’s time to embed communication skills into all your undergraduate degree science programmes, or face the consequences down the line.
If this is done well, then students, the university, and Irish society, and the high-tech local economy generally will benefit hugely.