Science Communicators Pay It Forward
How do successful science communicators nurture and support others? Here’s what some top science communication practitioners told me on Twitter
As a seasoned science communicator, I’ve always worked hard to support others who are trying to find their way and develop their skills. But sometimes it’s felt like a lonely task in a world where far more people seem to want to talk about science communication than help those who are trying to do it.
As it turns out though, many successful science communicators are giving back to their community, and setting a laudable example for others to follow.
To get a sense of what they’re doing, I posted the following tweet while tagging a few prominent experts in the field:
“If you’re a high profile science communicator, what do you do to nurture, mentor and promote others?”
Although I shouldn’t have been, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of thoughtful responses I got.
Professor Alice Roberts (Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham, UK, and a biological anthropologist) replied
“I sit on public engagement grant committees & award panels, boards of science festivals & institutions; work to remove barriers to PE in my university and to support engaged researchers; provide advice and mentoring; promote science engagement through social media.”
Given how hard it is to support researchers in institutions that don’t always value science communication and engagement, it can’t be stressed enough how important this type of effort is.
“I like to promote people doing awesome things on social media, and help them find ways to showcase their awesomeness. If reporters come to me looking for a source and I can refer them to another lesser-known but more relevant person to speak to, I do.”
“I’ve also helped some of my friends/lab mates/etc. figure out ways to cultivate their online presence — how to showcase what they’re working on, picking a good Twitter handle, etc. A couple months back I gave a talk on this at @UofT for their graduate student day.”
I was also impressed by Dr. Sheril Kirshenbaum’s responsiveness to people asking for help — Sheril is author of The Science of Kissing and the Executive Director of @SciDebate. If only more people were as willing to reply to emails and simply chat about what it takes to be an effective science communicator:
Of course, most professional communicators are bat-crazy busy, and so responding to every request that comes in can be tough. But all the communicators who responded to my tweet were willing to carve out time to give something back.
“I tell people when my door is open…I don’t wait for them to ask. I schedule one-on-one meetings. We give revenue from Vlogbrothers to small YouTube channels. I tell them when I think they are amazing. When we can: hire them to host Crash Course, or feature them on SciShow.”
The science writer Carl Zimmer similarly described how he supports others within the limitations of his job and the constraints of not having more than 24 hours in a day:
“I do what I can as an individual writer. I hold workshops for science grad students, teach writing seminars, Skype to high school classes, talk with new writers at mtgs, offer advice when asked by email, starting with: https://carlzimmer.com/to-beginning-writers/”
Dr. Phil Plait, a prolific science writer and communicator, emphasized the ways in which he supports other communicators that don’t take a lot of time, but can make a massive difference:
“RT them, link to them in articles, suggest them as speakers/panelists/interviewees for TV/radio/podcasts.”
This is something that may sound simple, but is unbelievably important if you’re trying to make your way and have your voice heard as a science communicator.
Of course, by asking what “successful” science communicators do, I was inadvertently discouraging brilliant science communicators who don’t perceive themselves as such to respond — my bad. Sadly, many great communicators struggle to recognize their own success — one reason why frequent affirmation and support for anyone who engages in science communication is so important.
“I’m not high profile but because I’ve have to mostly figure this career out by myself I always make sure to help other people who want to give it a try as much as I can. Advise, sources, contacts, etc”
This makes Dee as “high profile” as anyone else in my books — and is a great reminder that good science communication is about what you contribute and the impact it has, not on the accolades you get!
And NPR’s Joe Palca replied
“Nice thread! We’ve been helping scientists connect with each other and develop #scicomm skills. We also hold video chats with other experts in the field. We built a writing program that just published our 50th scientist-written piece outside academia”
Joe’s “NPR Scicommers” deserves a special shoutout as an initiative that’s specifically designed to nurture science communicators!
These are just some of the responses I received (and more continue to come in. They made me realize that successful science communicators are working hard within the opportunities and constraints they face to encourage and support the next generation of communicators. More than this though, they demonstrated that there’s clearly a culture of mentorship within science communication, even if it may be hard to wheedle out at times.
Hopefully they’ll inspire others to actively encourage others, and not fall into the trap of thinking that they’re too busy or too important to help out. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from over a decade of doing this, if you’re going to survive and thrive as a science communicator, you need all the support and help you can get!
Needless to say, a huge thank you to everyone who took the time to reply to my original tweet!