635 words on Uni
I am on a seminar to learn about how to deal with the public and the press when talking about science. This is encouraged and organised by the DFG, the German science community/council.
I guess in some sense the things they told us are quite obvious in themselves but in another sense it really takes somebody to remind you and actually put you in the position of making mistakes when communicating to realise that these points apply to yourself as well as they do to others.
They started off with having us make a short, 30 second, statement about what we're doing – for the benefit of everybody attending and to tape it. Then we were in smaller groups explaining to one other person in a few minutes our area of interest and having that person to report on them for everybody else. In the afternoon we learned about techniques for writing press statements which we applied and finally had a 'role-play' situation for interviews
Things I learned: (a) Currently I am not able to explain exactly what I am doing to the 'general public'. This may be due to my understanding not being good enough to have enough distance and confidence to boil things down to a few easy-to-understand keywords. It may also be due to the technical nature of the topic. If people don't know what a manifold is (don't even bother using that word, geometrical object will do just as well and cause less confusion), mentioning Kähler manifolds casually when talking to the may not go down too well. It's probably a mixture of both reasons and the course should help me improve on the latter.
(b) One way to do that is to take back myself and just talk about general things mathematicians do, such as defining objects and then classifying them using invariants. It's probably what any mathematician does but for sure it's not wrong. Throw in a couple of examples from second year topology and everybody should be reasonably happy. I wouldn't have talked about my work though.
Other points are that (c) we should make an effort to communicate what we're doing to the 'general public'. While we shouldn't tell anything wrong, an aim of this should certainly be to make people happy by giving them a little access to the topic, however little. After all it's public money paying for universities and our jobs – so there should be at least some feelgood factor about it.
Also, (d), obviously, we want to avoid special language when communicating with the public. In addition, we want to use verbs and the active mode. Short sentences help as well. All of these points are as obvious as they're easy to forget.
Finally, (e), when dealing with journalists, keep in mind that mostly they're just asking you to get some background information. Tell them the truth, and explain things to them. They should normally appreciate it. In exchange you'll get the opportunity to have a little influence on how academia in general and you subject in particular are represented in public. Also, don't say anything wrong or questionable if you don't want to be quoted saying it.
Looking at the list of participants, I also noticed that our Graduiertenkolleg has a very short and elegant name: Gruppen und Geometrie, whereas the others having sent people are called: Molekulare Genetik der Entwicklung, Perspektiven der Primatologie: Integration genetischer, neurobiologischer und ethologischer Forschungsansätze, Wertschätzung und Erhaltung von Biodiversität: Umsetzung von Naturschutzstrategien im Rahmen des Übereinkommens über die biologische Vielfalt, Raumzeitliche Signalprozesse in Neuronen und zelluläre Biophysik, Spektroskopie und Dynamik molekularer Aggregate, Ketten, Knäuel und Netzwerke, Microstructural Control in Free-Radical Polymerization, Neuroplasticity: From Molecules to Systems. Yep, lots of biologists and chemists to meet there.
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