Category: Communication

What is Nanotechnology

The latest video from Risk Bites takes a four minute dive into what nanotechnology is, and why it’s important.  It was created as a primer for 5th graders – which probably means that there’ll be a lot of 5th graders at heart watching it! It also takes a somewhat less than conventional approach to nanotech: The video came about after I spent some time mentoring a fifth grade teacher this summer. While developing class material on nanotech and water, we discovered that it’s really tough to find engaging and relevant online material that can help set the scene for kids just learning about nanotechnology. Hopefully this fits the bill. (More from Risk Bites on nanotechnology)

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Science communication guiding principles

A few days ago, I was asked to articulate my “rules” for effective science communication. I don’t actually have a check-list for developing science communications (and I’m not sure that a rigid check list would be such a good idea).  But I do have an informal (and until now not clearly articulated) framework that informs how I communicate, whether I’m being asked to comment on something with just a few minutes notice, or crafting an article or video from the ground up. This has evolved over the years, and reflects my professional experiences, my personal ethos and values, and – importantly – my responsibilities and ethic as an academic and an educator. Being asked about my “rules” got me reflecting on this informal framework, and how to articulate what’s important to me and why, as I communicate about and around science. The result was the (personal) guiding “questions” below (I formerly referred to them as “principles, but they’re really just a bunch of questions).   They’re admittedly a little earnest-sounding.  But that aside, they do capture what goes through my head when I put on my communication hat.   What is the purpose of the communication? Am I primarily setting out to engage, educate, or inform my audience? What do I want to achieve through this communication? (This will depend on the state of the science and messaging, and so is iterative with points further below) Who is my target audience? Who am I primarily communicating with, and why? Who else will this communication be useful to and used by? Are there unintended audiences that may not find the communication helpful, and how will I balance their perceptions and responses with my primary audience? What is the state of the science? What is known, and what is not? What is the

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How to give the perfect scientific presentation

Too often, it seems, the mark of a “good” scientist is the ability to give an excruciatingly embarrassing and incomprehensible scientific presentation – the sort of presentations that litter academic conferences. Borne out of long-standing frustration, I posted a tongue-in-cheek 12-point plan for the “perfect” presentation on Twitter yesterday: How to give the best scientific presentation – ever! — Andrew Maynard (@2020science) June 4, 2016 (You can download the PDF here.) Although on the surface this was a bit of fun, it was the result of years of frustration sitting through inept, ineffective presentations at scientific meetings. The thing that broke the camel’s back was the realization that, in some places at least, graduates and early career scientists are actually being mentored in giving embarrassingly bad presentations! This really needs to change. (And feel free to add additional rules in the comments!) Update June 11 2016 – you can now download the 12 steps to a perfect scientific presentation as a PDF slide deck here: Update June 12 2016 – And to complete the set, here’s the Bingo Score Card – no conference presentation should be without it!

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Want to uniquely inspire kids about science

Between April 25 – May 6, I’m A Scientist USA will once again be pitting some of the country’s smartest young scientists against middle and high school kids, in the quest to be the Last Scientist Standing. If you’re up for the challenge, you have until April 4 to throw your hat into the ring! I’m A Scientist is an online competition that allows school kids of all backgrounds and abilities to engage with scientists in ways that they would never usually have the chance to.  It’s open to scientists from academia, industry and the public sector. I’m admittedly a little biased here as a member of the I’m A Scientist USA Advisory Board, and a winner in the original UK competition (where it all started). That said, I would rank this as one of the most exciting, rewarding and transformative experiences you can take part in if you’re a young scientist with a passion for inspiring others – especially middle and high school students. Why I’m A Scientist is different What makes I’m A Scientist different from many other “communication opportunities” is that the kids call the shots – with a little help from their teachers and the I’m A Scientist team. As a contestant (and be warned – competition’s fierce to get accepted) – you are placed in a “zone” with four other scientists (“the competition”), and assigned to a group of school classes. Over the competition’s two weeks, your kids (and you’ll get to know some of them pretty well), post questions to the zone, sometimes directing them to you personally.  These can be about pretty much anything – from why’s the sky blue, to what makes a black hole, to what do you do all day (and even what’s your favorite food). You’ll also have a few incredibly intense live chats with

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Rethinking Twitter

A few weeks ago, I decided to take a bit of a vacation from Twitter.  I wanted some time to chew over my frustrations over the emerging Twitter culture, and get my head around whether I wanted to be a part of this community, and if so, how to best to participate and engage. While I suspect hardly anyone noticed my absence, I did miss Twitter  – maybe not surprisingly as I’ve been hanging out on the platform for several years now. Not hanging out on Twitter, I found myself less connected to what’s going on, and I missed being able to talk about and engage on things that grabbed my interest. At the same time, taking a break from the snark, gossip and social pressure that pervades Twitter felt really good. As a result I’ve decided to make some changes in how I use Twitter as I end the “vacation” – something I should probably have done some time ago. Here’s what I ended up with: Tweeting Tweet about cool stuff around science, technology, and society Tweet about interesting stuff your colleagues, students and friends are doing Tweet about your own work – but not too much Tweet about random stuff that interests and intrigues you, and makes you smile Retweet tweets about cool stuff around science, technology, and society Retweet tweets about random stuff that interests and intrigues you, and makes you smile Retweet generously tweets from colleagues, students, friends, and followers   Twitter Behavior Treat others with respect Engage generously Promote civil dialog Promote a culture of collegiality, inclusiveness, and engagement Don’t tweet or retweet critical or potentially hurtful comments about individuals Don’t get involved in twitter shaming Don’t block people unless they are extremely and consistently offensive Don’t be an ass If you are an ass, fix it!   Following others Follow people who engage positively with you Follow

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Benjamin Franklin and his ipad #3 750x400

Why do people read science blogs? Surprisingly, we don’t have a good answer to this.  There’s a vibrant online community of people blogging about science, and talking about blogging about science, and blogging about blogging and talking about science.  But we don’t know that much about the people that science blogs and bloggers set out to serve. This is a problem from a science communication perspective, because if we don’t know who we’re engaging, and why they’re engaged, it’s very difficult to communicate effectively. To address this rather vital knowledge gap, Dr. Paige Jarreau – one of the foremost researchers on science blogging – has a plan.  Working with 60 bloggers, she will be conducting a large-scale survey of science blog readers to map out who reads these blogs, and why. To my knowledge, it’ll be the largest systematic survey of it’s type, and will provide extremely valuable insights into the effectiveness of science blogging as a way of communicating and engaging on science with non-expert audiences, as well as indicating how science blogging can become an even more effective communication platform.  However, there is a catch. Research costs money, and this project is no exception.  Rather brilliantly though, Paige is raising some of the money needed for the study through crowdfunding. What excites me about this is that it gives the online science community the chance to have skin in the game.  It enables community members to demonstrate their support for, and dedication to, the effective communication of science through blogs.  And it enables the data collection and analysis that will help them better-achieve their science communication aims. And of course, being a science-based community, they understand the importance of data and evidence in guiding decisions and actions, so there’s a rather elegant symmetry to them supporting the work that will generate the data that helps them in their work.

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Reporters- don't do this to scientists

Update 9:47  PM Sept 17.  It turns out that the reporter at the Sydney Morning Herald didn’t receive the three emails I sent on the 15th, and therefore did not realize that I had responded.  We have since exchanged emails, and the SMH article has updated to remove the statement that I wasn’t available for comment.  Bottom line – if things get messy, reporters, please do do this, and thanks to SMH and the article’s writer for responding positively.   Effective science reporting depends on a relationship of trust between journalists and scientists. Breach that trust, and effective reporting and science communication suffer. Journalists need to know they can call on scientists to provide accurate, understandable, and often rapid, information on topics.  Scientists need to know their help and input will be used with respect and honesty.  Without trust on both sides, things get messy fast. This morning, my name appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.  But not against a quote or as a source. Instead, this is what I read: “Fairfax Media contacted … leading risk expert Professor Andrew Maynard at the University of Michigan. They were not available for comment.” Where an organization or person is being held accountable for their actions in an article, it’s sometimes necessary to state when they weren’t available for comment – it establishes due diligence on the reporter’s end, and makes a strong statement abut the stance and attitude of the organization/person under scrutiny. Experts who are approached for further insight, context, or background information on a piece are different. Scientists work with reporters for a number of reasons.  Most often though, they do so because of a personal and professional sense of responsibility to help people understand their worlds through the lens of science. If, as a reporter, you call out a scientist for not commenting on something, you erode the implicit relationship

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Facebook: An effective platform for science communication ?

Is Facebook an effective platform for science communication? If you’re interested in reach, and engaging content, a quick look at the followers and likes somewhere like the IFLS Facebook page would suggest that this is a phenomenally successful platform.  However, I suspect that these mega-sites are the exception rather than the rule, and don’t reflect the reality of using Facebook pages that most people experience. So how useful is this platform if you’re a niche, writing-in-your-spare-time science blogger? There’s been a 2020 Science Facebook page for several years now, but I’ve never really used it in earnest.  Over the past several weeks though, I’ve brushed it off, given the page a facelift, and been experimenting with regular posts. I was especially interested in how posting to the Facebook page compared to writing for the blog.  As a result, I’ve been posting short pieces there 3 – 4 times a week.  It’s been an interesting experiment (one that’s continuing), and I’d be interested in your thoughts – either here or over on the page itself. So far, I like the informality and immediacy of Facebook – if I see something that catches my attention, or I want to capture a thought or idea, it’s easy to put a short post up quickly in between everything else that’s clamoring for my time.  In a schedule where a free 15 minutes is a luxury, this has enabled me to put up links and comments that would never find their way into a blog,simply because of the extra time needed to craft a clear, solid narrative. I’ve also found the page a great way to informally curate links and ideas, and to add brief commentary around them. However, I have found that it seem something of a lottery who actually sees or reads a post.  The Facebook feed algorithm evidently decides which posts

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Thank You Postcard Underground

In this age of public outrage and social media shaming, small acts of private kindness sometimes don’t seem to count for that much.  Yet even though they may not have the social cachet of jumping on the hashtag du jour, to the individual who receives them, they can still mean a lot. Anyone following this blog will know that I’ve been working with YouTube as a medium for science communication – and specifically risk communication – for a few years now.  The channel – Risk Bites – has been moderately successful, and is approaching 100 short videos on risk and science designed for a non-expert audience.  Yet as any content creator will tell you, sometimes it’s hard to continue without affirmation from your audience that they value what you do. Which is why I was both deeply humbled and massively buoyed up earlier today to be on the receiving end of some rather unusual acts of private kindness. The “acts” came in the form of a series of postcards – each hand written by an anonymous writer, and each expressing their thanks for what I do with Risk Bites. The postcards were from members of the Postcard Underground.  From what I’ve been able to glean – which isn’t a lot – this is a group of individuals who collectively decide to inundate an inspiring person (or group or organization apparently) kind words.  Via snail mail. On postcards. It’s an incredibly generous act, and one that is the antithesis of so much that takes place on social media these days. I have no idea who these postcard writers are.  But whoever you are – thank you. I only wish I could reciprocate by joining the legion of shadowy Postcard Underground members.  On the other hand,  you don’t need to be part of a covert group to anonymously send

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Politics don't always play a role in attitudes toward science issues 750x400

Comments provided for GENeS on the launch of the Pew Research Center attitudes survey on Americans, Politics and Science Issues (July 1 2015) Political leanings are frequently associated with attitudes toward science and technology in the U.S.  Yet as the most recent poll from the Pew Research Center on Americans, Politics and Science Issues shows, public attitudes toward science and technology depend on a far more diverse and complex set of factors. This latest survey uses tried and tested statistical approaches to assess the degree to which different factors predict attitudes toward science, technology and engineering related issues amongst American adults.  As well as investigating attitudes as a function of ideology and political party, the survey also looks at the influence of age, education and science knowledge, gender, race and ethnicity, and religion or religious activities. These factors are mapped onto 22 areas covering climate and energy, government funding of science and technology, evolution, biomedical research and applications, food safety, animal testing, and space research and exploration.  For each area, the analysis assesses how strongly or weakly each factor predicts public attitudes. As with all statistical analyses, there are some uncertainties surrounding the results.  However, the approach used enables different influences to be disentangled from one another, allowing a clear picture to emerge of how different factors influence attitudes.  Within the caveats that apply to any such assessment, the survey paints a nuanced overview of factors influencing American attitudes toward the development and applications of science, technology and engineering. As might be expected, the survey shows attitudes toward climate change and fossil fuel use to be strongly associated with political affiliation and ideology.  In contrast, acceptance of evolution due to natural processes is not strongly associated with political allegiances; rather, age and religion are stronger predictors of whether someone accepts

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New EdX course offers unique training in science & engineering photography

I’ve long been a fan of Felice Frankel’s work. I was thrilled therefore to discover that she is part of the team offering a unique edX course on making science and engineering pictures, starting on June 15.

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I'm A Scientist USA

In an innovative science education initiative, five scientists vie for popularity with school-age students from across the US by answering their questions online, and in real-time chats, in an effort to be the “last scientist standing”

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Lubchenco - delivering on science's social contract

In 1998, then-president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Dr. Jane Luchenco called for a “New Social Contract with science”. She argued that, in the face of emerging challenges, scientists needed to rethink their roles and responsibilities within society. Next Wednesday she will be examining how far we’ve come – and how far we still need to go – on delivering on science’s social contract, at the University of Michigan meeting on Academic Engagement in Public and Political Discourse.

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If you catch measles, what are your chances of dying? When I was a kid, measles was one of those things you were expected to catch.  I had it when I was five, and must confess, I don’t remember much about the experience.  I do remember being confined to bed.  And I also remember being told that measles could cause blindness – as a budding reader, this scared me.  But I don’t recall anyone hinting at anything worse.  If my parents were worried, they didn’t show it. And I’d certainly never heard of kids who had died – even in playground rumors. So as the current outbreak of measles in the US continues to spread, I’ve been intrigued by statements that the disease has a mortality rate of somewhere between one and three young children per thousand infected. Of course I know as a public health academic that measles is highly infectious and can cause severe harm – even death.  But there was a dissonance between what I was reading and what I felt was correct. Surely if one out of every few hundred kids died as a result of measles as I was growing up, I’d have got wind of it? The mortality rate of around 1 in 1000 though comes with a sound provenance.  It’s there in black and white on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) web pages: “For every 1,000 children who get measles, one or two will die from it” A 2004 review in the Journal of Infectious Diseases provides further insight.  Using CDC data on reported measles cases in the US between 1989 and 2000,Orenstein, Perry and Halsey indicated that approximately three children under the age of five died for every thousand that caught measles, and that the overall mortality rate for all ages was also around 3 per thousand people infected – the table below gives the

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The health impacts of concussions suffered while playing sports have been receiving increased attention in recent years.  According to the National Athletic Trainers’ Association,  An estimated 3.8 million concussions occur each year as a result of sport and physical activity in the U.S., with sport-related concussions account for 58% of all emergency department visits in children, and 46% of all concussions in adolescents. Part of the problem is a culture around sport that has a tendency to discount the seriousness of head traumas against the importance of winning – a culture that was highlighted all too visibly in Michigan last September, with the return to play of quarterback Shane Morris after a head injury. As institutions, players and parents grapple with the potential health impacts of sports-related traumatic brain injuries and how to avoid them, I asked Doug Martini — a PhD student in the University of Michigan Neurosport Research Laboratory — what he thought it was important for people to know about concussion.  These are captured on this latest video from Risk Bites:   And just in case you are too impatient to watch the video for two and a half minutes, here are the highlights: If you suffer a concussion, you should get an early and accurate diagnosis. Follow-up care is important. It’s not yet clear what the long term health impacts of concussion might be. Multiple head impacts that don’t lead to a diagnosis of concussion may also be significant. Helmets are designed to stop skull fractures, not prevent concussion.   For more information on concussion, it’s worth checking out the following resources: General information: University of Michigan Neurosport Research Laboratory Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) information on concussion CDC Heads Up on Concussion Consensus statement on concussion in sport: the 4th International Conference on Concussion in Sport

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I had a roller coaster of an interview with Seth Shostak (Director of the Center for SETI Research and host of Big Picture Science) last week on risk and black swan events. I was poised to talk about rare but high impact events like a mega-eruption at Yellowstone National Park, or a major asteroid hit. I was going to put these into context with more common risks – such as getting cancer, dying from excessive heat, or being killed by a dog bite (yes, it happens more than you’d think). I was prepared to talk with authority about micromorts, and the relative risk of being killed in a fall versus a car crash (surprisingly similar as it turns out). I’d done my homework. Not that it mattered.  Like all the best interviews, this one went off piste at frightening speed. We talked about the risks of new technologies; the dangers (or not) of  using cell phones; probability distributions and sparse risk-event data sets; insurance companies and premiums; to fear – and sharks; dread;  emotional responses to perceived risks; getting your kids vaccinated (do); familiar risks; unfamiliar risks; ebola; confusing concern with fear; making sense of big numbers.  We even talked about how extending our lifespans to centuries might change how we think about risk. We didn’t talk about micromorts. But with hindsight, that may have been the wafer thin mint that pushed us over the edge of risk-gluttony.  A black swan event well-avoided. You can hear the full episode at Big Picture Science on the Tale of the Distribution.  My segment begins at 37:55 (And, just in case you’re wondering, your chances of dying in a mega-eruption at Yellowstone during a one month vacation, are around a tenth of a micromort.  Probably.)

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As an academic, speaking with reporters can be nerve wracking.  The gut-wrench is palpable as you click on the article that follows, unsure of whether the person you spoke with has got it right, or created a train wreck with your name splattered all over it. Building trust Over the years, I’ve learnt to to calibrate my expectations and to trust the reporters I speak with to do the job they are paid to do – and in most cases they do it exceptionally well.  I’ve also learned the value of developing a trusting relationship with reporters that cuts both ways – they can trust me to be available and provide fast, clear, concise and accurate information; I can trust them to use the information they get from me with sense and integrity. But a recent incident has left me wondering whether I’m being overly naive in thinking of my relationship with reporters as a two-way street.  And surprisingly, it has nothing to do with the malicious misrepresentation of academic nightmares. Personal guidelines Although I’ve never formalized this before, I have a fairly clear set of internal guidelines I follow when I’m approached by reporters.  If written down, they would probably look something like this: The job of a reporter is to tell their story, not yours. Reporters are usually on deadline – respect this by responding as fast as possible to requests. Respect the professionally and expertise of the person you are speaking with. Provide clear, concise and accurate answers to the questions asked. Don’t try to use reporters for self-promotion. Be just as willing to provide background information as you are to provide quotes. Accept that what you say may not fit into the story the reporter is telling. Accept that what is written after an interview may not come up to

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Science Magazine has just released an update of it’s list of Twitter’s most popular researchers – now expanded to “100 of the most followed scientists on the social media platform”.  Having played around with the data, here’s an alternative listing, based on the Engagement Index (E-Index) – a measure I admittedly just made up! (jump straight to the list) The original list got quite a bit of flack for its lack of diversity, and who it missed off.  The update corrects this a little, but the ranking it is still based on number of followers – a valid index of popularity, but probably not a lot else. The good news is that the folks at Science have once again kindly made their raw data available, allowing alternative rankings to be played around with. Looking down the list, I was particularly interested in active and influential researchers who are also active on Twitter – fully engaged researchers if you like.  A really quick and dirty way to get a handle on this is to rank by the product of H-index and number of tweets. H-index is a useful measure of publication rate and citation rate.  Like all measures of performance it has its problems.  I like it as a measure of academic engagement though as it compresses the range of achievement across the spectrum – early investigators can rack up an H-index in single digits quite fast, while you have to be a stellar performer to get much above 40 or so. Moving over to social media, an H-index equivalent in Twitter would have been useful, but has yet to be invented.  In its absence, number of tweets is a really crude proxy for social activity – if not quite engagement. By multiplying H-index and total number of tweets and dividing

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2020 Science is published by Andrew Maynard - Director of the Risk Innovation Lab at Arizona State University. More ... 

Andrew can be found on Twitter at @2020science and on YouTube at Risk Bites


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