Diversity in science communication

 

When climate science is discussed in the media, men are quoted more often than women, and few women are regularly quoted in UK media about climate change. This reinforces the impression to the public that climate scientists are largely middle class, white men.

To discuss this, we were joined by Peter Stott (@StottPeter) and Ayesha Tandon (@ayeshatandon) to talk about their experiences of climate science communication. Prof Peter Stott is an experienced climate communicator at the Met Office and University of Exeter (working at the latter 1 day per week). Peter has worked at the Met Office since 1996 and leads the Climate Attribution group. Peter gives many media interviews, including on TV, radio and to many print journalists. He also appeared in documentaries for Channel 4 and National Geographic TV about Extreme Weather and Climate Change and has written articles for New Scientist, the Guardian and Carbon Brief. Peter was a PI for the recent Climate Stories project and he is a champion for improving diversity in science communication at the Met Office.

Met Office climate communicator Ayesha Tandon graduated from the University of Exeter in 2019 (read her Career Zone blog here). Up until our discussion, Ayesha worked for the Met Office in the Knowledge Integration Team as a Science Communicator where she has played a very important role helping members of the government and general public to easily understand important aspects of climate science. Ayesha has now moved to an exciting new role at Carbon Brief as their Science Journalist.

Is there a diversity issue in climate science communication in the UK?

Yes. Peter described a turning point for the Met Office communication approach after a Guardian article in May 2020 celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Met Office Hadley Centre. The four Met Office scientists quoted in the article are all senior men. Peter describes this as a failing in diversity. This article was a turning point as it brought into light the problem, which is the first step in correcting it.

How do you feel on camera?

Ayesha reflected on what it feels like to be a young, non-white female in front of a camera: “it can be hard. I am aware of how stereotypes may impact how people perceive me and I have to make sure I am seen as an authority”. Ayesha also recognises her privilege as a third generation BAME scientist (both her mother and grandmother were scientists) with an excellent private education and with English as a first language. However, Ayesha has not yet worked directly in teams with another person of colour, and like many women, experiences imposter syndrome from time to time.

The key for Ayesha is having a strong foundation of climate science and only tackling questions she feels confident answering. It’s OK to say you aren’t an expert in something – nobody can be an expert in everything. Questions asked may be useful in helping you know what to prep for next time.

Ayesha also reflected that for her to feel confident on camera, she prefers to wear professional clothing and make-up, but highlights this is a personal choice and you should do what makes you feel most confident. Others at the meeting highlighted the extra preparation time they feel they need to make if they are going to appear on video compared to their male colleagues.

Ayesha also made the point that you do not need to separate your professional self and personal self. It is encouraged to bring your natural style and communication preferences into the interview. With time, the goal is to reduce mannerisms which may be distracting, in Ayesha’s case this mean reducing her widely gesturing hands and taking pauses if she speaks too fast. Peter confirmed later in the discussion that media outlets don’t want identikit scientists but engaging and comprehensive individuals. If science organisations don’t provide a diverse range of speakers, they will lose high profile media opportunities.

Ayesha stressed that as a climate science communicator, she has had excellent training at the Met Office, has been mentored and felt well supported. Our discussion confirmed that support and training seem to be key factors that might help improve diversity in science communication (we’ve included some resources at the bottom of this blog).

Key point: Be you. The media are looking for engaging and comprehensive speakers from a range of backgrounds.

What are possible reasons for lack of diversity in the media that may disproportionately affect junior scientists and women and other minorities?

  • Confidence to volunteer and overcome imposter syndrome: you need good training and opportunities to start small and build up your skills, and senior and peer support and encouragement. It benefits us all to discuss our insecurities and find ways to help each other through them.
  • Feeling of authority: you’re speaking as a representative of your employer and you need to feel like you have authority amongst your peers. Often the senior scientists may be approached for media opportunities and the opportunities are not passed on to junior or more diverse colleagues.
  • Time for preparation: large exposure opportunities take a lot of time to prepare for, as may opportunities when you are inexperienced. Time for preparation may also take away from other science related activities which may be more likely to lead to employment opportunities and promotion – science institutions need to value the time spent on science communication to encourage more people to get involved.
  • Fear of social media: you need support from your employer and peers to manage negative media attention. Women typically fear harassment more than men and tend to minimise potential exposure to it.
  • Lack of training and institutional support. This requires investment of resources by institutions in training and communications staff.

What are some of the easier/entry level communication opportunities I should look out for?

Podcasts, Facebook Live, local radio, internally produced communications (e.g. Twitter) are all potential options to build science communication experience.

Tell people you are looking for opportunities and people will send them your way. This will also help increase the diversity of speakers. There is demand for lots of different levels of communication/engagement.

Some other reflections:

  • Being a good communicator and learning to talk to the media will likely help you present better seminars and may help you write better papers. However, we are all different and some will excel at speaking whilst others communicate better using the written word, and some will be pros at making visualisations!
  • Doing schools outreach is a great way to build up your confidence communicating to the public.
  • Media visibility can provide a positive impact to your career.
  • It’s helpful not to overthink it and worry too much. Easier said than done but be conscious to try and relax. There’s no need to rewatch/relisten to your live feature if you’d rather not (though it’s helpful to do this in training).
  • Ask someone you trust to listen/read the piece you are featured in and give you constructive feedback for next time.
  • It may help you to seize opportunities by saying yes before you have time to ruminate and talk yourself out of doing something.
  • Reach out to the press office in advance and get support for opportunities.

We have collated some resources mentioned in our discussion (thanks Ruth!)

Opportunities for media training

  • NERC recommends 2 sources:
    • Sense About Science
    • National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement
  • The Royal Society offers its own courses to those with some specific funder see more here
  • BIG stem has a list of various opportunities for communication and media training more here
  • Internal to the Met Office
    • Powerful Presentations
    • Media training
  • Via the University of Exeter Press Office
    • Courses on writing press releases
    • Limited courses on media training (attendees selected based on the likelihood of them using the skills for media interviews)

Other thoughts and confidence building suggestions:

  • Record yourself and watch it back and review what went well and what can be improved
  • Use small media opportunities to prepare for bigger ones
  • Try school outreach
  • Practice talking about topics you don’t know much about
  • Give more informal talks to clubs, e.g. WI, gardening
  • Drama or music can be ways to practice stretching your comfort zone

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