On a brisk August morning in southern Australia, 16 recent PhD graduates and postdocs from around the country are sitting in a windowless room, fretting about the way science is portrayed in the media. They're attending a weeklong media-training boot camp, and the fraying of their nerves is palpable as they talk about what worries them most: the superficial way their research might be handled, overhyping, and how to handle difficult questions. "What's the point of science communication anyway?" asks Kate Jeffrey, an immunologist from Sydney's Garvan Institute of Medical Research. "Shouldn't it be about educating the public?"
She and the others are the winners of "Fresh Science," a national competition that has been running since the late 1990s. Founded by the late Ian Anderson, former Australasian editor for New Scientist, it aims to create a cadre of media-savvy researchers and to promote their work to the daily media....
Niall Byrne, one of the key figures running the Fresh Science program, explains that his goal is to reinject science back into popular culture. "Science should be something that is talked about in the pub, in the taxi, when your family gets together," he says. "Scientists are smart, but the capacity to talk in plain English is knocked out of them early in their careers."
"I think once you understand a little bit better what the journalists want, it helps make you a better communicator," admits Jeffrey. "At first I thought I'm really crap at this, but I've already started to learn the tricks."
A few weeks later, I visit Jeffrey in her lab in Sydney to see how the rest of the week went. "Fun ... but exhausting," is her response. Perhaps most valuable were the talks they had to give to school kids. "I could see what they were trying to achieve by having us talk to them. That's the level we need to explain it at for the media, too."
In the end, the Fresh Science press release landed Jeffrey's research into the role of the PAC-1 enzyme in arthritis on the evening news, which was another learning experience. "I was surprised at how serious I looked," she says.