Outreach Leaders Article
August 22, 2018

The art of science communication: Q&A with Sam Illingworth

Dr Sam Illingworth is a Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK. He takes a creative approach to science communication, researching the relationship between science and poetry. We were excited to hear from him about his work and the art of Science Communication more generally.

Hi Sam, can you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?

Hello! My role as a Senior Lecturer in Science Communication basically involves three parts: research, teaching, and practice. As a researcher my work is concerned with investigating the relationship between science and society, and in particular the role that supposed ‘non-experts’ can play in helping to develop research governance and knowledge. As a teacher I teach science communication across the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Manchester Met, to both undergraduate and postgraduate students. Finally, as a practitioner I develop and deliver innovative science communication initiatives to the general public, from public science talks and podcasts to spoken word performances at music and literary festivals. None of these roles are mutually exclusive, and in essence I am often incorporating all three into whatever I do.

Why do you think outreach is important for the science community?

Working with members of society outside of the scientific community is essential. For truly two-way, mutually enriching dialogue to be established between these communities, experts need also to listen to the views and opinions of non-experts and be willing to modify their approaches accordingly. For example, the work of scientists working on flood mitigation strategies might be greatly enhanced by the knowledge of residents affected, not only in terms of which solutions are most likely to be adopted, but also in relation to local information concerning water tables and previous flooding incidents. Listening to the needs and experiences of the rest of society is not just a box-ticking exercise; if done correctly and in a genuine two-directional manner then both groups stand to benefit greatly from the process.

What inspired you to work in this area?

I have always been passionate about the intersection of the arts and the sciences, and after my PhD I spent two years living and working in Japan investigating the relationship between science and theatre. I was there as a scholar for the Daiwa-Anglo Japanese Foundation and was lucky enough to work under the tutelage of the legendary Japanese theatre director Yukio Ninagawa. These experiences gave me the confidence that I needed to further pursue my research and practice in this area, and to begin to change my research direction from atmospheric physics (my PhD involved using satellites to make measurements of greenhouse gases at the Earth’s surface) to a science communication.

Why did you choose poetry (often considered the opposite end of the spectrum to science) as a communication medium? What does it offer that is unique?

I have always written (mostly bad) poetry, and I found that in doing so I tended to use the same processes as when carrying out scientific experimentation. In my opinion the two disciplines are not mutually exclusive, but rather they are complimentary and often congruent ways of trying to make sense of the world in which we live. By writing poetry about recent scientific research I hope to be able to share this research with new audiences, not only so that they can benefit from its potential impact, but also so that they can be inspired by the incredible science that is being conducted globally on a daily basis!

There has been a long history of brilliant scientists who also wrote poetry, from Humphry Davy and Ada Lovelace to Miroslav Holub and Rebecca Elson, and I think that poetry offers people the opportunity to create something unique and personal that truly belongs to them. It is subjective in a way that science often is not ‘allowed’ to be, and as such it can work as a powerful tool in helping to break down hierarchy of intellect that are often established when people are encouraged to converse on a topic in which there are perceived levels of expertise. By creating poetry, people are able to produce something that inherently belongs to them, enabling ownership and agency to be developed, and thorough which genuine dialogue around scientific topics of relevance can be established.

As well as poetry, you take a light-hearted approach to science communication through table-top games. What does this offer that is different to a more conventional approach to SciComms?

I would make the argument that tabletop games, although fun, are not necessarily light hearted. They have the potential for incredibly deep engagement to take place around particular topics of interest and the social interactions that they involve make them a useful tool for developing dialogue around scientific topics. Along with my colleague Dr Paul Wake, I am the co-director of the Games Research Network, and we have done a large amount of work in investigating how and why games can be used to open up science to new and diverse audiences. Recently we even developed an expansion for the popular boardgame Catan®, in which players are asked to consider the impacts of Global Warming during gameplay. As a huge gamer myself, one of my proudest academic achievements is having a monthly column for Tabletop Gaming Magazine, in which Paul and I discuss tabletop games from a scholarly perspective.

What tips would you give researchers looking to increase their outreach?

The most important piece of advice I could give would be to ask rather than assume. Work with your target audience to determine what they want to know and why they want to know it and be prepared to listen to them and to modify your approach accordingly, not only in terms of your outreach but also in terms of the research itself. Science communication should not be thought of as one-way, but as a bi-directional process in which society can help to inform and challenge scientific knowledge and governance.

Also, any researchers who work in the geosciences should consider submitting their science communication research to the new journal Geoscience Communication. This is a fully open-access journal that was set up to help formalise the field of Geoscience Communication and also to reward researchers who are working in this field by offering them a route to publication.

What should we expect from you in the future? Have you got anything exciting planned?

I have just finished writing a book about famous scientists who wrote poetry and the influence that it had on their work and lives, it is due out in Spring 2019 with Manchester University Press and has the working title of A Sonnet to Science. I am really excited about it, and I hope that it acts as a catalyst to other researchers to consider the role that poetry can play in developing scientific research and understanding.

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