Wednesday 10 January 2018

Science at the House of Lords

Just before Christmas, I was excited to get an invitation to an afternoon tea at the House of Lords. This was a special invitation-only event to celebrate 30 years of Media Fellowships. These are competitive  fellowships where scientists get to immerse themselves in the fast-paced and often cut-throat world of journalism. They are organised by the British Science Association. Every year, the BSA supports up to ten scientists at different stages of their careers to spend two to six weeks working full time in a media outlet such as The Guardian, Nature, the BBC (either TV or Radio) or New Scientist. They are mentored by journalists and editors at the media outlet, and encouraged to create media outputs (articles, programmes, blog posts, online posts etc) about a wide variety of science topics. The aim is to break down barriers between scientists and the press or media, and to encourage scientists to readily talk and write about their science, as the more science can be shared with the public, the better. The scheme has been running since 1987, and has led to thousands of creative and engaging scientific outputs, whether broadcast, in print or online.

As you may know, I was lucky enough to win one of these Media Fellowships in 2014, and I spent an enlightening month working for New Scientist. During my time there, I learned how to write pithy and exciting articles, and interviewed other scientists about their work. It was extremely interesting, especially to break out of my sometimes insular discipline and learn about many other areas of science. I wrote about toxic algal blooms in America, the glue used on the Terracotta Army, and how cold potatoes can be used to prevent cancer. I also got to write a double page spread about my own area of research, although it concentrated on the work of other scientists in the discipline: Death: the great bacterial takeover. You can read more about my experience from my posts at the time here and here. I would be lying if I didn't say the experience was tough, but it was immensely rewarding, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I would recommend it to anyone.

And so, one of the unexpected perks of the Fellowship, was a rather fancy afternoon tea at the House of Lords. It was a classy occasion, made even better by the chance to meet up again with other Fellows from my cohort - Aditee Mitra in particular - and to meet Fellows from other years and swap experiences and anecdotes. We also heard from Lord David Willetts, and previous and current Media Fellows Ruth McKernan, Helen Czerski, and Rebecca Dewey, who each gave impassioned speeches about how the media should engage with scientists and vice versa. 

Even if there hadn't been the opportunity to go to the House of Lords (which has a lovely shop, by the way), I would wholeheartedly recommend applying for a Media Fellowship, if you're a scientist with even a slight interest in public engagement or science communication. The experience you'll get cannot be gained in academia, or anywhere else for that matter, and is invaluable for improving all types of writing, whether it be in scientific journals, blogs or grant applications. 

Aditee and me outside the House of Lords