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I was truly terrible at science and maths when I was at school.
Posted 5th September 2023|5 minute read
My heart sank when I looked at my timetable of lessons each day and I saw “physics” in bold. I’d dread looking at the large poster of the periodic table on the wall behind the teacher and I would physically shrink in my chair when it was announced that “it’s algebra this week everyone”. Technical subjects or STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) were like a secret language that some people understood and others didn’t. I was in awe of those who seemed to just ‘get it’, but I decided early on that I was far better suited to the arts and humanities. My family were all historians, linguists and artists, so math never naturally suited me. I preferred essays over equations so I dropped STEM as quickly as I could and never looked back.
The ironic thing is that for the last 15 years or so I have worked in some of the world’s most technical sectors and for some of the most advanced engineering companies on the planet. I have immersed myself in engineering and have been surrounded by leading scientists and mathematicians. I have never really stopped to consider why someone who was so bad at, and dis-engaged with STEM subjects, has chosen to work in these fields until now. Over the last 15 years I have also developed a passion for STEM disciplines. The question in my mind is what has driven this change in me? And perhaps more importantly, what does it take to create this change in others?
There is something magical in the pursuit of scientific truth that taps into an innate sense of adventure and discovery - asking questions that we don’t have answers for to understand our world or universe, setting out on a journey of discovery and then undoubtedly diving down into minute technical detail and analysis to find the answer before announcing it to the world. It’s a completely idealistic view and in my experience romanticizes the way that modern science is undertaken. But for lots of people, it’s an image that they hold in their mind and in many respects, why I think it makes science seem inaccessible. This perceived inaccessibility is a problem that science has been tussling with for years and it has become so big that it is high on the political agenda. Getting people ‘into’ science is critical for all of us because science is a bedrock of our modern way of living. Quite simply, we rely on it to live.
I certainly don’t profess to have the answers to this challenge, but for me the key to engaging people and bringing science to them to inspire, enthuse and ultimately call them to action, whatever that may be, lies in human behavior or rather how we change the emotional response to something that influences our thinking. Our thinking determines our behaviors, so changing thinking must be the goal. In the case of science, this would be ensuring we give as many people as possible a positive emotional response to it, followed by the information and understanding to think about it positively and then the platform for them to do something with it. It’s a simplistic approach - create positive emotion, create understanding, ask someone to act. For me, this gets to the heart of how we bring science to as many people as possible, combining compelling communications with an experience wherever possible. If we can communicate science in a way that is tailored to how people get a positive emotional connection then we are off on the right foot. Communicating science in too technical terms means we run the risk of only appealing to those audiences who like to be communicated to in those terms. It seems obvious but this is hugely challenging. Striking a balance between translating science to communicate in a way that caters to the needs of a range of audiences whilst being true to the science requires thought and a clear understanding of what we are trying to achieve by doing so. If you just want to tell someone about science, then go and tell them or send them an email with it detailed out. If you want to inspire them to do something then you will probably need to change your message and way of communicating.
At a scientific organization level, this requires an organization that is able to look outwardly into the world, observe, listen and reflect on the needs and expectations of multiple audiences. They must then look inwardly and define the optimum way to communicate their scientific messages relative to signals from the outside world. That sounds very corporate, but in reality it’s a case of understanding what will engage audiences and what their ultimate motivation is, and then communicating science in a way that resonates with them. It’s not about misleading, dumbing down science or spinning a narrative, but communicating science in a way that creates a positive emotional response where people can see why it is important and how they can engage with it. Getting our science to cut through in an age where we are constantly bombarded by data, facts, information and messages is hard, but I am convinced that it is doable if we start from the perspective of the audience and work backwards to tailor how we communicate rather than assume and just push our science out there.
At the National Oceanographic Centre (NOC), we undertake world-leading science and research to provide the fundamental knowledge and understanding of our ocean. Our science is critical to understanding how our ocean is changing and the impact it has on all life on the planet. What we do, how we do it and the importance of it is awe inspiring, but it can be hard to communicate this in a way that engages people. Nevertheless, it’s something we are passionate about and recognize the importance of. Communicating our science is how we connect people with the ocean and we need to do more to tailor our communication to what different audiences need. We aren’t starting from scratch though.
In April this year we hosted the Ocean Business show, a 3-day show dedicated to ocean sciences and engineering. With over 5,000 visitors each day it is a great way to give people an experience of science and engineering. We host many conferences and events for different audiences and this direct engagement with people is key, but I challenge us to do more. How do we bring our science to millions? How do we use all forms of communication to reach the people who didn’t even know they needed to understand the ocean? That’s the next leg of the journey for us and it requires a coordinated, multi-disciplinary approach with absolute clarity on what we want to achieve. It requires scientists and engineers to work shoulder to shoulder with communications and marketing professionals, strategic thinkers, and a great deal of diversity of thought and approach and ambition. These aren’t things that you can bring together overnight but it’s a challenge I relish. Who knows, maybe I might even be able to draw on that arts and humanities background from my education to achieve it. There’s the second irony, using the arts and humanities skills and thinking to communicate science in the optimum way; non-science for science.