Who does not know the slightly awkward situation when a family member asks you what exactly your thesis or dissertation is about? Everyone has probably realised at some point that breaking your research down to its essence, or relating it to comprehensible examples from everyday life is often anything but easy. Conveying your research in an understandable way to non-experts is the basis of science communication. Research was initially conducted in a rather isolated manner – sometimes referred to as the era of science in the ivory tower (“Elfenbeinturm”) – and universities first started opening their doors to the public in the mid 20th century. The motivating force driving science communication has changed over the years. Initially it merely aimed to increase awareness and acceptance of research among the public. Newer formats aspire to not only provide insight into state-of-the-art research, but also entertain the audience.
Science and entertainment? Yes, they can go together! Several successful formats have been established in recent years, such as FameLab, Ted(x) Talks, Science Notes, and Science Cafés. Additionally, Science Slams are growing progressively more popular and form an inherent part of many universities’ schedule of events. Science Slams are tournaments of scientific talks where scientists present their research within 3-10 minutes on stage in front of a non-expert audience. The audience acts as the jury – the slammer who enthuses or best entertains the audience wins. Inspired by poetry slams, author and successful poetry slammer himself, Alex Dreppec, founded Science Slams. The first ever venue was Darmstadt, Germany, in 2006. Today, eleven years later, Science Slams take place at universities all over the world. In 2015, two Science Slams were held at the University of Tübingen. And as part of the TÜFFF (Tübinger Fenster für Forschung) on the 28th April 2017, yet another Science Slam lies right ahead of us.
The past Science Slams in Tübingen were co-organised by Dong-Seon Chang, National FameLab Champion 2015, finalist of the international FameLab 2015, and 2014 winner of „Science Slam im Wissenschaftsjahr 2014: Die digitale Gesellschaft“. Dong finished his PhD on action recognition and social interaction in the ‘Social and Spatial Cognition’ research group at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen in July 2016. He is currently pursuing his career as a science communicator.
What motivated you to participate in a Science Slam in the first place?
First of all, they are fun! You meet a number of interesting people outside of your field, and every time I participate in a Science Slam, I also learn so much from other people, what they do, and how they talk about their own research. The first time I participated in a Science Slam, I was one of the organizers of the Max Planck PhDnet Junior Scientists’ Conference “Visions in Science” . We were discussing in the organization team about finding a presentation format which would make scientific findings easily accessible und understandable to people from different research disciplines, or even complete laypeople. So, we came up with the idea of trying a Science Slam, with the main goal being to make science understandable and entertaining at the same time. After we decided to host a Science Slam, I thought to myself, “OK, why not give it a go?” and gave my first Science Slam talk. Making science understandable to people who are not from your field is a really important point because we often live in our own “scientific bubble”. Not everyone shares the same knowledge, and even simple things can be very inspiring to people who never heard about them before. Just try to remember how excited you were when you first started to study your topic. Why not spread this passion, this enthusiasm you also experienced before? Standing in front of people and explaining science is also in a way necessary to find clarity for oneself: Why am I doing this? And what is it worth?
You seem to be rather successful in communicating your research on stage to a broad audience – where did you gain these skills?
I like talking to people – I know that I sometimes talk too much as well… *HAHA* – and then people usually ask: “What do you do?”, “What is your research about?”. Those moments are actually the perfect ones to practice communicating your research on a bigger stage. With time, you realize which parts of your research are interesting to other people and which parts make them sleepy and lose concentration. One of the greatest moments is if you can actually spread your enthusiasm about your own research to the person listening to you; it does not matter whether it is one person or hundreds of people. These moments also give you some feedback which motivates you to find out more about your research. I once had the opportunity to attend a professional BBC media training course. It was the prize for winning the German FameLab competition (britishcouncil.de/en/famelab). Other competitions, such as FallingWalls (falling-walls.com/lab/apply), also reward you with such training. There are also courses you can book to get professional science communication training. For example, via mediomix.de, Dr. Dennis Fink, who was a former MPI PhD student and founded his own company after finishing his PhD, offers a variety of different courses. Apart from that, the most important thing to learn how to communicate science is: practice, practice, practice!
In the past, there have been critical remarks* as to whether “true” science can be transmitted within 3 to 10 minutes and whether the competitive character of Science Slams causes entertainment to be given priority over accuracy. How do you react to the criticism that the role of entertainment is too important in Science Slams?
It is true that a lot of Science Slam talks focus on entertainment. It is also true that you can never explain all of your research in just a few minutes. If you start thoroughly, then just explaining the most basic concepts would already take you more than 10 minutes. But that is not the point of a Science Slam talk. In my opinion, the most important part is evoking interest for science, making people curious about that research. For this, entertainment is a powerful tool. I think it is a great success if at least a few people go home and think positively about your research, and start googling it or go to Wikipedia because they became curious. In this way, you allowed people to gain new knowledge. So, it is okay if Science Slam are entertaining, as long as they contain some facts about science. They can still open a door to laypeople who were not particularly interested in science, to people who would not really read science books, or go to public lectures.
Why should researchers engage in communicating science on stage?
It does not necessarily need to be “on stage”, but I think it is very important to communicate science to a broad public. First, because most basic research projects are supported by taxpayers’ money and the public has a basic right to know what the results of these research projects are. Second, because science and scientific findings have a huge impact on society, implications of scientific findings should also be openly discussed with the society. Third, because “miscommunication” about science can be very dangerous – e.g. when politicizing science or making it a fight of mere opinions such as in the debates on climate change or vaccination. Therefore, it is better and safer if scientists can also communicate their research in a more accurate way. For those researchers who are not convinced by these broad benefits: Communicating science on stage also brings many personal benefits to the researchers themselves. Their research becomes more visible, they can increase their scientific impact and citations and last but not least, by communicating with a broader public, the scientists can also learn a lot while profiting from new, fresh ideas and feedback from laypeople or other scientists from other fields.
Do you also engage in other forms of science communication?
Yes, I am a regular guest (every 2 weeks) at German Radio (WDR) and summarize latest neuroscientific reports and discoveries I find relevant and interesting. I also give talks and coaching about science communication for companies and universities. And I also wrote a book about my favourite neuroscience topic: How we perceive ourselves and others. It is in German and the title is “Mein Hirn hat seinen eigenen Kopf” (Rowohlt).
PhD in Neural & Behavioural Sciences
Did this article arouse your interest? If you want to try out a Science Slam or another science communication yourself, there are plenty of opportunities. On scienceslam.de and science-slam.com, you can find general information about Science Slams and upcoming events – they are always looking for new science slammers! Specifically in Tübingen, you can contact Moritz Zaiss firstname.lastname@example.org (MPI for Biological Cybernetics), or Wiebke Schick email@example.com (Cognitive Neuroscience Department, Tübingen University). If you prefer to start with very short 3-minutes slams, FameLab (britishcouncil.de/en/famelab) and FallingWalls (falling-walls.com/lab/apply) might be of interest to you. Professional science communication training is offered for example via www.mediomix.de.
* Magnus Klaue’s article in the magazine “Forschung & Lehre” (07/2015)
* Article by German science blogger and science slammer Cornelius Courts scienceblogs.de/bloodnacid/2015/03/19/quo-vadis-science-slam/
Anne Thaler is a PhD candidate in the Space and Body Perception Group at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany.
Marianne Strickrodt is a PhD candidate in the Social and Spatial Cognition Group at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany.