Public Engagement Ring

Cath Ennis wrote back in June about the reluctance of some of her colleagues to write lay summaries of their work when applying for grants. Clearly for some scientists the effort of casting their work into a form that is accessible to the general public is just too much like hard work.

But, as has often been stated on NN, making our science intelligible to the public is a valuable activity. Indeed many would say it is necessary. And while I can certainly understand that some of us might prefer not to spend time on this at the end of the laborious process of assembling a grant application, that’s not much of an excuse.

So I wondered if there might be a way to make the process and the result more engaging and for my last grant application – an investigation of the peptide cleavage specificity of an important viral protease – I wrote the lay summary as a short story. In fact it was an extremely short story since there was a limit of 200 words. You can peruse the result at LabLit.

One of the main difficulties is finding ways of avoiding jargon but still getting the essence of the science across – all while staying within the word limit. I suspect I haven’t been wholly successful in this instance but practice makes perfect (!) and at least the composition was much more enjoyable than usual.

I humbly propose this as a new (and exciting?) way of writing lay summaries to really catch the public’s attention. Care to join the ring? For my next grant application, I am considering a more poetic form…

Shall I compare thee to a summers day?
No! A nonsensical hypothesis!
Your DNA sequence will show the way
And give a much truer diagnosis…

Then again, maybe not.

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31 Responses to Public Engagement Ring

  1. Heather Etchevers says:

    You have an interesting idea in that freer use of form allows us to use such terms as “stick to”, that we might not feel completely free to use even in a lay summary as being beneath our dignity. Which is silly, because the idea is to communicate. But to whom?
    When one applies to patient associations for money, they often post these summaries on their websites. Some are more painful to read than others. But generally, if it sounds arcane and difficult to understand, it can be more popular among the funders than not. I’ve been working with one such association for nine years and have discovered to my dismay (and via many lost hours of my life) that while they say they would like to understand scientific approaches and intermediate milestones, it’s not really true. They would like a cure, period.

  2. Sara Fletcher says:

    The lablit story does remind me of my childhood! My dad, as a chemist, used to bring his work home, and I frequently trotted off to school and explained things like chirality to unsuspecting primary school teachers.
    Perhaps we should add a haiku section to the beamtime proposals for Diamond?!

  3. Henry Gee says:

    Clearly for some scientists the effort of casting their work into a form that is accessible to the general public is just too much like hard work.
    That’s because it is! I speak as the chap who wrote the press release of Nature for about a decade. Writing intelligible paragraphs about astrophysics one minute, and molecular biology the next minute, turns your mind into a pretzel.

  4. Stephen Curry says:

    @Heather – I had no qualms about using terms like ‘stick to’ when talking about a drug binding to a protein since it is more likely to be meaningful to a non-scientist. Throw off your dignity, I say!
    Your point about the confused motives of some funding agencies with regard to engagement but I suggest we take some control of the agenda.
    @Sara – interesting to hear there was an echo in the piece of your experiences with your scientist father. The piece was partly inspired by my own children’s bemusement at what I do and frustration that I bring so much work home!
    My initial reaction to the haiku suggestion was that it was a compression too far but, on reflection, I think there may be some merit in it! Most papers could probably encapsulate the key message in one line – and the same might be said of grant or beam-time applications. Haiku would be a good way to get authors to extract the beating heart of the matter.
    @Henry – you’re absolutely right. Again. I guess my point is that it should be worth the effort. And there might be more creative ways to write lay summaries. Any chance you have a picture of that pretzel?

  5. Richard P. Grant says:

    Haiku would be a good way of driving a steak stake through the beating heart of a grant proposal. A limerick, on the other hand, would display a fair amount of skill and intelligence.
    (I view haiku in much the same way as I view sudoku. Once I figured out the rules—and that they were rules that a trained monkey or a computer could follow—I couldn’t see the point.)

  6. Pamela Ronald says:

    A sonnet, I like that.
    I have also been making my attempts, this week through a narrative about the finale of our project in bangladesh. It is a seven part series. now I just need to reduce it to a short haiku and I will be all set.

  7. Stephen Curry says:

    @Richard – I share your boredom with sudoku and am quite happy for you to supplant a haiku with a limerick (appeals more to my sense of irreverence).
    @Pamela – I’m not sure that travelogue is best served by such compression or even any kind of summary. I think it’s better, as you are doing, to fill it with colourful detail.

  8. Richard P. Grant says:

    Yeah. Lay summaries as sonnets. I could live with that.

  9. Mike Fowler says:

    Can anyone tell me how many lay people actually read the lay summaries? I don’t mind spending the time and effort expressing technical details in a more manageable chunk if it will actually help someone decide whether I should get grant money or not, but I’m left with the feeling that it’s hard work invested for nothing. Haiku, schmaiku. Limericks every time.
    There was a Bohemian monk
    Who applied for a sizeable chunk
    To study a genus
    With a bifurcating penis
    Then awoke drunk with a ‘roo in his bunk.

  10. Stephen Curry says:

    @Mike – Can anyone tell me how many lay people actually read the lay summaries?
    The short answer is no. I suspect in many cases these may be used by the funding agencies to feed their PR machines and journos.
    As for your limerick, nice try but I’m afraid you still need to master the metre, which is a condition I would put on any limerick-based grant application.

  11. Mike Fowler says:

    You’re a harsh critic. I was just going for a simple knob joke. And I gave a lecture about period doubling bifurcations today. The original goes:
    There WAS a BoHEMian MONK
    Who WENT to BED in a BUNK
    He DREAMT that VENUS
    Was SUCKing his ELbow
    and WOKE up COVered in PERspiRAtIon
    successfully breaking the rules of metre. And rhyme. But it works after a pint or more.

  12. Stephen Curry says:

    OK, I’m trying to run a nice family blog here and you’ve now used up your knob joke quota.
    But I’m afraid to say that even restoring the original rhymed words, your limerick doesn’t conform to the usual metre. I wouldn’t have known much about this in years gone by but have slowly been imbibing Stephen Fry’s enjoyable The Ode Less Travelled, which goes into astonishing technical details on poetry. He is sickeningly accomplished that man.

  13. Maxine Clarke says:

    Lay summaries and soduku, I have to come to their rescue!
    Richard and Stephen, you maybe have not been introduced to the magnetically addictive charms of killer sodoku? An order of magnitude better than the regular type. (Which nevertheless can help to while away a train journey when you are crammed standing so tight there is no room for a book or paper, and you need to tune out the horror.)
    Lay summaries – look upon them as a challenge to crystallize your minds. Even if nobody reads them (which I doubt, as there is great appetite out there for understanding science from the scientists that do it, not the press release and journo crew), they serve to focus your minds on what you are really saying in a nutshell, in your paper, and may help you to write it (or your grant, etc) more crisply. Or am I living in a fantasy world with my killer sudokus?

  14. Maxine Clarke says:

    PS, I also think that NN has applied an evolutionary pressure, such that the scientists writing on it, including those contributing to this particular discussion, are more than averagely literate. Many sceintists are not, and certainly don’t have your light way with words (I liked your LabLit piece very much, Stephen). Lay summaries may be a lot more helpful in cases where the prose is more impenetrable than that of the average NN scientist-author.

  15. Stephen Curry says:

    Killer sudoku – isn’t that dangerous? Anyway, when there’s standing room only on the train I usually resort to podcasts. The Guardian has a particularly fine science podcast.
    And thank you for your kind words: “more than averagely literate” – I’m going to put that in my cv!
    Seriously though, and linking to a current forum on reasons for blogging, I agree that a real benefit of blogging is the opportunity to practise the art of writing lucidly. As Henry Pretzel-Head pointed out above, it ain’t easy.

  16. Erika Cule says:

    @Stephen (Professor Curry) – did you consider farming this task out to your undergraduates? A coursework assignment – “Summarize my this grant proposal in terms that you understand and in 200 words” might get you some creative responses.

  17. Stephen Curry says:

    @Erika – please, let’s not stand on ceremony here: plain Stephen will suffice.
    I hadn’t considered farming this task out—after all, I wanted to have some fun with it. But I have thought about setting my students the task of writing about science in the style of a blog. As Maxine mentioned, it’s a good discipline.
    And I would hope that the format might appeal to today’s students though I’m feeling increasingly out of touch. We set up a facebook group for one of our final year courses, but it hasn’t exactly been a rip-roaring success in terms of generating discussion. I don’t know – are students still to shy for that sort of public Q&A?

  18. Maxine Clarke says:

    I’ve never managed to get into the aural medium, Stephen – maybe I should. I know how annoying everyone else is with noise pollution leaking out of their earbuds, so maybe I should join in! I think killer sudoku is less lethal- quite soothing, by comparison!
    Sorry, I wrote my comment in haste and I hope I did not damn you with faint praise (or Prof Sir H P-H, OM). Your writing is trippingly light, a souffle on the gelatinous mass of what usually passes for scientific prose.

  19. Stephen Curry says:

    Your writing is trippingly light, a soufflé on the gelatinous mass of what usually passes for scientific prose.
    That’s going straight into the cv as well! Though I am slightly concerned, given the unctuous lushness of your prose, that you may now be possessed by the spirit of said of Sir H P-H, OM. In which case, do you require the services of a good exorcist?

  20. Erika Cule says:

    bq. And I would hope that the format might appeal to today’s students … We set up a facebook group for one of our final year courses, but it hasn’t exactly been a rip-roaring success in terms of generating discussion. I don’t know – are students still to shy for that sort of public Q&A?
    It’s also true that there is some space for this on blackboard (Imperial College’s VLE) which is rarely used.
    I really think this depends on the students and the situation. A Facebook group was set up for one of the courses I was in and the only messages were complaints about the early starts!
    However, I have seen Facebook groups set up for group projects where files are posted and the group is disbanded after the work is over.
    Both Imperial’s iGEM Team (sorry, couldn’t resist the plug) and my current MSc course make extensive use of google groups (as well as email) for sharing work and files.
    Like most of web 2.0, perhaps the most useful tools are the ones whose use is evolved on an ad-hoc basis?

  21. Maxine Clarke says:

    I have to admit, Erika, that I don’t really get Facebook – it seems to me that it is full of groups that “people just join” and don’t do anything. (Though my eldest teenage daughter would disagree with that assessment and say that it is very good for organizing parties.) I’m personally keener on the NN groups/forums, in which one can discuss a topic, or FriendFeed, similar. Maybe a Nature Network group for your students? 😉
    Stephen – I think that the most successful web 2.0 tools so far seem to me to be the ones that do things that people wanted to do anyway (or did anyway), but better. A good example is online bookmarking services, and also various applications of wikis (open lab notebooks, etc). Not sure if the ad hoc is the cause or the effect, but I agree that ad hoc seems to play a big part.
    Thanks for the thought of an exorcism, that had not occurred to me previously 😉
    This is going to challenge my web 2.0 skills to the limit, but here is an attempted killer sudoku to give the idea:

    Check out this website if you dare

  22. Heather Etchevers says:

    I have just thought of a way to consolidate the threads I am following today

  23. Stephen Curry says:

    @Erika and Maxine – I think you’re making similar or overlapping points that I guess I have been missing. Things like Facebook groups will only work from the bottom up – they can’t be directed. Even by a cool, trendy lecturer who’s trying to tap into the zeitgeist…
    And thanks for the Killer Sudoku Maxine – I think I’ll save is for the Christmas break!
    @Heather – that’s the spirit!

  24. Stephen Curry says:

    Glad to see that others are also getting into the groove on this (more or less literally)…

  25. Martin Fenner says:

    Nature Network forums are an alternative to Facebook groups and they can be public or private. I recently helped to start a private Nature Network group for teaching a basic genetics course. It looks good.
    You and Heather made me write a Limerick. For now I try to stay away from short fiction or singalongs.

  26. Stephen Curry says:

    Thanks for the tip Martin – I’ll look into that option though one of our structural difficulties is that there are usually multiple instructors on any given course, so unless they all sign up to using such online tools, there’s not much traction.
    And well done for having a go at a limerick – though, like Mike above, there are rules of metre that need to be applied for a true success! 😉

  27. Martin Fenner says:

    You can talk to Matt if you want to try out a Nature Network forum for your course. And I sort of expected that you talk about the structural difficulties;).
    As for the limerick, I will re-read that Faseb Journal paper The Abstract is Poetry, the Paper is Prose, doi:10.1096/fj.08-0801ufm.

  28. Stephen Curry says:

    Thanks for the link Martin – will read with interest. Though I already spotted a bizarre co-incidence, since the paper you mention contains this limerick:

    _There was an Old Person of Cromer,
    Who stood on one leg to read Homer;
    When he found he grew stiff,
    He jumped over the cliff,
    Which concluded that Person of Cromer_

    Now, do we know someone who lives in Cromer, has stoutly defended the benefits of a classical education and written a book that involves much jumping (or falling) off cliffs…?

  29. Martin Fenner says:

    I forgot to mention that in August Heather posted the link to the article here, and both Graham and Bora immediately spotted that limerick.

  30. Stephen Curry says:

    Ah – well, no surprises there I guess!

  31. Stephen Curry says:

    Hey Martin – I finally got around to reading that article on the abstract as poetry and enjoyed it very much. I like the idea of comparing abstracts to Limericks, which have the same compressed set-up (backgrouund/context) and pay-off (major findings/conclusions) as a well-written abstract.
    I note the author is not so keen on sonnets — sees them as more bloated — so I may have to re-think my next grant application…

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