The Society for General Microbiology (SGM) kindly awarded me this year’s Peter Wildy Prize Lecture, which I delivered at their Spring meeting in Liverpool just a few weeks ago.
The prize is given for “an outstanding contribution to microbiology education and/or communication in order to stimulate interest and understanding in the subject”. It sounds rather grand, but please don’t be put off. As I tried to explain in my lecture, I didn’t feel entirely worthy. All I had done was to start writing a science blog and then react to some of the things that happened to me because I was writing a science blog.
Nevertheless I am grateful to the SGM for the honour and very glad that they have given some recognition to science blogging, and to science communication in general (the Peter Wildy Prize Lecture has been going since 2001). I was particularly pleased to have the opportunity to give a lecture on the topic to an audience of several hundred scientists. If you have forty-five minutes to spare, please have a look — it seemed to go all right on the night.
I took as my title “Science communication: a communicable disease?” My main message was simply to encourage more of my colleagues, young and old, to look beyond the laboratory every now and then. Plenty already do, of course, but public engagement is still too often viewed as problematic within academia, as Jonathan Eisen recently revealed. Even among those who take up the challenge, it can sometimes be for box-ticking, self-serving reasons. As Valeria Souza observed, this is known as ‘doing it wrong’ and it’s a point I touched on in my talk (that bit starts at 4:50). I think you have to find the intrinsic values — plural — in talking with the public about science and, as I tried to argue, these aren’t so hard to locate.
Despite some residual resistance, I look to the future with optimism. After my lecture I talked with several young scientists, at least two of whom, Sarah Caddy and Lauren Parker, have been encouraged to get into blogging since the meeting (though in Sarah’s case it was more a matter of ’taking it to the next level’). Why not have a peek at what they’re up to? If you like what you see, maybe you could say so in their comment threads.
And my erstwhile colleague, Dan Davis (now at a parish in Manchester), has also been using the pages of Nature Immunology Reviews to exhort his fellow immunologists to take science communication more seriously. That’s the way to do it with scientists: catch ‘em unawares; put a bit of stick about. Shoo them out of the laboratory.