I was planning to write a blog about our new paper recently published in Animal Behaviour however something relatively unexpected seemed to scupper those plans, the media!
For those who haven’t come across an article talking about the best way to swat a fly or heard me rambling away on radio, our paper has been covered from Roscommon to North Korea so I won’t delve into it further here, especially with some nice summaries and our article available through open access.
What I wanted to write about was the perspective of a PhD student caught in the whirlwind of the big bad media world and how I felt about the whole experience as both a student and scientist.
First off I still have not fully grasped what happened, to sit on the Dart and read about your own research in the metro is very surreal and its extremely flattering to think that someone thought that what I was working on would be interesting for someone else to read about!
Despite it being a fantastic thing to be acknowledged in the media, it did also make me feel very anxious as something I had been working on for nearly two years was completely out in the open multiplying every hour as it became part of the international news recycling system. I also now know what it feels like to be the squirrel on water-skis fluffy news piece at the end of the news, there to lighten up the fact that the news is the even more depressing then watching “The Road”.
This lack of control is probably something any scientist is not comfortable with, with every comment section full of ludicrous assumptions and misunderstanding about the research none of which I could, or even should, try to set right or defend. In fact after so many “I knew that when I was five” comments it becomes more fun just to see whether the Independent or the Daily mail fared worse below the line (the guardian was worse again but seems to have closed the comment section).
While I think this experience has been nothing but beneficial through advertising our science, in terms of the more general aspect of science communication with the public I found it a little tricky to decide how useful it was. This is due to what I found to be the fine balancing act of lowest common denominator reporting and getting the intricacies of you research across. For example, while I think the metaphor of swatting a fly is a good way of explaining our research in a real world scenario, we did not expect it would spawn a full article on the best methods to swat a fly, or that we would be referred by Ray D’Arcy as “Fly Experts”, despite the fact that flies were not in our dataset or that none of us have ever studied anything on flies!
It also raises the question of the value of engaging with the media from a scientist’s point of view. In one respect I think it is important to engage with the public as at the end of the day research is largely funded through the State and it’s important to remind the public not only that research is worth it but that “blue skies” (awful term) research cab also be relevant. I think in some respects I am happy we achieved this with sites specifically aimed at 10-12 year olds with a specific educational aim and also through some good interviews on radio that I think got a generally positive response.
However with this there are also a lot of “the best way to swat a fly” pieces which aren’t getting anything across and at times may even start to trivialise the research and hence devalue its worth in the public’s eye (clear from comments hoping that no money was spent on this research).
Overall I think almost any science that enters the media will produce a mixed bag of results. But after the level of enthusiasm from people and the genuine line of questions such as seen in this reddit forum (Unlike the Irish reddit forum), I think it’s nearly always worth it to let your research out there as it will undoubtedly be genuinely appreciated by at least some people.
Author and Photo Credit:
Kevin Healy: @healyke, healyke[at]tcd.ie