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Should science communication be taught to all science undergraduates?

We are always told that ‘communication’ is one of those non-negotiable skills to put on your CV. However, it’s not a skill that is always at the forefront of a science degree. Perhaps one of the most noteworthy examples of poor science communication was during the pandemic when the lack of clarity and transparency arguably fuelled the crisis. Today, science is moving at an incredible pace, and this, in combination with widespread scientific misinformation makes it clear that we need effective science communication more than ever. Yet, most scientists don’t receive formal training in this area at all. It raises the question as to whether learning science communication should be a requirement for undergraduates during their degree. 

Keen to learn more about some of the science communication provision at Warwick, The Boar Science & Tech interviewed Professor Kevin Moffat, a module convenor for the optional ‘Science Communication’ module for third-year life sciences students. Professor Moffat describes his desire to create the module as being motivated by “wanting to drive strength in communication,” while giving students a “flavour” of different aspects of science communication. The course aims to cultivate skills such as empathy and storytelling to encourage students to produce work with an audience in mind.  

Most undergraduates don’t gain exposure to scientific careers outside of research or academia, and so the science communication module brings a sense of awareness surrounding other careers – medical writing, journalism and copywriting to name a few. Professor Moffat agrees that most undergraduates “will not become academics,” and that “there are careers out there related to the skills we look at [in the module].” The last government study on public attitudes towards science revealed that from 2014 to 2019, the percentage of people accessing science from print decreased by 28% with more people accessing it online. Teaching students skills like blog writing and video creation is a real opportunity to diversify the skillsets of a whole cohort to match the emerging trends in how the public accesses science. 

“If you’re not communicating, it’s not science”- Professor Kevin Moffat

When posed with the question of whether science communication should be a required part of a science degree, Professor Moffat agrees that elements of it should be a requirement but adds: “I don’t think you could properly practice it […] unless you have some experience of the science, so I have argued it should stay in the third year.” His comments shine a spotlight on the undergraduates who will gain ample experience in specific scientific niches – those who go into academia. Ethan Martindale, a third-year biochemistry student and aspiring researcher, says the module would help his thesis writing: “Skills such as structure, use of varying media, and influences of storytelling will make my written work more engaging and succinct.”  

Professor Moffat goes on to make an interesting point about science communication in that it plays a role in shaping the identity of undergraduates as scientists. Not only does being on the course give students the opportunity to find their own unique communication styles, but it has also served to strengthen their identity with the department through meeting new people. Ethan adds that the collaborative nature of the module allowed him “to forge new friendships with both peers on other degree streams, as well as meeting new people through my current friends. 

Ethan goes on to say: “The module breaks the typical boundaries of STEM modules, in that there is an allowance for creativity.” Professor Moffat describes how creatives, unlike scientists, “don’t necessarily work methodologically – make an observation, have a hypothesis, do a test, reject or accept, repeat.” Mirroring elements of the creative process in the teaching could therefore be something to explore. Improvisation workshops, for example, have been adopted by the Alan Alda Center for Communication Science, a science communication course developed by actor and science communicator Alan Alda, elements of which inspire Warwick’s Science Communication module. Contrary to a methodological approach, these workshops encourage students to listen to their audience in the moment and communicate the science accordingly.  

Formal training in science communication could play a vital role in instilling the importance of effective communication in the next generation of scientists. Part of educational institutions realising the need for this training is accepting that science communication is becoming an integral part of all scientific careers. Professor Moffat echoes this sentiment at the end of the interview: “If you’re not communicating, it’s not science.” 


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