Meeting of the Minds took a few moments to talk with Herrie Schalekamp about new working relationships between researchers and paratransit operators in South Africa and beyond. Herrie is the ACET Research Officer at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Transport Studies. In addition to his research, teaching and consulting in the fields of paratransit and public transport reform he is involved in specialised educational programmes for paratransit operators and government officials. Herrie’s activities form part of a broader endeavour to investigate and contribute to improved public transport operations and regulation in Sub-Saharan African cities under ACET – the African Centre of Excellence for Studies in Public and Non-motorised Transport.
Don’t mind me! I’m “just” a writer
Years ago, I saw a little ad in the Globe and Mail for two-week course that Jay Ingram was leading at the Banff Centre on ‘science communications.’ Two weeks! Jay Ingram! Banff!
I got totally jazzed thinking about how I could spend two weeks in the Rockies, rubbing shoulders with journalists and scientists. I’d wear a polar fleece and have earnest conversations learning about black holes over cups of fair-trade coffee. Students and faculty would marvel at my sparkling prose. They’d gather around me for tips after I did my TED-x quality presentation about the periodic table (“Pb: lead!”). I’d be pulled to the podium by Jay Ingram, Bruce Springsteen-style, to teach the class and then I’d be given a CBC radio show.
Ah, Banff! (Deadline for applications was in March, but info about the program is here).
Well, that’s the fantasy that went though my head.
At the time, I was working as a writer, but writing about scientific topics simply wasn’t part of my wheelhouse. So, as is the way with fantasies, this one disappeared like a puff of smoke the minute I turned the page to read the Globe’s film reviews.
But the universe moves in mysterious ways (more about that later!), and within two years, my job became focused on communicating about sustainability, including environmental issues like climate change and water. Ever since, it’s become very clear to me why there is a dire need for a course that brings scientists together with communicators.
In my daily life, I get to meet and hang out with scientists, engineers and environmentalists from all over Canada. Part of my job is to simplify and clarify the content about which they are expert in an engaging way so it can be understood by a layperson.
But I get the feeling that they consider me the lowest rung on the food chain (bad metaphor-mixing I know!) “We’re the experts,” their attitude seems to suggest, “and you’re just in PR.” Or “you’re just the writer.” (Full disclosure: only a few have actually uttered these words, but that’s what my ego always hears them saying). It’s as if by attempting to simplify and clarify their messages, I’m pandering to the lowest common denominator and cheapening the whole idea of scientific integrity.
Now don’t get me wrong: I adore these people. They are some of the smartest, most passionate folks I know. I learn from them every single day. My life would be considerably less without them.
But I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard one of them say “we need to get our message out.” Because the truth is, they’re often their own worst enemy, sacrificing clarity and engaging copy in the pursuit of scientific perfection. They add clause after dull clause to succinctly-written copy because they think what I’ve written is not accurate enough. They add footnotes and disclaimers to advertising taglines. They use jargon. They think facts, facts and more facts should be the stars of the show. And when you think you’ve come up with a really great creative way to tell a succinct, human story that inspires people to care about their issue, they’re the first ones in line to squelch it.
Science and communications: two solitudes, indeed!
Okay, I’m exaggerating for effect here, and I would be the first person to agree that scientific and environmental accuracy matters. Of course it does.
But surely it’s time for communicators to take a stronger stance in defending our own professional integrity and the expertise we bring to the table. And that’s exactly what I’m trying to do.
To the core of my being, I believe that the greatest good will be served when scientific accuracy is married to engaging communications—when we’re equal partners. And guess what? I’m starting to hear that opinion echoed by my partners and friends in the scientific community, too.
I still have some bad days. So when I need a dose of optimism, I think of Ray Jayawardhana, an astronomer at the University of Toronto whom I had the privilege to meet at a dinner in 2008 to honour Canada’s Top 40 Under 40. (Ray was named to the list—not me! I was chairing a panel about water at that event.)
I hadn’t been doing science communications for very long at that time, but I remember being enchanted by Ray’s passion at figuring out how to communicate in an engaging, consumer-friendly way. Oh, did I mention that he is an astronomer? A real one?
Lo and behold, a year later, I see this ad on the subway, to celebrate the International Year of Astronomy.
I felt myself getting jazzed up. Tides caused by the moon are slowing down the Earth’s spin? Yeah! I get it, and I now totally needed a piece of this Year of Astronomy thing! And then I saw another ad:
TV static is afterglow from the origin of the universe? Tell me more! And by the way– love the nod to the Big Bang Theory—very clever. And what’s this about neutrinos? Never heard of them, but this ad make me sit up and wonder:
But fast on the heels of my enthusiasm came professional envy. What courageous agency created these ads? How many hoops did they have to jump through to get those clever concepts and sharp copy approved? How many versions of copy did they go through—ten? twelve? How grey did the hair of the copy-writers turn as they wrestle these ads through approvals?
Well guess whose idea the ads were—and who wrote them? Yep, it was Ray Jayawardhana. He isn’t ‘just’ an astronomer—he’s also a natural-born communicator! When this guy was born, the stars were really aligned.
So to Jay, and Ray, all the other folks who are dedicated to communicating about science and our physical world in way that inspires and energizes us (and Charles Fishman, I’m totally including you on this list), thank you! There’s no ‘just’ about it: we communicators are, and must be, an essential part of the science eco-system.
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