Prize your science out of the lab
SUMMARY: Stephen Curry, a professional scientist, specifically talks to his colleagues about the value of entering the Wellcome Trust/Guardian/Observer science writing competition
Image courtesy of The Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize 2011.
There is a very real danger that the number of articles written to encourage people to enter the 2011 Wellcome Trust Science Writing Competition will exceed the number of entrants. We have already had commentaries and advice from luminaries such as Alok Jha, James Randerson, Henry Gee and Tim Radford.
However, Danger is my middle name so here comes another one. One specifically aimed at people who, like myself, are working scientists.
To be perfectly honest, Danger isn’t my middle name. In fact, I don’t have a middle name; my parents failed to come up with a descriptor that would adequately link Stephen to Curry and so I remain binomial. Positively Linnean.
If you are a scientist, dear reader, and would like to have a decent chance of winning the competition, two things should already have occurred to you from my introduction. First, that a little poetic licence — normally disallowed from formal scientific writing — is no bad thing, especially if you are trying to fashion an entertaining hook to catch your audience’s attention. But given the strength of our Pavlovian training to write only in the passive, objective, spiritless, marrow-sucking, mind-dulling third person, it takes quite a force of will for scientists to writhe their way out of the strait-jacket of professionalism.
The second point is about using jargon. Don’t. Yes, yes, clever you — you knew exactly what I meant by binomial. You were not for a second distracted by the possibility of confusion with the mathematical interpretation. You even got the winking reference to Carolus Linnaeus’s system of taxonomical nomenclature. (Whoops, I did it again.)
But how many others were left behind, locked out of the story by difficult and unnecessary vocabulary? If you think the tale is worth telling and you want people to follow, it’s probably best to hold their hand or to at least offer them literary hand-holds that they can reach.
For many scientists, the abandonment of jargon is extraordinarily difficult. It goes against the grain. For one thing, we like to think of ourselves as clever people who do clever things. Many scientists fear that by presenting a simplified version of their research, they too might be thought of as simplified, at least by their peers. I have seen this time and again, especially in research talks by scientists, where speakers were so keen to display their intellectual wares that they bamboozled the audience with data sufficient for ten talks and lost their grip on the point of the story. Even when scientists sit down to write for a lay audience some may care too much about the imagined tut-tutting of their colleagues at the (necessary) omission of subtle caveats for the sake of an engaging narrative. Put these people out of your mind — you will not be writing for them.
Difficultly also lies in the task of transposing a highly technical piece of science into a tale that will hold the attention of the non-specialist. In preparing for the competition, I recommend that you do not underestimate the effort required to achieve this. To those tackling this type of writing for the first time, the demands may seem bewildering. It is like learning a foreign language. Worse, it is like being forced to speak a new language when you are already fluent in the technobabble used every day to communicate with your co-workers. It will feel distinctly uncomfortable. You may also feel stupid that you can’t do it on the first pass. But you would be stupid to let this put you off.
Lastly, why should you bother? Like the wicked, scientists these days have little time for rest, so why add yet one more burden to your overloaded schedule? I could mention the duty of public engagement and the research councils’ demands for ‘impact’ but I won’t dwell on these, even though they should not be discounted. For me the most important answer to the question is also the simplest: it will probably make you a better scientist.
The goal of writing a flowing, eyebrow-lifting piece of prose about your science — or someone else’s — will prise your head out of the lab and oblige you to look the rest of the world in the eye. That’s a valuable and meaningful encounter. Of course, a certain amount of tunnel vision is needed to focus on seeing a project though to completion, but the task of trying to explain that project to someone whose preoccupations are entirely different from yours may well make you see your work in a new light. You might just ask yourself a question that you had never previously considered. And who knows where that might lead?
Stephen Curry is a professor of structural biology at Imperial College and writes the regular blog, Reciprocal Space, at the science blog network, Occam’s Typewriter. He is one of the 20 winners of the 2010 I’m a scientist, get me out of here! competition.