'Science communication is still where advertising was in the 1950s': The University of Texas's J.B. Bird on science's need to stress its benefits
J.B. Bird, UT's Director of Media Relations, and Christine Sinatra, Head of Comms at the university's College of Natural Sciences, are behind some of the most creative and engaging research storytelling in the U.S.A. at the moment. In this episode they talk about inspiring their college community to engage the public with their research, and how topical news stories can be key to capturing people's attention with research.
Do you control and produce all of the university's digital content or are you happy for professors and students to start their own podcasts and video series etc.?
J.B. Bird: We try to make a culture where people are excited about communications. It's like in the novel by Mark Twain where Huck Finn is trying to paint the fence, and he doesn't want to paint the fence by himself and he probably couldn't do it, so he's got to get the whole town to paint the fence. And so, that's what we try to do, to inspire people to share successes, to have a culture where we're excited about people who are successful at their communications efforts and then you put the tools out there.
Who is Tower Girl and how is she helping to communicate your science research?
Christine Sinatra: Tower Girl is a peregrine falcon, which is a threatened species here in Texas, who has taken up residence on our UT Tower here. And some time back some bird watchers started to notice that she was coming around, actually she's here year round, which is unusual for the species, and so our Biodiversity Centre, which is a bunch of biologists, helped to put on the tower a high definition camera so we can monitor her, see if she lays eggs, see if she has mates come around. And it becomes this process where people feel they're understanding the research that our biologists are doing, why they would observe these birds, why it's important, and also just enjoying the experience themselves of doing some of that observation.
How are you using video as part of your communication strategy?
J.B. Bird: Like any organisation we're going to tell you that we can always get better, even if you go to the New York Times science desk about video they'll tell you that they've changed their strategy three times in the last three years. We're seeing such rapid changes in the audience consumption of, say, video, is that you have to alter your approach. So, one of the things we've been successful with in video is doing really short videos because, especially with social media you want everything to be shareable, and that would be our number one metric - 'Have people shared our content?' You want that punchline effect. Here in the United States there's a very popular social video series called Now This where they do very punch social videos about political topics, so that's the approach we've tried to emulate with our social media videos. I think we need to continue to sharpen that and get better at it but also keep an eye on how things are changing and what audiences are looking for.
University of Texas Links:
Point of Discovery - UT's College of Natural Sciences podcast
Tower Girl - live feed from UT's Tower of a peregrine falcon nest
Star Date - StarDate tells listeners what to look for in the night sky, and explains the science, history, and skylore behind these objects. It also keeps listeners up to date on the latest research findings and space missions. And it offers tidbits on astronomy in the arts and popular culture, providing ways for people with diverse interests to keep up with the universe.
Peter Barker runs Orinoco Communications, a digital communications company specialising in the communication of research in science, the social sciences and the humanities.