S2 Ep8: Dr Kat Arney on podcasts, storytelling and more

‘Science isn’t just the rational gathering and presenting of facts. It’s about issues, and people, and society.’ Communications specialist, Kat Arney, on why society needs science stories.

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Kat Arney’s enthusiasm for storytelling has been with her since childhood, when she devoured books and performed plays and music with her sister. She then fell in love with science, going on to obtain a degree in natural sciences and a PhD in developmental biology. But lab life wasn’t for her. She still felt the call to tell stories and so she combined her passions and became a professional science communicator. Kat is now an award-winning science writer, author, presenter, broadcaster, podcaster and public speaker. In this episode of Research Comms she shares her experiences and talks frankly about some of the big issues facing the science communication sector.

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The below is a short excerpt. For the full interview download the podcast.

You’re in the process of writing your third book - what can you tell us about it?

It's all about cancer. So, I used to work at Cancer Research UK and this book is basically asking, ‘Where did cancer come from and where is it going?’ So, why do we get cancer? It's not unique to us as humans, so why do organisms get cancer and then how does it grow? Why does it grow? Why does it become resistant to treatment? And actually then once we can start to properly figure that out we can start to figure out how to treat it and prevent it. Because we're doing kind of okay, and I spent a long time while I was at CRUK essentially saying “We're doing really well. Half of people survive cancer for ten years!” Well, that’s fine but there's a glass half empty perspective there as well. I feel like, on the sort of the the model the the paradigm the way that we've been thinking about cancer has got us so far but I think we need to think about it in a different way to get us get us even further.

How did you get into the world of science communication?

I've always been someone who has loved stories and writing but I don't really come from a scientific family. Anyone who knows the work of my sister Helen Arney, who's a science comedian, might be surprised. They might think that we must be this sciencey family to have produced two science communicators but actually we're more of an artsy, music family; one of those very middle-class households where the entire house is full of books. We used to write and perform plays as children, I liked making newspapers and all sorts of things. So I've always been interested in writing and telling stories. Then science was just the thing that I got interested in. How do we understand the world? And then science communication for me is that bringing together of the two. How do we tell stories that help us understand how the world works and our place in it? And how it fits into the narrative that we tell ourselves about how the world works.

I’ve heard you say that ‘facts are forgettable but stories are sticky’. What do you mean by that?

I think there are separate things here. There's a lot of talk now about storytelling and storytelling in science communication and a lot of this is about personal stories or patient stories and that is incredibly powerful, when you have actual human stories about people trying to find things out. It’s the most incredibly powerful way of talking about science.

But also I think just constructing how science is done as a story is really effective, and by this I mean, you can look at scientific paper and a scientific paper to a certain extent is a story. You've got the ‘Once Upon a Time’ element, so that's the introduction, ‘once upon a time things were like this’, and then you have the ‘but then we did these experiments, here are results and then we've come to this conclusion’ and here's the wrap-up, here's the moral, here's the ‘everyone living happily ever after’.

But I think it's very easy to get tied up when we talk about science with just the facts. Scientists have found a protein involved in cancer that makes cells grow. Ok, fine, but then I say “hang on, can we backtrack? Why? What’s the landscape? What’s the setting? What's the mystery?” You set the opening scene and then you can start putting in the characters. Maybe your character is the scientist and the journey they're going on, maybe your character is the disease or the drug or the protein or the gene or some sort of mechanism that you're trying to overcome, a monster that you're trying to fight. And then what's the action? How does this unfold? And where do you get to? So I think the really fundamental basics of narrative, of plot, of storytelling you can apply to explaining science because just saying ‘scientists have found a thing that does a thing in cancer’ is all very well but why should I care? Are there analogies or metaphors that you can use that make sense to people and fit into their framework of understanding and the way that they explain to themselves how the world works?

You have a very strong science background which clearly influences your brand of science communication but do you think it’s possible to do scicomm without having studied science to a high level?

This debate has been going on for flipping ages! I was having this debate over ten years ago with people in the Association of British Science Writers. And I think it very much depends on what are you doing. You can't fall into a trap of saying ‘all science comms has to be done by people who have science degrees’, there are so many different types of communication. For me, and the types of things that I do, I want to feel really happy that I'm into the science, and I really get it, and that the conversations that I'm having with people are on that level and then I can translate several layers back to to something that makes sense. I write incredibly detailed works, I write features and I write books, and I also do things like working with biotech companies, trying to help them tell the story of their science and unpack that to talk to their investors and the stakeholders, and to talk to the public about what they're doing.

And I still really want to understand their research because I don't want to be reeled in by bullshit. For me my key thing as a science communicator is not to be telling people bullshit. Because if you're telling the public bullshit or things that aren't true, or are misleading them, then that is not helping anybody because you're rienforcing these misleading narratives and stories that people have. So for me to feel happy that I'm not being fooled myself, I need to dig down into the nuts and bolts of a story. But you don't have to have a science background to ask the right questions, you just have to be thinker. Just keep asking questions until you feel that your questions have been answered. I think science communication is about asking questions that people would ask questions about and helping the public to ask those questions and have those questions answered. So I think the gullible reporting of nonsense is unhelpful but you don't have to be a PhD scientist to not report bullshit!

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Peter Barker is the Director of Orinoco Communications, which he started in 2016, having spent over ten years working in broadcast television as a documentary producer/director. 

He specialises in the digital communication of research in science, the social sciences, humanities and arts.