This month, we’re asking all community engagement professionals within science to complete our state of scientific community management survey. The survey’s intended to determine the variety of community-building roles that exist within science, and is the first activity of the AAAS Community Engagement Fellows program. We’ll be sharing a report of the survey results once we’ve analyzed them.
But just who are the scientific community engagement professionals? To help answer that question we’re running a series of Q&As with people in existing community-building roles. If any of these stories resonate, please do take 12 minutes to complete the survey! The more input we have to the survey, the more detailed our view of the overall landscape will be.
Today we’re featuring Alex Jackson:
Thank you for agreeing to speak with us about your work as a scientific community engagement manager! Could you introduce yourself to our readers? Tell us a little bit about yourself and the community you manage.
For the last four years, I’ve been actively engaged in and responsible for a number of online scientific communities, constantly learning and continuously inspired by the work of scientists, engineers and mathematicians that span STEM activities and research worldwide. I recently joined the Royal Society, the academy of science for the UK and Commonwealth as well as the world’s oldest scientific academy in continuous existence.
Already within a couple of months, I’ve seen a lively global community that interacts with the wealth of content which the society produces and discusses online, from timely reports on the role of EU membership in science funding and collaboration, to grants, awards, research papers and the wealth of historical artefacts and collection items in the library, among many others. The audience is extremely varied from expert scientists, fellows and prominent academics and teachers, to research fellows, schools, the interested public and tomorrow’s generation of scientists.
What was your path to community management? Were you trained as a scientist or did you come by another route?
My path to where I am today has been fairly unpredictable and at times circumstantial. I started out roughly ten years ago in local radio journalism working for the BBC and, following that, regional press. As a general reporter I’d cover everything from local health cuts right through to environmental issues, fracking and windfarms. I’d always had an interest in science, but as a non-scientist never felt authoritative or confident enough to communicate research. However, I was fortunate enough to stumble into a role at the NHS, creating and editing its magazine and promoting case studies about the wonderful people the trust cared for. Here I worked with an array of clinicians to communicate their research to the health community and wider public; a learning curve that was challenging and rewarding in equal measure.
It was at Nature where I became most exposed to the scientific community online, managing key social media accounts and editing the nature.com blogs, as well as helping organise events such as SpotOn. Here I quickly learned the importance of translating science into snappy accessible posts that would engage a wide audience and potentially reach new people. Perhaps the most important advice I was given early on, which sticks with me today, was to ask the researcher in the most lay possible way to break down and explain their research paper in 30 seconds. If that piqued interest and was understandable, we were often onto a winner in terms of accessible articles and social media posts.
Working on the blogs and Soapbox Science, I feel extremely privileged to have spoken with a diverse range of academics, scientists and science communicators, all of whom emphasised how important the public understanding of pressing global issues, such as energy, population growth, and food security, is to today’s society. It was great to collaborate with bloggers too, seeing other fascinating networks grow so effectively, such as Sci Logs, Frontier Scientists and Science Borealis. They showed the true value of sharing and discussing topical research and studies on social media.
Can you describe the key responsibilities of your role? What does an average week look like for you at the moment?
The old cliché has it. No two days are the same working in the digital team. I like to plan ahead where at all possible, if I know policy or key educational reports are being launched, or where competitions, book prizes, grants are coming to end or being announced online. However, admittedly, a lot is sporadic and sometimes responsive. Where I can plan ahead, I like to work with the design team to create visual elements and multimedia and to incorporate strong images to accompany campaigns. Using narrative twitter stories throughout the day, such as one we did recently on Dorothy Hodgkin’s birthday, has also shown promising results. Historic dates and international events are always good to increase community engagement and start debates, such as the recently introduced International Day of Women and Girls in Science, the Royal Society of Chemistry’s 175 Faces or the Royal Society’s Summer Science exhibition. I also try where possible to read the latest industry news each day, and am a huge fan of NPR’s social media blog, The Economist’s recent Severe Contest blog, and obviously Radio Lab.
Do you share the task of managing your community with anyone else – and do you belong to a team or wider group working on the project?
I am a member of the digital team alongside Ruth Ford, our digital content editor and Rob Rutter, digital marketing manager. The best thing about working on social media is you get to work with all departments, from publishing and grants through to public engagement, education and policy, among others. I’m very privileged to work alongside such a wealth of experts, and can always call on them for advice or to pick their brains on the best ways to break down complex language.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced as a scientific community manager? Are there ways in which your role could be made easier – such as professional development opportunities or something else?
Working across so many different areas on such a diverse range of topics is both rewarding and challenging. It is not always easy to find the time to dedicate as much as you’d like to certain events, campaigns, or subjects. So, it often feels like juggling and prioritising, which can sometimes mean missing interesting opportunities. As digital moves so fast and is forever changing in unpredictable ways, keeping up is a constant necessity and challenge. It makes the role endlessly fascinating, but means reading about industry trends is just as important as the day-to-day activities. With Twitter constantly changing and Facebook forever evolving, increasingly there are new challenges which emerge, and experimenting becomes a crucial part of the role, even if this at times can lead to dead ends and failures. I believe you should never be afraid to experiment and try, iterate, and try again. Persistence can often lead to wonderful results further down the line.
And zooming out a little, why do you think community engagement important to science? How have you seen active management improve your community?
The public dissemination of science is so important in today’s threatened world. With climate change, food security, and pollution, to name a few – science has such a big impact on humanity. For people to make informed decisions on such global issues and the lasting effects they have on society, they must first fully understand the issues in question. I think this is where social media has an increasingly important role. It is vital for learned societies, academies, institutions and STEM professionals to interact, engage and discuss science online within a public context. I’ve found the science community to be one of the best on social media for this. It is a thriving community, with discussions ranging from publishing developments, open access, and peer review to inaccurate research, role models, citizen science, and unconscious bias. I think social media helps break down linguistic barriers, to the public or within the different sciences themselves. I believe the most important part of community engagement, quite clearly, is two-way communication and the ability of people to listen first and then offer their expertise second. In my experience, Twitter is a wonderful platform to collaborate, network and meet like-minded professionals. There shouldn’t be hierarchy on social media, and everybody should get a say, as their opinion is equally valid.
There are thousands of fantastic science outreach professionals and organisations now using social media, as well as great schemes such as Realscientists, where each week a different scientist takes the hot seat and welcomes questions, opens up debates. Not too dissimilar are Science Grrl and Stemettes, both of which celebrate and support girls and women in science.
Building engaged communities is really important and social media should not be about broadcasting. Having already seen the potential of the diverse community interacting with the Royal Society online, I hope as my time in the role goes on I can continue to engage audiences and discuss the fascinating science which benefits so many of our lives.
Find all of the interviews in this series by clicking the “community engagement Q&As” tag at the top of any blog post.