Sky on sky

Sky on sky

Hello. I’m in Washington DC.

I knew nothing about Washington DC before landing here, 4 days ago. I guess that if someone had asked me “what’s the first thing that comes to your mind when I say Washington DC?” I would have probably said “the White House”. It’s silly, this a very big city, with three major Universities, parks, museums, theatres, attractions. Nonetheless, if someone asked me the same question today, I would still say “White Houses”. Note how this has gone from THE White House, to just White Houses. Well, yes, after 19 years in Bologna, the “red city” of Italy, and 6 years in Manchester, where there’s more bricks than oxygen atoms, I am shocked by the amount of white in this place. Too much white. The whiteness of this city feels almost heavy and unbearable. Especially when The White pairs up with the The Sun (another presence I’m not used to) and together they strike an attack against my retinas. I’m not a big fan of sunglasses, but here I’ve got no choice, it’s a matter of life or death.

White, bright, clean and inhabited by walking suits. Being used to scruffy Manchester, one might think the whole city has thrown a huge week-long fancy dress party with theme “business, career and success”… but I think  the people here actually do mean serious business. Or at least they want you to believe so. Next to them, I feel like a homeless and, I won’t lie, I kind of enjoy playing along. I’ve had particular fun rolling on the grass down a soft hill in a public park, pretending to be talking to the squirrels in the cemetery, hopping down the road to the rhythm of the music pouring out of my headphones and taking my shoes off in the auditorium hall of the National Academy of Science. Which actually takes me to the main point of my visit to Washington. A conference, at the NAS, on the Science of Science Communication. Sounds good? It did to me. I like science. I like communicating. And I would like to think of myself as an aspiring science communicator. So bring on the science of science communication, it must be interesting, whatever it is!

White building

Every building is a department of something else in Washington

It turns out that what the conference is really about is a bunch of penguins (people in suits), in a very white and clean building, stating the obvious in very elaborate and eloquent ways, rubbing each others backs, turning the most simple concept into incomprehensible jargon and taking themselves too seriously, far, far too seriously for my taste.

But hey, the food is great! No, seriously, whatever the stereotypes on American food are, the catering for this conference gets both my Italian thumbs up. So good that on day 2 I turned up with ziplock bags to fill with delicious food for the evening. “Why not?” I said to the 60+ emeritus professor that was staring at me “it’s going to save me time tonight! Plus I’ll be unemployed in two weeks, I have to think about my finances”, grabbing a huge piece of apple pie and carelessly shoving into one of my bags.

In terms of the actual content of the conference, there isn’t much to say. Some things were totally irrelevant to me (medical writers? Policy makers? How the government should communicate with pharma companies?) and some others were supposed to be incredibly interesting (the role of narratives and social media in communicating science) but managed to let me down anyway. Hours and hours of panel discussions about the importance of Twitter in modern day spread of information to then get to what conclusions? That Twitter is a powerful platform to spread ideas and should be used more in science communication. Yes, thanks for that, I’m feeling enlightened now.

But please note, the criticisms I am making and am about to make (and will keep on making in the foreseeable future) go deeper than just a pure and simple series of observations regarding how the conference could have been better organised. They go down, touch and lie comfortably at the very bottom of my general current attitude towards Academia. All this talking, all these fancy words, all these tens and hundreds if not thousands of studies on “what is the most accurate and effective way of communicating science” to then state the most obvious, painfully intuitive conclusions. Do we really need this? Or are they made up jobs? People have spent years collecting and analysing data , PhD theses have been written, hairs have turned to grey, so that someone today could come and tell me that an effective piece of science communication has to (taken directly from my notes) “have a narrative, be precise and to the point, be evocative and if it’s fun it’s better”. Oh yeah, and the use of metaphors and analogies really helps. The holy grail of journalism!

I wanted to laugh out loud, but I turned around and saw hundreds of heads nodding with a sense of shared satisfaction. “Yes, good point there, interesting and evocative, that’s a really good point I hadn’t thought of. I’d better email that to my boss before I forget.”

Alright, I’m being a little bitter, but this is not because I’ve figured it all out. Far from it. But surely we should discuss how to implement these ideas, rather than worrying about how to fit science communication within the larger paradigm and theories of the social sciences. The ultimate goal is practical, we’re talking science writing, journalism, media and education… And the main point is always about finding new and more engaging ways to communicate with the public. How are we going to do this if we can’t communicate in simple terms between ourselves and if I start yawning after the third sentence in each presentation? Ahh academia, dear academia, I have loved you dearly, but like all relationships, after too many years together I can only see your flaws. I am sorry, this is the bitter aftertaste of an old tired love…

So what is my role in all this? How can I contribute? I have an idea. Put those headphones on, sneak out and go take some pictures in the park. Leave the men and women in suits to their mental masturbation and their incredibly serious jobs and take a couple of hours to soak in some of this incredible sun, on a small patch of green, surrounded by ducks and kilometres of tall, white, clean buildings. I’ll be thinking about the future of humanity another day.

(More insightful thoughts on science communication coming up soon, now that I’ve got this rant out of the way)

Duck face

Duck face

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2 thoughts on “News from the land of business suits

  1. My thoughts exactly following a very similar public engagement and science comm conference in London. The main topic was Postgraduate Researchers & Outreach. From my notes:

    “My general feeling at this point was that people in the PE (public engagement) community seem to be more interested in either researching this “new and exciting field of PE” or simply continuing with their established outreach projects rather than taking any action. What I would like to see is more practical talk on how to make PE something possible for PGRs to get into without getting in trouble with their supervisors and HEIs. We kept flagging this issue up with another PhD student as one of major concerns for PGRs but mostly to no avail. Oh well. This was an exploratory meeting after all. The next one, which we agreed to have some time in the future, might be more action oriented…”

    There seems to be a general problem with discussing science comm. Because PE is related to academia, people naturally assume that approach to it should be… well – academic. Wrong! We need more action, more practical knowledge, more proven good practices… and far far far less theorising.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts Greta. Great to hear it’s not just me ;)

    • I feel you, Kuba. Too many academics have forgotten what it means to be outside of academia. Or maybe they’ve never even been there? The thought is frightening.

      There was one thing that a panelist (Dr. Bill Hallman from Rutgers University) said on Monday and to which I couldn’t help but shout “Yeah man!” and that was:

      “All academics should go and get a waitressing job for a year. They’d learn more about how to communicate with people doing that, than writing papers about how to communicate.”

      Amen.

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