TW7 - Untangling the crossed wires: communicating science in the 21st century

Event Dates: 14-17th May 2013
Location: Microsoft Research, Cambridge, UK
Organisers: Dr Drew Purves, Microsoft Research
ECTS Point Allocation: 3

In May 2013 the GCII partner Microsoft Research Cambridge, ran a Complementary Skills workshop on scientific communication entitled ‘Untangling the crossed wires: communicating science in the 21st century'. The abstract was as follows:

Like it or not, long gone are the days when a scientist could lock themselves away for years at a time, then emerge with a paper that could be understood by a few people around the world. Rather, the successful 21st century scientist needs to actively communicate their results to diverse audiences, using a wide variety of media. Through a series of fun and challenging group exercises, workshops and panel sessions (peppered with the occasional talk), located at Microsoft Research’s brand new and very fancy building in Cambridge, we’ll explore how we might better communicate with the general public, governments, businesses, and lawyers, as well as to scientists outside our own field. With help from some interesting people from the University / Business / NGO nexus that is modern day Cambridge, we’ll talk, listen, draw pictures, laugh, record videos, go punting… hell, we might even join Twitter! So if you fancy trying to make your supervisors most esoteric paper appealing to schoolchildren or trying your hand at a Pecha Kucha – or if you intend to run a successful research lab in the 21st century – consider coming along.

As this abstract makes clear, the workshop deliberately set out to be very different to the other GCII workshops. The workshop was unusual both in terms of the focus (communication) and in terms of the breadth of approaches and activities that were used in the workshop, which ranged from a ‘dragon’s den’ role-playing exercise designed to illustrate communication with business / entrepreneurial audiences; through a session focussing on communicating science via the medium of the comic book; to the attendees giving ‘Pecha Kucha’ style presentations. Each attendee attended 8 separate workshops, supplemented with extra activities. The workshops were as follows.

PR consultants from Weber-Shandwick, one of Europe’s leading PR firms, ran a session on the general topic of communication through storytelling. This was an invaluable session that set up the remainder of the workshop very well. Micheal Marshall, an environmental science journalist from New Scientist magazine, ran a workshop on science journalism, something that was very helpful to the attendees in terms of them learning how to view their work through the lens of new media. Helena van der Vegt from Cambridge Intellectual Property tackled issues around communication from a legal perspective, including a very well received session where the attendees searched patent databases. This was used as a way for the attendees to learn about legal issues, as well a way for them to generate some possible ideas for their ‘Dragon’s Den’ business plans that they would need to develop later in the workshop. This theme was continued be James Beresford, from the Cambridge Program for Sustainable Leadership, and Hanadi Jabado, from the Judge Business School, who worked together to run a workshop on entrepeneurship, during which the attendees worked up plans for imaginary businesses. They took these plans to an additional workshop, run by Drew Purves from Microsoft Research, during which they had to adopt the role of senior members of corporate boards (e.g. Chief Technology Officer, Chief Operating Officer) and rigorously question those business plans. Naturally, each attendee played a role on the imaginary board, and pitched to an imaginary board. Role play was also used in the workshop about communicating in the governmental / policy world, run by Graham Floater, director of the Climate Center, Brussels. Here, the attendees had to role play being a government minister, faced with an important decision, and provided with limited, and somewhat conflicted, scientific evidence. This was complemented by a workshop on communication in the NGO / policy world, run by Kate Trumper from UNEP-WCMC, which also covered a lot of concepts around good writing for non-scientific audiences. To push the idea of communication even further, Luca Borger, from CNRS, ran a session on social networking, during which any attendees not on Twitter signed up; Greg McInerny, from Oxford University, ran a session on ‘re-imagining the scientific figure for the 21st century’, exposing the attendees to the latest ideas in interactive visualization of scientific results; and Natalie Kay-Thatcher ran a session on the communication of complex scientific ideas via the medium of comics. This latter workshop serves to illustrate what made this workshop different. Many might have thought that such a session was too unusual, or too high risk, and yet it was one of the sessions that the attendees had the most positive things to say about. Moreover, the attendees actually made their own comics, based on their own work (and these were mostly excellent!).

Overall, this workshop had a very dynamic, lively, participatory, and free-thinking atmosphere, and (1) illustrated the importance of being able to communicate with wide audiences, via a variety of approaches; (2) provided invaluable practical advice on communication with several key audiences, including fellow scientists, governments, NGOs, the general public, business, and those from the legal profession; (3) illustrated the amazing amount of all-round talent that these attendees possessed – something that is easy for them to lose sight of, after a long period focussed on scientific research. In short, this workshop helped to foster the next generation of scientists, business leaders and policy makers, i.e., those that will shape the future of the natural environment in Europe and beyond.


  1. Sadia Ahmed, Microsoft Research Cambridge, UK
  2. Daniel Bannister, University of East Anglia, UK
  3. Callum Berridge, Vrije Universiteit, Netherlands – GC
  4. Silvia Caldararu, Microsoft Research Cambridge, UK
  5. Sara-Jane Dunn, Microsoft Research Cambridge, UK
  6. Tobias Gerken, University of Cambridge, UK
  7. Sasha Hararuk, Department of Botany and Microbiology, University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma, USA
  8. Max Holloway, University of Cambridge, UK
  9. László Hunor Hajdu, University of Cambridge, UK – GC
  10. Krista Kemmpinnen, University of Cambridge, UK
  11. Rozenn Keribin, University of Cambridge, UK – GC
  12. Charlotte Laufkoetter , ETH Zurich, Switzerland – GC
  13. Maria Martin Calvo, Imperial college London, UK – GC
  14. Yanjiao Mi, VU University Amsterdam, Netherlands – GC
  15. Colleen O’Brien, ETH Zurich, Switzerland – GC
  16. Norert Pirk, University Lund, Sweden – GC
  17. Tim Rademacher, University of Cambridge, UK
  18. Nataliya Stepanova, Moscow State University
  19. Beatrice Wedeux, University of Cambridge, UK
  20. Matteo Willeit, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Germany – GC