Guest post by Andrew Maynard.
Studying for a Masters degree in Public Health prepares you for many things. But it doesn’t necessarily give you hands-on experience of how to take complex information and translate it into something others can understand and use. Yet as an increasing array of public health issues hit the headlines, from fungicide redidues in orange juice to the safe development of new technologies, this is exactly where public health professionals need to be developing their skills. And it’s not only in the public domain: the ability to translate complex science into actionable intelligence is more important now than ever in supporting policy makers and business leaders make decisions that are grounded in evidence rather than speculation.
These were just some of the drivers behind a new course I have just started teaching at the University of Michigan School of Public Health that is built around science blogging. OK, so maybe I wanted to have a little fun with the students as well. But my experiences with the blog 2020 Science have taught me that the discipline of writing a science-based blog for a broad audience is invaluable for developing highly transferrable communication skills. And it’s not just me. Emailing with the scientist, author and blogger Sheryl Kirshenbaum about the course, she admitted “blogging taught me how to effectively communicate with broad audiences”. (Sheryl also added that she’s also learned a great deal from many wonderful editors – to which I can only add “me too!”).
The new course throws ten Masters of Public Health students in at the deep end by challenging each of them to publish ten posts over ten weeks on the blog Mind The Science Gap – and to respond to the comments they receive. As this is a science blog, each post will be based around published health-related research. The challenge for the writers will be to translate this into a science-grounded piece that is relevant and accessible to a broad audience.
The key objective here is to develop new skills through experience. And for this, I am encouraging as many people as possible to comment on the posts. As any science blogger will tell you, even simple comments like “I liked this” or “this was confusing” are extremely helpful in understanding what works and what doesn’t. But I am also hoping readers will look beyond the educational aspects of the exercise, and engage with the students on the subjects they are writing about. This is where I suspect the experience will become most empowering.
There’s another aspect of the course that intrigues me. Rather naively, I started this exercise imagining a series of impersonal posts that focused on intellectually interesting but emotionally ambivalent scientific studies. What I forgot is that public health matters to people. And so it’s going to be tough for our bloggers to separate what they write about from their passions – and those of their readers. In fact I’m not even sure that such a separation would be appropriate – for communication to be relevant, it needs to go beyond the numbers. But how do you effectively combine science with a desire to make the world a better place in a blog? I try to achieve this on my own blog, but I must admit I don’t have any easy answers here. So as the Mind The Science Gap students develop their skills, I’m going to be doing some learning of my own as I watch how they respond to this particular challenge.
At the end of the day, Mind The Science Gap is about teaching the next generation of public health professionals how to connect more effectively with non-specialist and non-technical audiences – whether they are managers, clients, policy makers or members of the public. It isn’t about creating a new wave of science bloggers. But in the process, I like to think that some of the participants will get the blogging bug. Whether they do or not, I’m looking forward to ten weeks of engaging, entertaining and hopefully challenging posts from ten talented students.