Insights Xchange: Conversations Shaping Academic Research

Bringing Science to the General Public, with Dr Elodie Chabrol

April 10, 2022 ScienceTalks Season 1 Episode 7
Insights Xchange: Conversations Shaping Academic Research
Bringing Science to the General Public, with Dr Elodie Chabrol
Show Notes Transcript

An essential part of being a scientist is sharing scientific findings with the general public. But is there a way to communicate science more effectively?

Join hosts Nikesh Gosalia and Jayashree Rajagopalan in a conversation with Dr Elodie Chabrol, International Director of the global science festival Pint of Science, as they discuss the fundamentals of conveying science to the public. Directionality is a core element of science communication, and Dr Chabrol addresses this by fostering two-way communication with strategies such as increasing the relatability of scientists and focusing on the human element. Dr Chabrol touches upon the main challenge in science communication – “getting people where they are” and how this can be tackled by bringing science communication activities into everyday life. Next, she shares her tips for research societies trying to boost public interest, from defining a target audience to experimenting with different content strategies to see what works. Finally, she reveals challenges unique to her work as a bilingual science communicator such as the judicious use of local languages over English.

Dr Elodie Chabrol is the International Director of Pint of Science, a freelance science communication consultant and co-founder of Beyond Research. With a PhD in Neurogenetics from Paris Descartes University, Dr Chabrol is passionate about helping scientists share their stories and spreading the love of science. She can be reached on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Insights Xchange is a fortnightly podcast brought to you by Cactus Communications (CACTUS). Follow us:

Nikesh Gosalia 00:26

Hi everyone! Welcome to ‘All Things SciComm.’  ‘All Things SciComm’ is a weekly podcast brought to you by ScienceTalks, a media platform that aims to make science accessible to everyone.  In this program, we dive into the latest from the sci-tech world. 

A little bit about myself.  My name is Nikesh Gosalia and I am joining you from London.  I have been part of the science communication and scholarly publishing industry for more than 14 years.  I’ve worked with researchers, academic publishers, journals, societies, and universities at some level.  It is my absolute pleasure to be hosting this podcast where we will discuss the latest in science, technology, and the research world.

Enough about me.  Say hello to my co-host for today Jayashree Rajagopalan.


Jayashree Rajagopalan 01:07

Hi Nikesh.  Thanks for that.  Once again, a big hello, good morning, good afternoon, or good evening to everyone who has tuned into today’s episode of All Things SciComm.

I am Jayashree and I co-host a community forum for researchers.  I too, like Nikesh, have been part of the scholarly communication industry for over a decade now, and over the years I’ve had some fantastic conversations with researchers and scientists as well as publishers and science communication professionals.  Nikesh and I are currently having a series of conversations with a lot of fantastic science communication professionals, which is why I can't wait to get today's conversation started.  Nikesh, would you please introduce our guest for today?


Nikesh Gosalia 01:52

Absolutely.  So, let's get started with our episode.

Today, we are chatting with Dr. Elodie Chabrol.  Elodie is International Director of the Pint of Science festival and a freelance Science Communication Consultant.  She holds a Ph.D. in Neuroscience and has also postdoctoral research experience.  Her academic background gives her a strong first-hand understanding of how researchers can communicate science better.  Her specialties are training scientists to communicate with the public, and on social media and organizing science events


Jayashree Rajagopalan 02:28

That’s right.  And before we proceed, just a little bit about Pint of Science.  For those of you who haven’t heard of it yet, Pint of Science is a global festival where researchers talk about science or communicate their science in a really engaging fashion to the non-scientific community.  Now, the highlight of Pint of Science, which makes it one of my favorites, the highlight of Pint of Science is the informal setting.  So, your Pint of Science event takes place at a local pub or bar near you.

Now this informal setting makes it really easy.  It breaks down all barriers, it makes it really easy for a researcher to communicate with the non-scientific community.  And it also helps build interest in the public about science, and it also helps them more curious about science and scientific concepts.  And the fact that a scientist is easily accessible to them in an informal setting makes it even more interesting and engaging.

So, let's get started then.  Welcome, Elodie, I am really happy to have you here.  I am very excited because this is the first time we are having this face-to-face conversation.  I think we've known each other for several years now.  And we've had a lot of conversations about an interview or a quote or a panel discussion.  I am really happy to finally have this face-to-face conversation with you today.


Elodie Chabrol 03:50

Thank you for the invitation, I am really happy to be here today.  And thank you for this great introduction actually.  You exactly nailed what Pint of Science is and what my job is actually as well, which is sometimes a bit difficult for people.  And so, I am really happy to be here.  I can't wait to chat with you guys.


Nikesh Gosalia 04:05

Thank you.  Thank you so much Elodie.  And before we get started, typically there's always an interesting story behind the kind of professional experience that you get into.  And I am just wondering.  And if there is none, that's fine as well.  But if there is one, is there an interesting story behind how you got into science communication.  Was there like a eureka moment of some sort, or was it just a natural transition into science communication and what are you so passionate about?


Elodie Chabrol 04:34

I think the first thing is that I've always wanted to be a teacher.  When I was very young, I was riding horses and I wanted to be a riding teacher.  And then I broke my knees and I was like, okay, I need to do something else than riding because it was really bad.  So, I started interesting myself in science, and then I thought I will be a science teacher.  And then I discovered research and I was saying okay, I will be a researcher but also a lecturer.  And to be honest, I discovered science communication quite late by doing Pint of Science during my postdoc.  It was almost 10 years ago.  And 10 years ago, science communication wasn't as big as it is now.  So, we didn't have as many opportunities.  So, I really discovered it while doing Pint of Science.  And my eureka moment was actually this is exactly my place now.  I feel exactly where should be.  And now the best is that I am teaching Ph.D. students how to do science communication.  And every time I do that, I feel like universe just put me at my exact perfect spot I was supposed to end but I didn't know.

And for the anecdote actually, we are almost at Valentine's Day.  And Pint of Science, I received the email saying that they were looking for volunteers, on Valentine's Day.  So, in a way it's quite funny.  I always say, my love for science communication started with an email on Valentine's Day, actually.


Nikesh Gosalia 05:58

Wow.  That's fascinating.  I know.  Sorry Jayashree, you wanted to.


Jayashree Rajagopalan 06:02

No, no, I am just saying, wow.  It’s such a sweet story.


Nikesh Gosalia 06:06

Thank you for sharing Elodie.  The first point of discussion is about the directionality of science communication.  Typically, science communication efforts by societies and publishers tend to be one way.  I mean, things are changing, but more or less tend to be one way.  For example, the societies would put out a video or an infographic and try to get views like some sort of social engagement.  In that sense, Pint of Science is different because it's all about two way communication, both scientists and the public talk and listen to each other.

So, I have a few questions there.  Do you think societies could also organize events like the Pint of Science?  Has Pint of Science had any societies or publishers participate in these events as well?  And finally, what tips would you give societies and publishers about organizing similar kind of events.


Elodie Chabrol 06:56

For the first question, definitely I think anyone can organize events like this.  We didn't create being in a bar, what we created was really having it as a festival, like a music festival where you have multiple scenes at the same time, and you have to pick.  But science has been discussed in bars and cafes actually since forever.  The first cafe in Paris is called Le Procope.  And you had philosophers there discussing science, drinking coffee there.  So, it's very not new.  I think it's an old way of doing science communication.  There are two things.  At first, it's an old way of doing science communication, the very descending way where scientists just explain their research to the public, and then the public takes it for granted and that's it.  And there is no dialogue, or whatever.  And it's also depending on what you have, and what you do, you can have a two way conversation.  And sometimes you can have only one way, and it's fine.  So, you have to adapt with that.  But definitely, opening to a more two-way or a dialogue could be great.  Events like that are good for that.

Anything that has interaction, so obviously events are great for that.  And especially in person events where you can sit down and discuss with people.  I think we have a very big cliché as well.  When I was a scientist and I was saying to people I am a scientist, the first reaction I would get 50% of the time, would be, okay, you must be too smart, or I won't try to understand what you were working on because it must be so complicated.  Like they are on a kind of pedestal and scientists are so unreachable.  We need to break that I think.  So, anything that helps that.  It could be even a one way thing but opening to the human.  I think I work a lot on showing the human side of scientists, not just the science.  And I think Pint of Science does it well, because every time during the events we see people asking, what kind of studies did you do to arrive there?  Did you always know you wanted to be a scientist?  Why do you work on that subject?  Kind of questions are a bit more personal than actually science.  But I think societies could definitely organize that kind of event.  You just have to have that in mind, like sharing stuff and not just the science and the data.  It's more than that.  It's like having scientists and the public meet and discussing.

And we had publishers actually participate in Pint of Science.  We had Hindawi for a bit, and it was great because we had blog posts, some researchers wrote some blog posts about their research.  I think definitely it can be done.  It's just a way of thinking what kind of events we want to do, what kind of communication we want.  I think that's the thing.  They could organize their own.  They could also sponsor some already organized thing because sometimes it's overwhelming to start organizing events where you are not used to do that.  And also, if you really want to reach the public, it's not something you might do the first shot. 

So that's an advice I would give for publishers, society, anyone that organizes events, doesn't get the right target the first time, feels a bit sad, or they don't want to continue.  It's a work that comes with time.  Pint of Science, the first one, it was more scientists than it was public, obviously.  In France, we had five persons of non-scientist the first year.  And now we are 50:50, and I don't think we will reach more than 50% of the public because scientists are interested in science.  And when you ask them, usually scientists coming to Pint of Science are in another domain, like neuroscientists going to astrophysics, which for me is kind of public.  Like, when I go to an astrophysics event, I really don't have anything, I don't know what they're talking about, so it's really new.  So that's the thing.  I would give societies and publisher, don't give up if the first time is not right, because you need time for people to discuss, to know that that exists.  And so, it's good to do it again and to see an evolution.  If you see an evolution in your public, it's great.

And when you organize events, don't just think about the science.  Think about the humans behind the science and what you want to share about them, and how the public could ask questions or know more about them.  For example, I started a podcast in French that is called ‘Sous la blouse’ which means under the lab coat, and the idea is we talk about science for 5 minutes at the start, really just for them to explain their research, and then we talk about them for 30 minutes.

So, they tell me how they ended up doing science.  Why this subject.  What do they do outside of science?  What is their passion?  What is their favorite movie, that kind of thing.  And people, when they listen to it, especially young people, they feel like, okay, I have a role model.  This person didn't know she wanted to do science until maybe like first year of university.  We always have that cliché of scientists being super geniuses that know at 10 that they will do neuroscience because they've always been reading crazy books.  But the reality most of the time is much different.  People discover science later.  And I think it's good for young people and for everyone to get to know them as well.

So that would be my advice.  I would say, think about what you want to share with the public what you want to get out of your event.  And don't give up if it doesn't work the first time.  Ask for feedback.  Be sure you know why it didn't work.  And if it just didn't work, if you didn't reach enough public, that's just normal.  So, start again,


Nikesh Gosalia 12:45

Thank you so much Elodie.  That was really insightful.  And just to build on it.  Have you seen a change in the demographics while you've been running Pint of Science in terms of scientific versus nonscientific audiences being involved, and could you talk a little bit about that?


Elodie Chabrol 13:05

Yes.  So, we've seen more non-scientists, for sure.  We had to plateau of 50:50, and I think we are going to stay that way because we cannot really not let scientists go into Pint of Science.  And also, if you are a scientist, you are often interested in science.  But few years ago, I realized, because I am a neuroscientist and all my neuroscientist friends, they go to Pint of Science, but they go to astrophysics events, or sometimes even whatever archaeology, whatever kind of event that is not neuroscience.

And I realized, that's why I say ask for feedback.  In the feedback when we were asking people who they were, we were a bit too black and white.  We were ‘Are you a scientist?’ ‘Yes.’  Okay, so we have 50% of scientists.  And then I realized, okay, I am going to ask them, ‘Did you go to an event that is in your domain or not?’ And then 70% of the people were going to another domain.  So, they were basically like public for that.  So that's why it's important sometimes to readapt even the feedback you are asking or how you create your event.  Because sometimes you are disappointed.  I could be disappointed by my plateau.  But I am super happy because actually, now I realize that it's much more than 50% of people that are lay public going to the Pint of Science.  Because if your neuroscientists go to an astrophysics event, definitely you are like the general public, you don't know much about astrophysics.  And actually, astrophysics for the anecdotes is the place where you have the general public that is going know so much.  It’s a passionate kind of area where people love it.  And sometimes they know more than the scientists that come because they know on some domain and some super-passionate people are going to ask questions, and the scientist is going to like, I'm sorry, I don't know.  I don't know how to answer to that.

So, it's surprising.  But that's why it’s about when you build your feedback, it's really always changing.  You have to adapt to the thing.  And sometimes discussing with other people as well, I think it's very important.  When you organize events, you discuss to network with people doing it as well.  Because if you just do it yourself in your little bubble, you might forget things, or you might not realize some things are important.  And when you discuss with people, like I think it's going to an event where I was with my friends, neuroscientists, where I realized, okay, I am not asking people that are scientists what their background is, so I should do that.  And discussing with other people as well is so mind-blowing because you realize how other people are doing, you are like, what, I should do that as well.


Nikesh Gosalia 15:046

Wow, but just to kind of cite those numbers again, Elodie, 50% scientific and 50% non-scientific, or even 70% from a particular domain attending an event from a different domain is really impressive.  And so, congratulations to you and the Pint of Science team for even achieving that.


Elodie Chabrol 16:09

Thank you.


Nikesh Gosalia 16:10

And just that kind of prompted another question in my mind.  I am just curious to know your view.  Do you think the challenge is more about attitude towards science or a shift in mindset that non-scientific audiences need to develop?  Or is it that science communication itself has to kind of repurpose itself to make it simpler for people to understand.  I am just trying to understand what the challenge is.


Elodie Chabrol 16:35

So, the challenge, I think the challenge is really about getting people where they are.  So, if you want to get already interested people, you don't have to do much.  They see a Science event, they are going to go.  If you want to interest people that are not necessarily interested in science, you need to be more subtle.  And you need to basically force a meeting with science.  So, for example, Pint of Science is amazing, but people are coming to us.  You have lots of initiatives where it's just in their everyday life people are going to meet scientists.  Like Science Soapbox where it's in lots of places in Europe, where women scientists are standing on soapboxes and talking about their research in the city.  So, it's super scary for the researchers because they are always scared that no one is going to stop and ask them questions, they always get lots of people.  But it's in their lives.  We started an astrophysics thing as well that’s called ‘On the Moon Again’ where people take their telescopes, go in the streets, and they show the moon to passersby.  And to have done that, it was so emotional because people didn't expect it and they walked by, and then you offer them to watch the Moon through a telescope, which some of them didn't do.  And they leave that, you see the emotions on their faces.  It's amazing.  I love that.

So, I think to get more public, it's lots of different things.  It's not necessary be more simple, it's more adapt to their culture or to their likes or to their life, and for them to see an interest or for them to know you exist.  Because we all have different circles, we are all in our bubbles.  And if you don't go in people's bubbles, sometimes you are never going to reach them.  So that's why you see lots and lots of science communication activities now that sounds super crazy, but they are actually getting people where they are.  On the tube, on the streets, on whatever, in their everyday lives, just disrupt them.  Because I think it's an effort we have to do and it's pretty cool to do that.  And so, it's not just being simple.  It's also thinking, who do I want to reach?  Why are they unreachable for me right now?  How could I be more accessible for them or how could they know about me?


Nikesh Gosalia 19:03

Absolutely.  I agree with you Elodie.  And I think that was so nicely put by you.  It's not just about keeping it simple.  I've heard about safe chemical experiments being done, London tube stations.  I think we have to take science into the normal walk of life and make it easily accessible to people.  And it's not just about simplifying the message.  I agree with you.


Elodie Chabrol 19:29

Exactly.  Because simplifying, at one point you become oversimplified, and it doesn't mean people are going to come to you even if you are simple.  You just need to think really like who do I want to reach, how can I reach them?  And how can I reach them is what is their daily activities, their culture, the things they like.  Okay, I am going to try to go that way and maybe combine the two.  That is the thing, I am always thinking about it.  It's Science K League [ph], it's in Scotland, and it's melting science and Science K League [ph] together.  And I think that's amazing.  And it's an idea of how you can reach people with science through traditional meetings and dance and everything


Nikesh Gosalia 20:11

Very fascinating.  Thank you.  Thank you for sharing that Elodie.  So, going back to the societies, quite a few research societies are struggling with science communication, especially in terms of actually engaging with the public.  What would you say to society?  What tips would you give a society that is trying to get people interested in its research?  And that too, especially on social media channels.


Elodie Chabrol 20:32

So, the first thing is to think who you want to reach?  Because there is one thing that we always think is that we talk about the general public, but the general public doesn't exist.  It's not this massive amount of people.  And you have to think it's related to what I was saying before, who do I want to reach.  Because when you say the public, it's going to be too wide.  It's going to be your target is so big that you are not going to reach anyone, or you might reach some people, but you will not hit the sweet spot you want to hit.  So, you have to decide, do you want to reach a younger audience like before University?  Do you want to reach student audience?  Do you want to reach older audience?  I think that's the first question they need to think about and they need to resolve.  Because you are not going to communicate the same way to 30 years old and to 50 years old.

And I think the biggest mistake people do is that they make communication that is blank.  It doesn't really feel like it's made for me.  You read it, you're like, okay.  It just feels too flat for anyone to actually react to that.  So, what you want to do is that people feel connected to what you are sharing.  I think the first tip would be really to within the general public, that is this massive thing, who do I want to reach, where is my audience?  And why do I want to reach them?  If it's a university, do I want to actually have more students coming, so it's more like a young kind of audience.  So maybe I need to go a bit more with the quotes, maybe I need to even do a TikTok kind of thing because it's what they are watching right now.  And you have lots of scientists, science communicators amazing on TikTok.  So that's the kind of thing.  And I think often it is the step that people don't do or don't do right, and then their communication doesn't work.  I think 90% of good communication is thinking, who do I want to reach, how do I do that?

And then once you start creating content that are actually made for them, then you will see the change.  And don't hesitate as well to try things.  As I said, it doesn't always work the same.  The first session on social media, some stuff is going viral, some stuff is not.  And sometimes you don't really know why.  It's just because one got viral because you posted a tardigrade picture on a Monday morning, and everyone is going to like it.  And so, try again.  On social media it's good to try to see what works, to have models of people that are doing communication to the targets you want to, that are going well as well, to see how they do.  Watch what they are doing, how they are doing.  And don't do the exact same thing obviously but inspire yourself from others.

Like I said before, if you do it in your in your own corner, usually you don't get inspiration, you are going to end up doing the same thing.  And yes, don't hesitate to try things out, especially digitally you could try things.  If it doesn't work, it's okay.  Try some other things and see how it goes, how it works.  And when something picks up, then that's perfect.


Nikesh Gosalia 23:58

Thank you.  Thank you Elodie.  Societies are increasingly looking at international audiences.  So, can we talk a little bit about bilingual and multilingual science communication.  You are a successful science communicator in two languages, English and French.  Do you find that not just content, but your strategy and approach differ between languages?  And how effective is just translating a piece from one language to another?


Elodie Chabrol 24:26

So that's a question actually we had a lot for Pint of Science because we have some countries that have a lot of English-speaking people.  And they wonder, should we do all Pint of Science in English or should we do local languages?

So, first thing is that always think it's international because scientists are very international, but what language your target is speaking?  Because sometimes going English is getting rid of all the public that you would want to reach that don't actually speak English.  For example, in France, if you want to do science communication, it's better to do it in French.  But then at the same time, I realized during Pint of Science that if in big cities we didn't have English events, we were actually excluding some Erasmus students from coming.

So sometimes it's the other way around, you have local and then you realize English is more inclusive.  I think the first question is, okay, who is my target?  Always the same question, that's always the first question.  What language do they speak?  Would it be interesting for them to have it in English?  Depending on the countries or even the places, sometimes English is interesting, sometimes it's not because it's going to go the other way around.  People might see it in English and feel this is not for me, this content is not for me.  So be careful with that.

Some institutions as well, they have one Twitter account in French, one Twitter account in English, for example.  So, it's something they could see.  And they don't have the same strategy because International is going to be more for scientists and maybe students, and French is going to be more for general public or not necessarily scientists and students.  So, it's not always a question of just translating.  You could be just translating if the piece goes for both of them.  But you have to think about who is speaking that language and is it different targets?  And then if it is, then the strategy is going to be different and it's going to be different content as well.


Nikesh Gosalia 26:33

Thank you.  Thank you Elodie.  Those were very useful tips.  Just like me, I think the listeners are going to really benefit from that.  Jayashree, over to you. 


Jayashree Rajagopalan 26:44

Thank you, Nikesh.  Elodie, wow, I am just blown away.  It's such amazing insights.  I don't know if you guys noticed, I am sure you were talking to each other, but I was busy taking notes.  So, I am going to look at some of these notes before I move on to some of the questions that I had for you.