Scientists on stage: Communicating science through competitions

4 June 2020

Flash Talks Science Communication Competitions are an innovative approach to communicating science and building the capacities of science communicators.

Flash Talks Science Communication Competitions challenge researchers to present their work or a scientific concept on stage to a live, non-specialist audience. Talks times range from between 3 and 10 minutes. Flash Talk examples include FameLab, Three Minute Thesis, Science Slam and Falling Walls Lab.

These competitions provide researchers with a platform to engage non-experts in science. They are also useful training opportunities for researchers.

According to research on the impacts of FameLab, nearly 60% of alumni who participated in the competition felt more equipped to communicate their research and effectively engage publics. Over 90% of alumni reported an increase in science communication knowledge and skills after participating in the training provided through competition.

Communicating science through competitions

These competitions are unusual communication formats, but they offer opportunities for young and established researchers to communicate their research and engage with non-expert audiences face-to-face.

“That was the first opportunity to communicate my research to a public audience,” says Nada Ali, PhD researcher in Microbiology and FameLab Egypt 2019 Winner.

The element of competition makes these events more attractive for both audiences and presenters. Audiences expect science to be presented in non-traditional ways and research presenters aim to make their research understandable and engaging.

Linn Voss, PhD Researcher in Nanotoxicology and Science Slam Winner, says, Science Slams put science in a very different setting. Also, Science Slams are short and entertaining, so the scientists have to find a way to get to the point but still catch the attention of their audience”.

The informal settings of these competitions facilitate interaction between researchers and audiences. Audiences pose questions to researchers while they are on stage or discuss their research further in informal chats during breaks.

Researchers have the opportunity to listen to non-expert audiences and audiences can get a better understanding of particular scientific topics. They can discuss and share science actively.

Building the capacities of the next generation of science communicators

Training for these competitions happens prior to the event, as part of the competition, or by practicing presentation skills and receiving feedback from the audience or jury.

For example, FameLab participants who reach the national final receive intensive two-day training in science communication through the FameLab Masterclass. Trainers aim to develop presenters’ skills in communicating science effectively to different audiences in various ways, as developing and delivering science talks, being interviewed by the media, producing videos, writing about science, among others.

FameLab Egypt winner Ali says, “The science communication masterclass helped me to understand how to communicate scientific content, especially tailoring my content to address the needs of each specific audience”.

Presenters learn important science communication skills.

“Science Slams helped me communicate my research both to my peers and the public. I learned a lot about storytelling, cutting out not-important parts, slide design and of course confidence in presenting,” says Voss.

Beyond direct impacts

These competitions also lead to unexpected impacts.

Over 80% of the FameLab competition’s alumni have been involved in further science communication activities after participating. Nearly 60% stated that FameLab helped them to network with science communication stakeholders including media, policy makers and wider publics on local and international levels.

“(Many participants) have found FameLab to be the catalyst for going on to science TV presenting, working in outreach, establishing their own enterprising science communication organizations, or going onto embed public engagement opportunities through courses in their own Higher Education Establishments,” says Adrian Fenton, Senior Consultant for Public Engagement and STEM Education at the British Council.

Other Flash Talk competitions see similar results, but more training may be needed before researchers can effectively engage in other science communication formats according to Julia Offe, Science Slam Organizer and Coach.

“Actually, many (of Science Slam participants) write books and some do start podcasts, but with mixed outcomes. To be brilliant on stage for 10 minutes it doesn’t necessarily mean that these science slammers can fill 200 pages or that they are entertaining or informative in a podcast,” she says.

But these competitions help researchers to see themselves as change makers. According to Lisa Kohler, Project Lead at Falling Walls Lab, the competition opens up spaces for like-minded people to solve challenges, exchange ideas and discuss different approaches.

“Ultimately, it creates connections that help participants to view themselves as part of a community of change makers. They function as multipliers for our goal to communicate science to new audiences,” says Lisa.

Flash Talks Science Communication Competitions should be recognised and adopted more widely as innovative approaches for public engagement with science and ways to build the capacities of researchers in science communication.

Examples of Science Communication Competitions

FameLab… AKA Science Got Talent

Inspired by ‘Got Talent’ competitions, FameLab was created in the United Kingdom by the Cheltenham Science Festival in 2005 and spread to over 40 countries worldwide. Since 2007, it has established a partnership with the British Council. Researchers have 3 minutes only to present their own research or a scientific concept in clear and engaging ways to impress live audience and jury members. Winners of each national competition represent their countries in the FameLab International Final held every year at the Cheltenham Science Festival, which can be described as the ‘World Cup’ in science communication.

You can attend the International FameLab Final on 2-11 October 2020 in Cheltenham, United Kingdom.

Three Minute Thesis… 80,000 Words in 180 Seconds!

Using non-academic language, PhD researchers need to explain their thesis to public audiences in just 3 minutes. The Three Minute Thesis was established by the University of Queensland, Australia in 2008. The competition is now held in more than 900 universities across 85 countries.

Science Slam… Entertaining the Audience

Outside lecture halls at universities, young researchers and PhD students can share their research work with non-expert audiences. The audience is the jury and the judge and the participants should make their research understandable and of course entertaining in 10 minutes. Science Slam started in Germany in 2006 and has transferred to many European countries since 2014.

Falling Walls Lab… Breaking down Walls in Science and Society

To enhance science and innovation, Falling Walls Lab provides a platform for researchers and scientists to share their scientific innovative ideas with the public. The competition started in 2011 in Germany and extended to more than 60 countries, through partnerships with 90 academic institutions worldwide.

You can attend the Falling Walls Lab Final on 8 November 2020 in Berlin, Germany.

Mohamed Elsonbaty Ramadan

Science Slam event (Photo credit: Alex Hofmann)