by Giles Strong

Last week I, along with fellow network ESR Pablo, attended the International School of Science Journalism in Erice, on the Italian island of Sicily. As regular readers of this blog will know, scientific outreach plays an important role in our network activities, and I’d attended with the hope of gaining tips for better simplifying and presenting my research.

Over four days we were treated to a range of presentations covering both specific science experiments and issues in journalism. In particular I found the session titled “Keep calm and hit the target (media lab communication)” to be fun, and hopefully useful.

During this session we were assigned to teams and given a topic from a set of recent or upcoming scientific events or discoveries. We were then tasked with preparing a presentation for a certain audience.

In my team we had to present plans for a social media campaign to generate interest in teenagers for the final voyage of the Cassini probe, which will crash into Saturn this September. The other topics were: presenting a response plan for the zika virus to policy makers; announcing an exoplanet discovery to journalists, and increasing public understanding of CRISPR at a family festival. Two teams competed against one another per topic and it was interesting to see the different approaches that were taken, and how the teams handled the questions from the panel of judges, who also gave feedback at the end.

The school was attended by about 40 people, most of whom were journalists or professional science communicators. Among the rest were scientists and people looking to get into science communication. It was certainly eye-opening to hear from the side of the science reporting and the problems they run into both with the scientific institutions and the countries they report in.

For instance, I had not heard that scientific discoveries were often embargoed; a process whereby journalists have access to papers in advance to allow them to prepare reports, however they would be unable to make the information public until the embargo elapsed. Occasionally, these embargoes come with additional conditions, such as clauses which would prevent journalists from asking for the opinions or comments of other scientists, without express permission. Several infamous examples were given of reports which later became disproven by the scientists who were initially prevented from being asked to comment.

The town of Erice itself was lovely. Set upon a hill overlooking the sea, it hosts the Ettore Majorana Foundation and Centre for Scientific Culture. The EMFCSC recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, having started in 1961 as a way of bridging the gap between universities and laboratories like CERN.

The foundation also helped play a role in ending The Cold War by world leaders signing the Erice Statement, which aimed to increase the transparency of research in all countries, improve the flow of information and ideas, and ‘open up’ secret government laboratories: Science without secrecy and without frontiers. Erice now plays host to 128 different schools throughout the year.

Overall I enjoyed the school, and think that I have and will benefit a lot from my attendance and the people I met.