December 7, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

What makes a good science communicator? In this Q&A, Gareth Mitchell talks about science communication and his work with radio, Imperial College, and the BBC.

Firstly, tell us a bit about what you do?

BBC World Radio hosts Click

As a science communicator I do three main things. The first thing is teaching science communication at Imperial College in which I teach radio journalism and small amount of written journalism. The second thing is presenting a technology programme on the BBC World Service, a radio show called Click. The third thing, which is relatively small, is writing for Focus Magazine as a so-called expert on technology Q&A pages.

Funnily enough, my favourite out of these is the thing that I’m not doing at the time. So if I’m at the BBC, then it makes me miss being at Imperial College because you’re in the cut and thrust of the broadcast environment and you miss the more reflective and thoughtful feel and culture of being in the academic world. But then when I’m in the more reflective academic world, I slightly miss being at the BBC, where it all happens.

How did you end up as a science communicator?

So for me my path into science communication started here at Imperial College, studying the Science Communication MSc, many years ago. I did a work placement as part of my course in the science unit of BBC world service radio. Then when the work experience ended I refused to leave and became a freelance reporter, just doing short interviews at first, and then more constructed features – packages as we call them – and then finally moving into presenting. On the way I also did just less than a year at Radio Netherlands, the Dutch international radio service, producing and presenting a science programme in English.

What do you think is the hardest thing about your radio programme, ‘Click’?

I think the hardest thing about doing the weekly cut and thrust of a radio programme is just that it is every week! So as soon as the programme is finished then we’re already thinking about the following week’s programme. Every week there are three or four interviews to do and every week there’s a script to write. I feel as if I ought to put 110% into it every time, and treat it as if it’s my first programme, even though I’ve done many.

Do you ever get a week off?

I don’t, which makes me in some ways very unlucky, but ultimately very lucky – especially because I am paid per programme. Most freelance presenters would be very envious of a 52 week a year commission on the programme! If I do go away then we usually pre-record the programmes  instead. I genuinely like it like that, partly because I’m very protective about the programme – I don’t want anybody else to do it, even if it means I have to work really hard for two weeks before I go away.

Why do you believe that science communication is important?

I think it is important for people to tell the outside world what’s going on in the world of science – we live in a knowledge economy! And I also think it’s important for scientists themselves to be science communicators because, in the vast majority of cases, they are funded ultimately through central taxation. I also think that a culturally literate population is generally a happier, healthier, more sceptical, prosperous population. And it keeps people like me in a job. That’s a very important reason too!

BBC London headquarters

Are scientists any good themselves at science communication, or do you think science communicators are necessary?

I suppose I would say this, but I genuinely believe there’s room for both. The science communicator is the mediator between the audience and the scientist – scientists are busy people. They haven’t got all day to sit around worrying about how to communicate what they do. So, if there are people who do worry about that, then that’s great.

Whether scientist are good communicators? I think the good news there is they have got a lot better. And having been doing broadcast and a small amount of written journalism for the best part of 20 years,I can definitely say that from experience – when I first started it was often a real struggle to get a scientist to agree to give you an interview, and if they did give you an interview, the chances were that it was going to be hard work and you’d have to tell them loads of times to make it more accessible. These days, scientists hardly ever say no to giving an interview, and most of the time they turn up and do a good job.

What is a good quality in a scientist as a communicator?

A good scientist communicator is somebody who understands their audiences – who understands that the message they might give to a grant giving body might be different to one that they would deliver as a sound bite on a radio programme, which in turn might be different to the mode of communication to school children. I think this is a huge challenge. I really admire scientists who can navigate those audiences so effectively.

Do you have as a favourite science communicator?

Obviously I won’t say Brian Cox and David Attenborough, because everyone says them, good though they are. But, for instance, Jonathan Amos – Jonathan is a science correspondent online at the BBC and I’ve worked with him on programmes where he just needs to come in live and explain what’s going on in a big science story this week in 47 seconds – he always nails it. And Bill Thompson who is on Click with me every week – People like Bill and Jonathan can just communicate a message, put it into context and be independent and critical of it – and all those thing to a very defined time on air! Away from the broadcast environment – I’ve always been a fan of Greg Foot -I’ve always enjoyed his rather irreverent attitude to communicating science and the energy and originality he brings to it. He’s young, energetic and fresh.

Jonathan Amos’ correspondent page on BBC is an example of science which is not communicated by David Attenborough or Brian Cox.

What is your most embarrassing moment on live radio?

Occasionally we do our radio programme at BBC’s radio theatre as a live audience programme, and I think my most embarrassing moment was a when really expensive robot just fell off the stage! The scientist had just made clear that the whole point of this robot was that it was really good at judging space and distance. But it just didn’t see the end of the stage and it fell off! The audience went crazy laughing…probably more embarrassing for the robot than for me, but as the person hosting I just had no idea what to do, so I just stood there, I froze. I would love to say I picked it up perfectly or came up with a really amazing pithy joke, but I completely panicked. I was just crushed with embarrassment for myself, for the scientist and for the robot.

Last words of wisdom to all the Imperial scientists out there?

To Imperial scientists my advice would be to just get out there and communicate – do not fear it! And yes, there are definitely dangers, like with anything in life if you put your head above the parapet things can go wrong – you could speak to the media and get misrepresented, and you might host a science event and people might not turn up and things might blow up, but you won’t know if you don’t try. The potential opportunities and the social good that comes from you getting out there are great– the benefits from that far outweigh the inevitable risks. And it’s great fun -what could be better than telling other people about the work you love. So go out and do it!


You can listen to Gareth’s radio programme ‘Click’ on BBC World Service at 6.30pm every Tuesday evening, and follow him on Twitter @GarethM

 Iona Twaddell, Jen Toes and Kruti Shrotri are studying for an MSc in Science Communication

Images: Click (BBC), BBC London Office (Shutterstock), Jonthan Amos (BBC)