This fifth episode of our new podcast You’re Up Next features science communicator, creative producer, and trainer Hana Ayoob, with our host Jessamyn Fairfield. Listen here or read through the transcript below.
Jessamyn Fairfield: How we talk about science now is massively different from how it was when I was a kid, and I think that’s a really good thing. I think there is less elitism than there used to be, more recognition of the connections between science and art, more weaving of science into popular culture. The work of public engagement practitioners in recent decades has done quite a bit in terms of normalizing science and bringing it to new audiences and publics.
Where I grew up, there wasn’t much in the way of outreach. I was in a small town populated almost entirely by scientists, who did very little talking to the broader community of non-scientists. It didn’t help that the scientists were well-paid government employees, and the broader region of northern New Mexico was very economically depressed. We were a literal city on a hill, and then wondered why people resented us. That’s a bad situation, and incidentally, that kind of segregation keeps people out of science who could contribute a lot but feel that they aren’t welcome or won’t be a cultural fit. You shouldn’t need to grow up surrounded by scientists to feel that you can become one yourself.
And that’s where I think public engagement still has a lot of growing to do. If our public engagement professionals mostly have science degrees themselves, how do they know how to reach audiences who would never consider studying science? And how can we make sure that the goal isn’t just more enrollments in science degrees, but more people who understand and appreciate science even if they choose another career path?
It’s unfortunate that so much public engagement is still being done because it sounds like a good idea, without real data to back those assertions up. This is partly a structural issue – many public engagement funding sources don’t allow large expenditures on social science research which would properly show which approaches are working and which aren’t doing what they are supposed to. I find it funny, in an annoying way, that scientists who would never go against laboratory data are so willing to discard data gathered with social science methods that show we are still often preaching to the choir.
This also applies to who we put forward as the face of public engagement events. All too often, I’ve seen events where the scientists and researchers promoted are largely white men, even as women and minorities do most of the organizational work behind the scenes. To me, public engagement shouldn’t be propagating existing inequities in science, it should be helping to solve them and show a better way forward.
So what comes next?
Hana Ayoob: Hello, I’m Hana Ayoob, and I’ve worked in science communication for about seven years now. I’m a freelancer and like many freelancers in science communication, I wear many different hats. I’m an event producer, mostly working on festivals, and including science festivals. I’ve also worked with music festivals. I’ve worked with universities, on large scale science communication events, but I’ve also worked on sort of smaller and one-off events as well, such as sort of variety night style things. I’m also a trainer and working primarily with researchers but also other groups to help them develop public engagement and science communication activities, especially when it comes to live events, and inclusive activities as well.
And as well as all that I’m also a speaker and performer. And I do lots of sort of quite typical science communication, often where I talk about animals – especially the sillier animals that we share our planet with, because I’ve got a zoology background. And over the last couple of years, I’ve started to do a lot more comedy. So I got into comedy through the Science Show Off Talent Factory, which is run by Steve Cross, and I was really, really lucky to be involved in it and to get to know some amazing people who were on the scheme with me.
So, as well as that I’m a co host of the podcast, Why Aren’t You A Doctor Yet?, which is a podcast that brings together science and technology with popular culture and journalism, and we look at all this through quite a comical lens at times, but specifically through a ethnic minority lens. So our hosts are all black or Asian, and we tried to get lots of ethnic minority guests onto the podcast as well.
From my experience of producing events and performing, one of the amazing things that I think comedy has the potential to do for science, communications and science spaces, is to shake up traditional power structures, spaces which bring comedy and science together and create the opportunity to share power between scientists and non-scientists, performers and speakers, including but not limited to comedians. And I personally, I really love seeing this. I think that it kind of shows that science can be owned by everyone. And I think that if we want to make science a part of culture, which is something I would love to see, then we need to do that – we need to create spaces where people who do not have a science background could own science can speak about science where their opinions and thoughts and experiences are equally valid.
I think that science comedy spaces can also give power to audiences by humanizing scientists and experts. You know, seeing these people who might be intimidating and scary, not taking themselves too seriously can be amazing for audiences to see. I’ve also found that size comedy spaces created with diversity and inclusion in mind are particularly good at this.
Supportive science comedy spaces can also shake up power structures by giving traditionally underrepresented individuals massive confidence boost when it comes to doing other public speaking or science communication. And time and time again, I’ve seen people then have, you know, the bug for comedy and want to do it again and want to get on more stages.
When I think about wider science communication and the direction I’d like it to take in future years. I think a lot about who has power and how we need to widen the pool of people who are shaping and creating the science communication that we put out there, because I think it’s new people who will bring new approaches, new formats and new content. When I push for diversity and representation within science comedy, I think a lot of people think that the reason I do that is because I’m from a number of underrepresented groups. I’m brown, I’m from a working class background, I have a chronic illness, and because I want to see more people like me and more people from other underrepresented groups involved. And obviously, that is a part of it. But as a creator, as someone who’s been a producer in science communication for a long time, it’s also because I think that science communication will only become more creative, more exciting, more accessible to everyone, when we throw the doors open, and we keep sharing power.
‘Why Aren’t You A Doctor Yet?’ exists because we were a group of people who needed the podcast to exist, a group of people who valued popular culture and storytelling as much as we value science and technology. And we also needed to see science and technology conversations taking place through an ethnic minority lens. The content of ‘Why Aren’t You A Doctor Yet?’ is driven by what we don’t see elsewhere.
I think more generally Some of the most exciting science communication out there is coming from people who are new to the space, who have been traditionally underrepresented among producers and consumers of science technology. I love Anita Shervington’s Blast Fest which explores science and technology through black arts and culture in black arts and cultural spaces. Tactile Universe and Tactile Collider are incredible astronomy and physics outreach projects, which were created to make research accessible to the vision impaired community and have involved that community from the very beginning. Pride in STEM have done amazing work with the Out Thinkers events which showcase the talent of LGBT+ people in STEM, providing platforms where people can talk about their work, their science, the technology, but also be 100% themselves.
So when I look towards the future, I hope that science communication can keep welcoming in new voices, new producers, new performers, new speakers. I hope that we can create talent development spaces for people to experiment, to fail, to improve, and to keep creating new creative, exciting things.
Jessamyn Fairfield: This is such an important point – that we need to find space to experiment with new ideas in public engagement, the same way we would run experiments in the lab. If you don’t risk failure, you risk never finding anything new. And when we talk about science, we need to keep looking for new ways to do it, new communities and voices to bring in, new venues and formats, and just every possible approach to tearing down the barriers to engagement that still exist. Otherwise we risk staying in our comfort zone, in our cliques and bubbles, feeling good because we agree with each other but not actually having a meaningful conversation.
One of the really important things I’ve noticed too is the difficulty of cultural translation – how do we talk about science in different countries, different spaces, different communities? I notice this all the time as an American doing comedy and science communication in Ireland – my ways of talking and joking are sometimes expected here, sometimes not! Which is itself an opportunity for comedy. I have done work with the Mawazo Institute in Nairobi, Kenya, to help them set up science communication training, as well as a series of science variety events called Nairobi Ideas Night. We found that while lots of science communication advice is universal – consider your audience! Use story and emotion! – you also have to think about new things when you’re working in a new context. Like, not all metaphors translate – in a place with less baseball and basketball, maybe I need to stop saying that things are a home run or a slam dunk! How fast you speak, how direct and emotive you are, how formally you present yourself – these all send different messages in different contexts. So when you go to a new country, or even a new community in your country, to try something different, you have to think about how to translate what you are doing.
But sometimes that translation gives you new perspectives, too. Last year, we ran a Bright Club event with Irish Sign Language translation, in partnership with the Irish Sign Language STEM glossary project. Their director Elizabeth Mathews spoke, and it was Maths Week Ireland so we had some math talks and comedians who wanted to make jokes about math, and the whole thing was translated into Irish Sign Language. Now, advertising this event to a new audience involved some changes to our approach, like having a video advertisement and circulating to different places than we normally do. But also, the sign language interpreter added an incredible new level to the comedy of the event – the spoken and signed punchlines led to multiple waves of laughter, some speakers got the audience signing too, and one of the highlights of the night was watching the interpreter come up with a totally new sign for an incredibly raunchy joke.
This is the kind of experience that makes people care about research. Not just facts but putting those facts into a story, a punchline, a shared experience. The kind of thing you want to tell people about at the water cooler or the pub. Comedy has a unique part to play in this – it’s something that helps us connect and make meaning, but also it is funny! We all want to laugh, especially when times are hard.
I love running Bright Club and I am so grateful for our audiences, our speakers, our funders, and all the brilliant people who pitch in to make our events happen. But also, as we wonder what’s coming next, it’s worth remembering how all these sorts of things start – with an idea, and a few people willing to give it a try. If you want to see public engagement that doesn’t exist yet, you can be the person that makes it happen. If you feel like your community’s voices aren’t represented, if there’s no platform for what you want to do – you can build your own. I was nervous before the first Bright Club Ireland show that it was something – interdisciplinary, funny, intelligent without being elitist – that was my idea of a great night but wouldn’t appeal to others. I’m so glad I was wrong! And I’m grateful for the people who listened when I went to them before Bright Club started, saying ‘here’s what I want to do, am I crazy?’ who said, ‘I don’t know, let’s give it a try’. I’ve learned a lot now that I wish I knew at the start, but I’m glad I didn’t wait for things to be perfect – we learn by doing, right? Making a few mistakes and then improving, building, asking for help. The world needs science, ideas, knowledge to be accessible more than ever. If you want to build something, if you need to build something – don’t worry or ask permission. Build it. You’re up next.