Imitators follow Imperial lead

August 16, 1996

Masters degrees in science communication are springing up across the country as science faculties encourage students to develop their communication skills.

The grandaddy of them all is Imperial College's MSc in science communication, which is about to turn out its fifth set of graduates. The course, a compound of theory and practice, was set up in response to a perceived shortfall of trained science communicators. Students find themselves struggling with mass media theory one week and TV cameras or radio editing machines the next.

Imperial's lead has been followed by other colleges within the University of London. Birkbeck now runs a part-time diploma in science communication for practising scientists and engineers, and University College London has pioneered optional short communication courses for science undergraduates and postgraduates. Imperial is to follow UCL's example by offering communication courses to its undergraduates.

Imperial is an ideal breeding ground for science media professionals. It has its own radio station, a TV studio and a ready supply of scientists willing to talk to the media and who, on the whole, do not mind being used for practice. And the course's graduates have succeeded in percolating into all areas of the media - television, radio, print journalism, public relations, even exhibition design.

Dan Gluckman graduated in 1995. He is now an assistant producer for TV production company Uden Associates and has no doubt that Imperial's MSc played a major part in his success. "It was useful in terms of the opportunities it opened up," he says. "The work experience in particular was important, it helped me to make contacts. In terms of building a broadcast career, that was the most useful thing I got out of it." One of Mr Gluckman's colleagues, Kate Cox, also graduated from Imperial. Almost all of last year's output now have jobs communicating science.

Nothing succeeds like success, and the number of full-time science communication students is set to increase from around 25 to 56 this October as two new MScs take off. One is a joint venture between Queen's University Belfast and Dublin City University, the first cross-border postgraduate degree.

The Irish course is geared towards print journalism, utilising DCU's expertise in training specialist reporters. It is open to non-science graduates - the first intake will include students with backgrounds in English and philosophy, but course supervisor Ian Hughes denies they will be at a disadvantage. It is more important, he says, for science journalists to be able to ask the right questions than to know a lot about science. The students, though, will learn some science in their first term.

The other new MSc will be based at Techniquest, the hands-on science centre in Cardiff. Visitors to Techniquest are invited to play around with various mechanical contraptions that challenge their scientific knowledge. Brian Delf, who will be running the MSc, describes the centre's contribution to the public understanding of science as "inspirational and motivational rather than didactic". Students will use the centre as a laboratory for studying the hands-on approach.

The Techniquest MSc will be validated by the University of Glamorgan. Entry requirements are a science degree, an interest in the public understanding of science and the ability to perform in front of a crowd. It is the science equivalent of Paul McCartney's fame school.

With all this expansion, is there not a danger of producing a glut of trained science communicators who are unable to get a job? Nick Russell, who runs the Imperial course, thinks not. "The market for such people still seems to be expanding quite fast, especially if you're talking about the less glamorous end of the media market like trade journals, PR and multimedia education," he said.

Dr Hughes is similarly sanguine. He talks about attracting students from abroad, especially the United States, where fees for science journalism courses can be $20,000. And Techniquest says its course fills an empty niche. "We would say that we are unique in Britain," said Dr Delf. "The other courses focus on communication through the media. Our's concentrates on interactive science centres."

The expansion also has the backing of the Royal Society. "The growth is excellent news," said Imelda Topping of the society's committee on the public understanding of science. "We would like to see opportunities for all scientists and engineers to receive some communication skills training."

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