Here comes the science bit – concentrate!

Bringing clarity to complex science communications

Whether talking about the Higgs Boson particle, dark matter or artificial intelligence, storytelling, demystification and stakeholder relations play their part in complex science communications.

Interview by Philippe Borremans, host of Wag The Dog FM, the weekly European PR podcast from which this interview was taken.

(Main image: CERN/Maximilien Brice)

Philippe Borremans: What are your biggest challenges as professional communicators who have to explain something far removed from consumer products?

James Gillies: For us it is a challenge but not the challenge that I thought it was going to be. Way back before the Large Hadron Collider started we did market research to figure out what people understand about science. My prejudice was that communicating the value of basic, blue sky research was going to be a real challenge. But what surprised me is that people fundamentally get the need for basic research but at the same time, they don’t understand it. They don’t know what’s inside an atom, they don’t know how the universe ticks and they haven’t got a clue what a Higgs Boson is, but they very clearly say that humankind should be doing basic research. Then they wonder what practical benefit it brings. So that’s the real challenge for us – engaging people with the process of science, and communicating the whole range of societal benefits it brings.

Philippe Borremans: Chris, people who are interested in technology understand supercomputing, for instance, or the impact of big data. But when you’re talking about computational engineering, parallel computing or computational biochemistry, does IBM face the same challenge as CERN?

Chris Sciacca: Yes. We’re over 100 years old and people still associate IBM with being a PC company, which we haven’t produced in over a decade. So the challenge is embracing our legacy while talking about the future. For example, here at the Zurich lab we are most famous for our two Nobel prizes for very fundamental science, but we do even more research in applied areas like software and services — including the security software used on billions of smart cards. We like to say that we span everything from atoms to analytics here at IBM research. That comes with its own challenges because we need to be able to encapsulate this storyline to help people understand why we are looking at things at the Nano scale and how that translates into making computers more energy efficient and analysing data faster. It is a difficult story to tell because it spans multiple disciplines, you have a large audience that you’re reaching, from the person that wants to know “how is this going to impact IBM’s stock price?” to the person that wants to know “why is this a company I want to work for?”

Philippe Borremans: CERN is an international public organisation and IBM a commercial corporation. Both organisations have to explain why huge amounts of money are spent on research – is that a challenge?

Chris Sciacca: We do a lot, particularly here in Europe. We work with the European Commission, we participate in many FP7 and Horizon 2020 projects and it’s very important that the average European tax payer understands why this funding is going to IBM. We speak about how this is going to translate into the consumer marketplace, for example, in topics like data protection. And of course its impact on job creation and the economy.

James Gillies: CERN does have a substantial budget; we’re very open and transparent about that. The income from our member states is in the order of one billion Swiss francs per year. We put that into context by comparing ourselves to large universities: our member states have around 300 universities with a similar income to us. We also talk about how we’re an organisation with 21 member states and we share the cost around countries. One thing that is extremely important to us is that although I have a great team here at CERN, we also have contacts in all of our member states and other stakeholder nations throughout the world. When we’re telling our stories here, there are people telling them in the Netherlands, in Germany, everywhere around the world, making them locally relevant and telling them in terms that their stakeholders appreciate as well.

Philippe Borremans: What are the tactics that work in making things more understandable for the average stakeholder?

Chris Sciacca: One of the things that we work very closely with scientists on is storytelling. How can they talk about their research the same way they would maybe talk about a recent vacation with their friends and family? We ask them to practice on their parents and on their children so when they do need to have these conversations with the press, they can be comfortable with it. That, we find, is a very effective method.

James Gillies: I fully agree. It’s all about storytelling. We have a large community of people who are enthusiastic about sharing what they do and a lot of them are talented storytellers in their own right. But we also run communications training courses which go down extremely well. Another thing that we do is engage with primary schools. It’s great training to go out there and engage with kids in primary school, who are natural scientists at that age. Pitching to the right level is another thing that we try to get across in our training. Great storytelling is part of it, but also adapting the level to the audience you’re speaking to is extremely important.

Image credit: IBM

Philippe Borremans: Chris, you encourage your scientists to use social media to tell their story. What happens to intellectual property and those deeply secret projects that you’re working on?

Chris Sciacca: Back in 2005 we developed social media guidelines for IBMers, which are now part of our regular education. Once this is understood they see the value in connecting their research to a new audience, for example on Twitter or on LinkedIn. The goal is creating meaningful engagements. For example, when our scientists are attending conferences we encourage them to take a picture of an interesting demo or to tweet to their followers that they’re attending an event. In one example, one of our scientists sent a Tweet during a conference and student walked up to him and said, “Hey! I was following you on Twitter, I saw you were here, I’ve been wanting to meet you for many months, I’d like an internship at your lab, do you have five minutes to sit down and have a coffee?”

Philippe Borremans: James, is that something that affects your work? You are a public project but there is some level of secrecy. How does social media play a role in what you do?

James Gillies:  Social media is extremely important to us and it’s something that we’ve been involved with since we first switched on the Large Hadron Collider in 2008. We launched our Twitter account back then. We also encourage people to be active on social media but to use common sense. There’s a very visible official CERN account out there so if you want to know what CERN is officially thinking then that’s where you go. In terms of secrecy, we’re a publically funded organisation, it says in our convention that we must publish and make as wildly available as possible the results of everything we do. With the exception of things that may have commercial sensitivity, we’re very open.

Philippe Borremans: Both of you work in international organisations that use different languages – is that a challenge for your communications?

Chris Sciacca: Not particularly. IBM operates in over 170 countries around the world and in most countries we have local communications people, so everything that we develop is in English but the local teams adapt that to their markets. We’re lucky here at the Zurich lab to have scientists from over 45 different countries around the world so in many cases we can even do interviews in various languages to get those messages across locally.

James Gillies: We’re very similar. We don’t have communication offices in all our countries but there are people in all of our member states, either in funding agencies or university press offices, national labs that cover particle physics that we talk to all the time. So in that sense the language issue takes care of itself. Like IBM, we publish everything in English but also in French because our host region is Francophone.

Philippe Borremans: I know that IBM face a couple of challenges in promoting women in research. Is that on your agenda as a communications officer?

Chris Sciacca: Absolutely. Not just IBM in general, but the ICT community at large, needs to improve the number of women that enter the field of science and technology, and we start at the very earliest level in the primary schools up to university. We host kids here at the lab every year, we give them tours, set up experiments and many of our female scientists are mentors. We also leverage our most successful female scientists in the press, in our videos, in social media. Dr Heike Riel is one of our IBM Fellows, which is the highest honour that we have, and she recently participated in a 26 x 26 social media campaign to attract women to science. We’ve also created videos with her because she has a particularly interesting story. Heike initially studied to be a carpenter. She became fascinated by physics very late in her career and she completely pivoted from wood working to nanotechnology. That’s a very compelling story, particularly for women who were maybe led down the wrong path and now are interested in changing careers.

James Gillies: There are a number of points here. First of all gender neutrality is very important to us and so is showing the whole diversity of the research community here. That’s something we try to do in all of our communications. We endeavour to be gender-neutral in language in everything that we publish. Also, this is the last year of our current director general Rolf-Dieter Heuer and his successor is a woman, Fabiola Gianotti, who’ll be the first female director general of CERN. I think that’s a huge opportunity to spread the message that science is for everybody.

Philippe Borremans: To sum up, is storytelling the most important part or is there anything else that we didn’t really cover in how to make it easier to communicate science?

James Gillies: I certainly think storytelling and relevance are very important parts of it and the absolute importance of science being on the agenda of all kinds of stakeholders, from the general public to the people who’re deciding how we deal with all the major issues confronting society today. Because all of them – whether it’s energy or climate or water or whatever – they all need science. The stakes I think are extremely high. Organisations like CERN, big, high profile scientific organisations have an almost moral obligation to get science on the agenda.

Philippe Borremans

Philippe Borremans is an independent public relations consultant specialising in crisis communications and reputation management. He is one of the founders of Reputation & Co., a network of senior communications consultants active in Europe and Northern Africa. Previous to his current role, he was strategy director at PR Media, a Casablanca-based public relations agency with offices across the Maghreb region. Before moving to Morocco, he was chief social media officer and CSR coordinator at Van Marcke Group. Between 1999 and 2009 he held several communications positions at IBM, including corporate and online communications. Throughout his career, he has worked both in-house and in agency. Philippe records and publishes his weekly PR podcast Wag The Dog FM and is a regular guest lecturer at business schools and universities in Morocco.


James Gillies

James Gillies began his research career working at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, in the mid-1980s. In 1993, he became head of science with the British Council in Paris before returning to CERN in 1995 as a science writer. His current position at CERN is Head of Communications, a role he's held since 2003. James is also co-author of How the Web was Born, a history of the internet published in 2000.

Christopher Sciacca

Christopher Sciacca is currently the European communications manager for IBM Research based in Zurich, Switzerland. He was appointed to this position on February 1, 2009 and has been with IBM since 2001.