“Not cheerleading for science” – a conversation with Dr Robert Sternberg

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Durham alumnus Dr Robert Sternberg teaches MSc Science Communication at Imperial College, London. He also designed and teaches MSc Science Media Production, alongside making his own documentaries. We talk about the role of politics in science, knowing your audience, and maverick marine biologists.

A gripping story

Prior to joining Imperial’s Science Communication Unit in 1998, Dr Sternberg had a career making educational films. I ask him what makes a good documentary.

“Your main responsibility is to tell a gripping story,” he says. “And to know how to make it gripping, you need to know your audience. The facts will be the same regardless, but it’s up to you to choose how to deploy them.”

“The scientific process is not logical. We all have prejudices that affect our decisions, even when we are trying to be objective and logical.”

“But you can’t bewilder people, either,” he adds.

This difficult balance between telling a good story and depicting disagreements and dead ends is what makes documentary-making one of the more “nuanced forms of journalism”.

According to Sternberg, it is also why “you can’t make films about really new science, because really new science is controversial.”

The facts will be the same regardless, but it’s up to you to choose how to deploy them

Maverick marine biologists

It turns out, however, that the science explored in Dr Sternberg’s most recent documentary is both relatively new, and really controversial.

It examines the work of the late Don Williamson. For those who are unfamiliar with the name, Sternberg describes Williamson as a “maverick marine biologist with outlandish ideas about evolution.”

Williamson believed that breeding between different animal phyla occurs on a regular basis – an idea that was met with a lot of anger and resistance.

Williamson’s research was finally published after gaining the support of Lynn Margulis, a well-known evolutionary biologist. Although Margulis ultimately came to be seen as quite the maverick herself, her influence was far-reaching.

Editors already have pre-conceived views about your work, even before you submit to them

Sternberg says this is a perfect example of the influence of nepotism within the scientific community. “Editors and publishers already have pre-conceived views about your work, even before you submit to them.” No journal wants to be the first to publish controversial views, but with a bit of encouragement from a respected name, they might just change their mind. 

By the time Dr Sternberg met him, Williamson was in his 80s and wasn’t carrying out his own research. Sternberg made him a deal: he would continue Williamson’s work in the lab, and in return, Williamson would allow him to film it.

A seat of learning

Spending so much time in research settings, Sternberg has often wondered if he should have gone into research himself. “My undergraduate degree at Durham was in zoology and botany. We went out to spoil heaps and did botanical examinations. I had a fantastic time. Durham University was doing a lot of work to clean up pollution caused by mining, and I was proud of that. I just remember thinking Durham was a seat of learning.”

Durham University was did a lot of work to clean up pollution caused by mining, and I was proud of that

Although he has not been back to Durham recently, it is clear his memories of his time here are fond. “I loved the town; I loved how you could walk everywhere. I think I even took some photographs for Palatinate. And in 1981, my first year, the River Wear froze!” 

But scandalous rent prices, it seems, were as aggravating then as they are now. 

“Over the duration of my degree, rent increased from £7 per week to £11 per week. We were outraged!” He chuckles. Some things never change. 

The social impact of science

Sternberg admits that, “as a journalist, I sometimes feel like a parasite. I’m in the room watching, recording, but I’m not creating the knowledge.”

Still, he doesn’t regret his career path. “There is a great need for writers and communicators with a scientific background.”

The MSc Science Communication at Imperial was the first of its kind in the UK; an editor at The Lancet once told me that the course was “of particular note”. I ask Dr Sternberg what makes the course so outstanding. It surprises me when he gives so much credit to the students.

“A lot of students have research backgrounds – a lot have PhDs. The students, with their varied experiences, have a lot to teach one another.”

“Although the MSc is a practical degree, it is not about learning how to use the technology. Any broadcasting job can do that. Fundamentally, it’s about understanding the social impact of science.”

There is a great need for writers and communicators with a scientific background

When I ask what he thinks about the recent politicisation of science, Sternberg corrects my wording. “The political debates surrounding climate change and Covid-19 are not “recent”.”

“There have always been sceptics of science. Which ideas get promoted, funded and published – that’s political.”

“That’s why presenting science in a clear, accurate way is so important.”

Not cheerleading for science

So, what advice can Sternberg give to MSc Science Communication applicants?

“More than anything, you need to prove interest in communication – student newspapers, photography, podcasts. It doesn’t have to be about science.”

I joke that he must see a lot of David Attenborough references. “Everyone’s watched David Attenborough,” he says. “You’ll need to be more original than that!”

This leads him to a more serious conclusion.

“Science communication is not cheerleading for science,” says Sternberg. “You have to be able and willing to see it how it is. If you idealise science and present it in an unrealistic fashion, you’re in danger of feeding the anti-science zeitgeist.”

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