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Science Communication: Science’s Next Frontier

Communicating science is nothing new for researchers--we communicate ideas to collaborators and funding agencies; and we communicate results to colleagues and the general public. So, it?s not surprising that many scientists, on a full- or part-time basis, have turned their energy to communications professions that allow them to convey the latest in science and technology to a worldwide audience. Some have become medical writers, technical writers, science journalists, or broadcasters, among others. But for the science-curious who are looking for a new career direction that keeps them linked to research--while still allowing them to stretch their communication muscles--there is a growing industry that they may not have considered: business communication and public relations.

The Business of Science Communication

With the rapid growth in the number of companies working in technology, biotechnology, and other science-driven sectors, there is a growing realization that effective communication between these companies and their stakeholders--including investors and the general public--is critical to their success. In the past, companies have typically focused their efforts on building products or researching ideas, and then worrying about how they are going to develop their marketing and communication plan. Now, having recognized the need to develop these plans much sooner, they are turning to communicators who can take complex scientific ideas and make them accessible.

Today, then, you can find science communication professionals working in the areas of public relations, communications planning, issues management, media relations, investor relations, event planning, editorial production, marketing, and financial communication. Their work may include marketing an idea to investors, writing accessible pieces for promotion, developing a communication plan, or writing up press releases. They can be found in companies? communication departments, as independent consultants, or working for a communications agency.

The relationship between a communications professional and the science-based company he or she works for can be very dynamic and exciting. A science communicator can be part of the whole process of a company growing from idea to product or may help a company at some other point along the way. Companies may have their own in-house communications person work in tandem with an outside group or they may hire a communications agency or independent consultant to help them achieve their goals. Della Smith is a co-founder and partner of QUAY Strategies Inc., a full-service communications agency in Vancouver. Her agency works with companies at all points in their development. "There are all sorts of stages that companies go through, from their start-up to when they?re mid-range. And at each stage they might use us or they might use a combination of people in-house, along with us" to get the work done.

Theresa Kennedy, director of life sciences at Hill & Knowlton, a global full-service communications company with offices in Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, Vancouver, Montreal, and Quebec City, sees the same situation in her firm. "A lot of companies start off and they try to do as much as possible in-house, because financially they?re limited. Then when they?re able to, and particularly biotechnology companies who completely believe in outsourcing, they turn to us. So, it?s a very dynamic relationship."

The business of science communication and public relations is growing so quickly, and the needs of the biotechnology sector are so specific, that general communication agencies are creating separate companies or groups across Canada to work exclusively on the science sector. QUAY Strategies Inc. recognized that the needs of the biotechnology industry could only be met by a group solely focused on their sector. So, in September 2001 they created a separate company, QUAY Strategies Biotech Inc. "All the communication elements that go around this sector are different", says Smith "how you present yourself, what your package is, everything." It requires a different approach and level of patience than communicating about more familiar products. According to Smith, "It?s easier to profile a new car; everyone knows what they do and how they work. It?s just a different style and a different model. Biotechnology is an arena that people don?t even have a basic understanding of what they?re talking about quite often." This requires strong communicators who can quickly get up to speed on the science or, even better, understand the world of biotechnology and pharmaceuticals going in.

The Skills Crossover

Currently, many people in this industry are communication professionals with an interest in science. But there is a need for scientists or people with a strong science background who are also good communicators. It?s this love of science, along with an ability to communicate, that led Theresa Kennedy to a successful career in science communication. Kennedy began her career by obtaining a B.Sc. degree in neuropsychology with a minor in communications. However, she found that her passion for science alone was not enough to make her want to pursue a career in research. "When it came to handling animals, implanting electrodes, I just decided I can?t do that personally, but I think it?s important so I followed it". She worked in the oil and gas sector briefly but then essentially ?fell into? biotechnology. At the time, it was the nature of one group?s work in bacterial diseases that excited her. "I loved what they were doing, basic research, it was new, a potential new drug in the area of bacterial diseases--it was exciting!" After working as the executive director of BC Biotech, she moved to Hill & Knowlton as vice president of life sciences in March 2000.

Kennedy recommends that anyone interested in science communication learn about the science business sector that interests them the most. "Looking into industry associations is usually your best way. Go to events, get to know what some of the local companies are doing, read the newsletters, find out who is being financed, and then you?re going to find out a trend as to who?s fairly successful. Follow that company and then if you have interest in their technology, go talk to them."

The Future

The science communication industry is diverse and has attracted people from many sectors, including law, IT, finance, and business. With the increasing crossover between science and business, there is no doubt that the science communication industry is on the cusp of huge growth and in need of people with an interest or background in science to achieve success. Says Kennedy, "I think we?re just starting to see the potential in terms of number of clients we may be looking at. I think in 5 years, it?s going to be very, very busy. We?re going to see a lot more work in the biotech sector in Canada but from that we?re going to see better, stronger companies who are going to get more money and are able to grow better and to grow faster and be hiring more people".

* Christianne Wilhelmson, M.Sc., is a science communication and public relations consultant in Vancouver, British Columbia. She can be contacted at

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