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9 March 2004

Making Science Understandable

Klaus Tschira Foundation's writing workshop for young scientists at the Villa Bosch

It can drive you crazy. Up-and-coming young scientists commit themselves heart and soul to their research, come up with very respectable findings and no one understands what they've been working on. To make sure this does not happen in future, the Klaus Tschira Foundation opened up its regular writing workshop to the University of Heidelberg free of charge. The University then organised a competition for potential participants.

To get into the workshop, the young scientists had to cope with a tricky task. They were asked to summarise their research projects in a maximum of 500 words and think up an attractive heading for the summary. Ultimately, twelve young men and women were chosen from among the applicants to attend the workshop and really bring their texts up to scratch.

The problem is not new. Even experienced scientists are frequently at a loss for words when a microphone is stuck in their face or they are asked for an account of the work they are engaged in. It is in fact becoming increasingly important for scientists to be acquainted with the rules journalism abides by. Accordingly, said Renate Ries of the Klaus Tschira Foundation, the writing workshops have two main aims. One is to establish and maintain genuine contact between the scientific community and the public, the other is to enhance the image of scientific endeavour in the public eye. Frequently, findings of general interest are concealed behind a smoke-screen of complicated scientific verbiage.

The workshops and media training sessions at the Villa Bosch have been part of the ongoing education programme there since 2001. But not free of charge, as was the case for the University. Alongside practical exercises, the writing workshops concentrate on the change of perspective implicit in the role of the journalist. Frequently, said Renate Ries, scientists have no idea of the conditions under which journalists produce their texts or of the deadlines imposed on them. Accordingly, academics expand at length on the details of their research, while journalists are concerned to get the message across as quickly and effectively as possible. No wonder that a degree of resentment crops up from time to time. Scientists feel misrepresented, journalists baulk at the time required to do their research for an article.

Workshop participant Markus Diener, for example, was "astounded" at the huge discrepancy between scientific writing and journalism. "We very often lose all appreciation of what is specialist jargon and what isn't," Michaela Bilic said in an interview with the local Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung newspaper. In the course of the workshop she realised one thing: scientists take it for granted that laypersons will be able to follow their thoughts and accordingly lose sight of the essentials.

She went on to admit that most scientists have never been taught to communicate properly in writing. Mineralogist Georg Partzsch agreed, saying that publications and oral reports are frequently addressed to expert audiences only. Sven Feuerbacher chimed in, saying that it sometimes really hurts to forgo explanatory detail on the work one is involved in. But ultimately he too had gained a lot by attending the workshop. As a chemist engaged largely in basic research he found it exasperating that he had previously been unable to provide a readily understandable explanation of what he spends all his time on. Now he feels so well equipped for that task that he takes a much calmer view of the request to pen an article for a website. "We practised ordering our thoughts," Markus Diener summed up. All the participants relished the fact that the workshop assembled people from so many different branches of science. There were physicists, astronomers, chemists, biologists and medical researchers. It may well be that we'll be hearing a lot from them in future — of course in a language that laypersons can understand.

For information on the writing workshops for scientists contact

Kirsten Baumbusch

Please address any inquiries to
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

Irene Thewalt
Press Office of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542311

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