British Universities Film & Video Council

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Science Communication

Turning scientists into journalists: It’s a dirty job but someone has to do it and Nicholas Russell outlines the aims and objectives of the Science Communication Group at Imperial College.

About the author: Nicholas Russell from 1995 to 2008 was Director of the Science Communication Group and from 2005 to 2008 was Head of the Department of Humanities at Imperial College. He is the author of Communicating Science: Professional, popular, literary (Cambridge University Press, 2009)


Mention Imperial College London and most listeners envisage a place committed entirely to one side of C.P. Snow’s antithetical ‘two cultures’; an institution dedicated to teaching and research in science, technology and the scientific end of medicine. Sure, the social sciences are represented in its Business School, but to nearly everyone outside the College (and to some inside) there is no association between Imperial College and the Arts or Humanities.

But all is not as stereotypical as it seems. Student societies dedicated to most branches of the arts are in rude health and there is even a Department of Humanities, originally set up in the 1970s to meet student demand for ways of broadening their specialised curricula. The Department still fulfils this function today but has also initiated other projects including starting the first dedicated taught master’s degree in Science Communication in 1991, a joint initiative of the College and the Science Museum, mediated by John Durant (then a deputy director at the Museum) with a large Leverhulme Trust Grant.

The trigger that started this off was the public understanding of science movement arising from the report of the Royal Society’s Committee on the Public Understanding of Science (the Bodmer Report) in 1985. This movement was a political initiative by a scientific community which felt that science and technology were insufficiently supported by government. Their proposed solution was to encourage greater media communication about science in the belief that this would lead to greater public appreciation of science, which might translate into political pressure for greater government support for science.

The MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College continues to this day, together with a second programme in Science Media Production started in 2001. The courses are taught by a small group of people who constitute the Science Communication Group. We graduate over 50 students a year, the majority then starting careers in print or broadcast journalism, new media, museums and exhibitions, science policy, or public relations for science-based organisations. The MSc in Science Communication is for students who want to explore as wide a range of career options as possible, while Science Media Production is designed specifically for those wanting a career in broadcasting. They have the opportunity to make a short film or radio package as their final project, rather than the traditional academic dissertation which Science Communication students undertake.

Both master’s programmes are conversion courses. The majority of applicants and entrants have science degrees but would like to take up communication careers instead of continuing with their science. Our courses aim to give them a basic practical toolkit in communication, together with a crash programme in the two humanities-based bodies of theory most relevant to them: Science Studies and Media and Communication Studies. We like to think the programmes provide our graduates with practical credibility together with necessary elements of the language and mindsets of arts and humanities graduates who dominate the communication professions.

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