I recently attended the Japan SciCom Forum 2019, held at the Earth-Life Science Institute in the Ishikawadai area of the Ookayama campus of the Tokyo Institute of Technology. Aimed at public information officers and other science communicators working in universities and similar institutions, the program was a diverse collection of keynote speeches, flash talks, and workshops.

Kumi Kuroda from the RIKEN Center for Brain Science spoke on new research in neuroscience and how we may be able to influence social behaviors such as parenting through manipulation of certain areas of the brain. She discussed the legal and ethical issues associated with biomedical innovation and made a plea for science communicators to contextualize data, embrace the complexity of research, and minimize sensationalism in reporting to avoid harm.

Sae Kitamura from Musashi University discussed the Wikipedia Translation Project, in which her translation students tackle E-J translations of Wikipedia articles. She also took the audience through the Wikipedia editing principles and processes, the cultural differences between different Wikipedias, and the state of gender bias in Wikipedia.

Ayumi Koso from the National Institutes for the Humanities and Brian Lin from the American Association for the Advancement of Science led a discussion session focusing on pre-submitted participant questions (your humble correspondent did submit a question on how science communicators could better support translators to achieve higher quality outcomes, but the question didn’t make the cut). The topics were as follows: How can we convince researchers and leaders to do science communication? Diversity and cross-cultural communication. Language skills. What do you wish you knew at the beginning of your career?

Pete Farley from the University of California San Francisco spoke on crisis management and handling reputational risk for institutions, a particularly important topic in these days of instant-response social media. He offered five principles for managing risk when interacting with news media.

  • Be responsive. Rumour and speculation thrive in silence.
  • Be comprehensive. Effective responses depend on complete, carefully vetted information.
  • Be forthright. Transparency is sometimes constrained by laws etc. “Say what you can say and say what you cannot say.”
  • Be resilient. Dealing with sensitive issues can be physically and emotionally demanding.
  • Be proactive. Communicate your institution’s positive and constructive actions frequently. Create rapid response teams, templates for materials, and crisis plans.

Drew Berry from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne Australia demonstrated some mind-blowing animations of biomedical phenomena that he and his team have created, focusing here primarily on the production of adenosine triphosphate in mitochondria, the parts of our cells that turn food into energy. If you want to see an example of this cutting-edge work, combining advanced animation with stunning colors and sounds, check out the video on cell death at https://www.wehi.edu.au/wehi-tv/apoptosis-and-signal-transduction.

Seven science communicators from institutions across Japan gave three-minute “flash talks”, followed by two-minute Q&A sessions. One of particular interest to us translators was given by Eleanor Wyllie from Kobe University: her process for translating press releases.

  1. Draft translation
  2. Cut material where appropriate
  3. Editing and allied material research (Scientific accuracy; review academic papers and science websites. Ensure it will engage the audience)
  4. Walk away from the text (if time allows)
  5. Further editing
  6. Send final draft to researchers for corrections and final approval
  7.  Finished!

Misaki Ouchida from the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application, Kyoto University, led a workshop on the use of illustrations to accompany research efforts, giving several tips on creating graphical abstracts. Participants then drew their own graphical abstracts to illustrate real scientific reports, following design principles based on the rabatment line and “C” eye view (yes, these things were new to me). My task was illustrate a report on alarm calls made by Japanese songbirds when they see a snake, and how artificial alarm calls can evoke the image of a snake in the bird’s brain, even when the “snake” is only a stick placed in the area by the researchers.

The final session was a workshop led by Brendan Barrett from Osaka University in which participants worked in groups to prepare a media strategy for activities to achieve a specific target under the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals program. Luckily, my group included a freelance reporter and someone who had previously worked in advertising, so my lack of ideas wasn’t too much of an obstacle to formulating a strategy.

All in all, a terrific smorgasbord of thought-provoking seminars and workshops. I think you can see from the above snapshots why such a conference might be useful for science translators to attend (apart from the rich learning experience, pressing the flesh of potential clients could yield work opportunities). The event was live streamed on the EurekAlert! Facebook page, an overflow room with video was available for walk-ins, plenty of opportunities were given for networking, and one of the fun features was a throwable microphone (https://catchbox.com/) to speed up audience participation in Q&A sessions.

Learn more about Japan SciCom Forum 2019 at https://japanscicom.github.io/

Tony Atkinson

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