In 2005, my IT collaborator Peter Normington and I were awarded a generous grant by NESTA to design, set up and run a free online resource for fiction-writers, SciTalk. Our aim was to sign up self-selected scientists of all ages and genres who were enthusiastic about meeting and talking to writers and showing them their places of work - labs, field sites, whatever they chose.
The second and equally important part of the project was to publicise the resource to writers to persuade them to search for interesting modern science topics on the website, and to identify - and meet, correspond, even collaborate with - one or more scientists. Also, it is especially important for scientists to learn more about writing, and how to communicate what they do. There are great benefits to both partners in a collaboration.
Consequently I spent several years writing articles and short 'publicity pieces' about the resource, for writers' and scientists' organisations and magazines and newsletters. I also organised a range of events throughout the UK - talks, workshops, events where scientists talked to writers about their work (and, importantly, about their lives -- scientists 'have lives' too!).
The project was enthusiastically endorsed by Philip Pullman, Professor Sir Harry Kroto and Professor Sir John Sulston (see 'What writers and scientists say').
Events included the two 'Subtle Science' short story competitions, based on events at the Science Museum's Dana Centre and at Science Oxford (as part of the Oxford Literary festival); talks and workshops for the Society of Authors, the Romantic Novelists' Association, PEN in London, writers at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the Manchester Literature Festival, and creative writing courses at the University of East Anglia, the National Academy of Writers -- to name just a few.
The Subtle Science short story judges included Jane Gardam, Lavinia Greenlaw and Robert Macfarlane, and sponsorship for events additional to that of NESTA's came from a variety of other organisations (for details see 'Funding'). Articles about the events at the Dana Centre and at Oxford, and the winning stories, were published in the Guardian and The Scientist.
Writer-scientist collaborations were covered by the Times Higher Educational Supplement (in the case of novelist Claire George and neuroscientist Jonathan Cole) and Radio 4's 'Leading Edge' (in the case of novelist Liz Jensen and micropalaeontologist Danielle Schmidt).
- When writers were asked, via an emailed questionnaire, for their comments, their answers were always a delight:
- "C was very generous both with her time, knowledge and enthusiasm. We had a long phone conversation and then she sent me facsimiles of some documents which I needed to know about."
- "I received terrific and enthusiastic help from L."
- "I was delighted to find SciTalk - much needed, as a source of good up-to-date information, and a good corrective for scientific stereotypes of all kinds."
- "The website has been brilliant for me. M's idea has now turned into a project for a series of books. We work together really well, and … we are progressing steadily. I find it absolutely fascinating, and love being able to ask him any questions that arise."
- "I love the enthusiasm of scientists for their subjects and their generosity in sharing it."
- "I felt privileged to have their support. ... I very much see it as a two-way street where mutual benefit is concerned. ... It's such a brilliant idea for a site and I don't believe there is anything else like it."
- "SciTalk is a wonderful resource... the two scientists were very helpful. They also gave me other contacts ... I visited one in Cambridge and another one in London."
- "An excellent site, quite amazed to find who was available. I found SciTalk very easy to use and know I shall use it in the future."
I myself sought help from several SciTalk scientists , for my later novels and for non-fiction pieces.
SciTalk's funding stream ended in 2007 but Peter and I continued to cover most of the costs ourselves for the following three years. We eventually offered the resource to Newcastle University, and it became part of the portfolio of the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts in 2010 and the website was redesigned to give it a more modern appearance.
The original SciTalk logo