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Wednesday, 16 July 2008

ABSW visit to Milton Park

Nina Morgan recently revived an old ABSW tradition and organised a site visit. Despite a low take-up from her fellow members, she is convinced that site visits still deserve a place in our calendar...

Back in the 1990s organising site visits were a regular – and very valuable – activity in the ABSW. I can honestly say that the information and contacts I made on the visits the ABSW organised played a large part in launching my career as a freelance science writer. Over the years, these seemed to have died away, but remembering how useful I found them – I decided to make the effort to organise one myself. My target site was Milton Park, near Abingdon in Oxfordshire, which is home to a wide range of science and technology-based companies.

The visit had a chemistry/chemical engineering theme. Finding companies willing to host a visit was the easy part. Two companies, Oxford Catalyst, a catalyst development company (and one of my employers) and Oxford Diffraction, a company that specialises high tech x-ray diffraction equipment, were happy to participate. Both were willing to go all out to accommodate the needs and desires of the visitors. This included offering to pick up people from Didcot station, providing coffee, lunch, and tea, good press packs, and arranging relevant talks and demonstrations that concentrated on the science rather than on just the business angle.

Persuading ABSW members to come was much more difficult. I posted the invitation on the ABSW list, Barbie Drillsma e-mailed it to members, Ted Nield posted it on the ABSW blog, and Carolyn Kelday very actively promoted it among student members. But there were few takers from the ABSW. To bump up numbers I sent out personal invitations to my own contacts in the science writing world. In the end, just 6 people signed up, of which only 4 were ABSW members. On the day, two were unable to attend, but did let me know the day before the visit.

I'd warned both companies in advance about the possibility of low turnout. Both took the view (which I put into their heads and encouraged!) that whether or not articles appear as a direct result of the visit, it's very valuable to make yourself known to science journalists as an information source, in the hope that they may come back to you later. So I think neither company felt that the effort they put in for the visit was wasted.

And for Oxford Catalysts, at least, so it has proved. As a result of the visit, one article has already appeared, another major feature has been commissioned, and a third participant thinks he may be close to selling one. In addition, several other people who weren't able to attend have asked to receive press packs or to be added to the company's press release distribution list.

So on one level, you might say that this visit was a success. The four that did come (1 student and 2 ordinary ABSW members, and one non-member) all seemed to find it of interest, expressed a lot of enthusiasm and asked a lot of questions.

But on another, given the poor response to the invitation and low level of participation, I found it to be a rather discouraging. Nevertheless, I still believe these visits are a good thing. So it's probably worth persisting for a bit. If anyone is thinking of organising one, and wants to know more about what worked and what didn't, don't hesitate to get in touch. I'll be happy to tell all!

Nina Morgan