Research Centre Spotlight: The Science Communication Unit (SCU): Embedding communication and engagement in all research.

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Silhouettes of people in front of a world map

Never before has the important role of science communication been so widely recognised. The COVID-19 pandemic drew attention not only to the importance of communicating scientific and health based information to millions, but also the ways that new digital and social media enable the circulation of misinformation. The pandemic has also highlighted the role that the public can play in shaping and contributing to new and emerging areas of research. In many ways, society has been engaged in a two year science communication ‘experiment’ and this has offered opportunities to consider the role that science communication and engagement can play in other ‘wicked problems’ such as the climate crisis and wider issues of health and wellbeing. These are also all problems which have long-term and distressing impacts on communities and in which researchers can play an important role.

The Science Communication Unit (SCU) has been working on such challenging topics at UWE Bristol since the late 1990’s, building an international reputation for its diverse and innovative activities, designed to engage the public with science, as well as research informed teaching offered to science communicators via its Masters programme, continuing professional development (CPD) training and undergraduate science communication modules. The SCU is led by Dr Clare Wilkinson and Professor Emma Weitkamp, and its work covers themes over five key areas:

Science, Technology and Engineering

Science, Technology and Engineering has always been at the heart of the work of the SCU, which is based in both the Faculty of Health and Applied Sciences and the Faculty of Environment and Technology. Projects in this area have covered topics as diverse as robotics, artificial intelligence and astronomy. A key project that the Science Communication Unit team are currently involved with is Digital Engineering Technology and Innovation (DETI). Via DETI Inspire the team (Dr Laura Fogg Rogers, Sophie Laggan, Ana Bristow, Josh Warren, Dr Louisa Cockbill and Dr Laura Hobbs) have directly engaged 6,832 children and 216 teachers from 73 schools and community groups in the West of England, with an estimated 97,550 children reached altogether through dissemination efforts over the last two years.

WeCount is a two year project working directly with citizens in five countries across Europe. The SCU is leading the Monitoring and Evaluation Work Package on behalf of the project.

Health and Wellbeing

Health and Wellbeing is another important theme in the work of the SCU, whose research spans the life course and addresses a variety of communities. Popular computer games which allow children to visualise and explore concepts are being used by Dr Laura Hobbs in the Exploring the molecular basis of diabetes with Minecraft project funded by the Royal Society of Chemistry, to help children and young people to understand complex conditions like diabetes. Whilst work carried out by Dr Laura Hobbs and Dr Elena Milani, in collaboration with the Centre for Health and Clinical Research (CHRC), during the pandemic to maximise COVID-19 vaccine update also resulted in a nomination for an HSJ NHS Race Equality Award.

Diabetes with Minecraft project

Sustainability and the Environment

Sustainability and the Environment is also an area where a great deal of collaborative work takes place with other research centres at UWE, including a long-term partnership with the  Air Quality Management Resource Centre (AQMRC) on projects such as ClairCity (Dr Laura Fogg Rogers, Dr Margarida Sardo) and WeCount (Dr Margarida Sardo, Sophie Laggan, Dr Laura Fogg Rogers). The longest running project in the SCU however, is the Science for Environment Policy (SfEP) project. Running science 2007, a team of writers (Nicky Shale, Caroline Weaver and David Jay) and editors (Ruth Larbey, Carla Smith) based in the SCU are responsible for fortnightly News Alerts, as well as a range of more in-depth reports that regularly reach well over 20,000 subscribers.

ClairCity Project

Social Science and Art

Social Science and Art are also topics embedded in the work of the SCU, and many of our research projects share and involve research that is far broader than a consideration of the sciences alone. In examining contemporary science communication issues we often rely on methods utilised in the social sciences, and a recent EU-funded project, RETHINK, has involved a team of staff (Andy Ridgway, Dr Elena Milani, Dr Clare Wilkinson and Professor Emma Weitkamp) in the SCU examining the science communication ecosystem throughout Europe, as well as understanding more about how the science communication community is shaped in terms of approaches, aims and training.

The RETHINK project

Informal and Formal Learning

Informal and Formal Learning is the fifth and final strand of our work. Much science communication takes place in informal settings such as the home, parks and museums, but also in formal contexts like schools and universities, as well as the spaces between. A recently completed Partnership PhD project considered one such setting, a new exhibition being developed at the Eden Project called Invisible Worlds. Through work with visitors and staff this postgraduate research study conducted by Dr David Judge was able to explore the role science communication can play in addressing some of the contemporary world’s most challenging and intractable problems, exploring this through the lens of transformative learning.

Beyond the research and practice based projects the SCU is involved in, we also engage with a comprehensive programme of CPD, including our annual Science Communication Masterclass which attracts delegates from around the globe and has trained people from a wide range of organisations including Thermo Fisher Scientific, the ESRC, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Unilever, Astrazeneca, the British Embassy, and the Met Office. The Masterclass has built on the success of our MSc Science Communication programme, which has achieved a 100% PTES result for the last two years running, and in 2021 attracted 53 new students to start the programme over two intakes. All of our teaching and CPD programmes are also open to UWE staff and students and we’ve seen many delegates undertake our masterclass, online science communication modules and full MSc programme whilst engaged in other roles and projects at UWE. Our graduates now work around the globe, including for organisations such as NASA, for a variety of research councils and organisations, and in science centres and museums.

To find out more about the work of undertaken by the Science Communication Unit Team follow the links below:

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