Finding purpose in prose…and science communication  

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Sophie Pavelle

I never knew what I wanted to be – except that any career for me had to have three conditions: it must involve an above-average dose of the outdoors, I would like to be in charge of the agenda, and some sort of animal (any will do!) needs to be in close proximity at all times. No doubt the aspirations of most people, right?

I had a linear route into science communication, albeit with several detours in-between. Studying Zoology at the University of Bristol straight after school, I appreciated the programmes breadth in not funnelling me in a niche direction. Like anyone in their late teens/early twenties, my mind was a meandering muddle. In a bid to find some sort of path to address the dreaded ‘what’s next?!’ question from parents and family, I dipped my toes into many pools – applying for work experience and short internships in physiotherapy, veterinary medicine, law, magazine publishing, copy editing, countryside management, the military and teaching. Although quite relentless, it became a helpful ‘tick-box exercise’ allowing me to cross off those areas which I didn’t enjoy (vital), and keep close those I found interesting.

Eventually, I found focus in the middle of all of these careers and interests. That is – in science communication – a dynamic and exciting vocation where you act as the mediator between scientific research, and the public. A crucial role, amid such a noisy, turbulent world. Despite this being only six years ago, science communication was something I had never heard of at the time. Safe to say, after seeing the MSc in Science Communication offered at UWE Bristol, and how varied it was, I was officially intrigued.  And that was before I’d even had a chance to explore the careers that alumni had pursued after graduating.

During my masters at UWE in 2016-17, the world felt like it was changing. Social media reared its head and became the giant it is today. We saw the power of how we can use those platforms to communicate environmental truths, and rally public support for positive change; namely with the release of Blue Planet 2 and the battle to eliminate single use plastics. The realities of climate change and biodiversity loss rushed into conversation, creating urgent pressure to find solutions. Personally, all of these events over the past six or so years have shifted my own communication priorities. I’m not only trying to engage the public with the joy of nature on a fundamental level, but also trying to spur real, lasting action for its future. It’s more of a ‘the faster we act, the less we lose,’ sort of situation.

After I graduated in 2018, I tried my hand at going freelance. The notion appealed to me (if we just revisit my eclectic career conditions above…) and I was grateful to be in a position where I could still live at home in Devon, earn money with two retail jobs, and experiment with science communication on the side. It was an immense balancing act, and at times very stressful and disheartening. Repeated rejection for jobs, ideas and offers of work sure makes you resilient! But the hope of finding a seat at the table really did keep me going.

I fostered and maintained links with wildlife charities and NGOs, offering volunteer hours with The Wildlife Trusts, fundraising for them and others and being a bit of a prolific networker whist trying to find my voice. Later, I got the brilliant opportunity to be part of the RSPB steering group for the 2019 State of Nature Report, and contribute to the forward. A spin-off article I was asked to write reflecting on the report’s implications was picked up by a major publisher, who asked me if I had ever thought about writing a book. Of course I hadn’t. I was convinced they thought I was somebody else (imposter syndrome, hello!). After all, isn’t writing a book something you do when you’ve accomplished something? Something you might strive to do in your wildest dreams of your later years?

But it’s only looking back that I’ve realised I’ve been writing my whole life. Without realising, I have always sought comfort in words, stories and narratives. Many of us do. Not a voracious reader by any means, but I have kept extensive diaries, written letters, postcards, poems and short stories. Whilst all my friends at school talked about the bands and music they were into, I kept quiet, for all I ever listened to were story tapes, and later, audiobooks.

I loved English at school and didn’t realise how much being able to write, and enjoy it, helped me through both my BSc and MSc, where many of the exams and coursework were written. Writing this blog has made me reflect on how much the variety of modules, teaching and assessments offered by the Science Communication Unit at UWE was invaluable preparation for my current work, not least in battling with imposter syndrome in writing my book. Despite what social media might portray, I’m shy, and introverted. Painfully so, when I was younger. But the MSc was a game changer for me. Smaller cohorts allowed better integration and interaction between staff and students, which boosted my confidence to contribute in class. The staff encouraged us to explore our individual creative and research interests, to push boundaries and take risks.

Bloomsbury commissioned me to write a non-fiction narrative about endangered native species and climate change in spring 2020 – on the same day that I got offered a communications job with Beaver Trust, and just as the UK went into lockdown. A rather overwhelming time to say the least…! The pandemic brought many books and creative content to fruition, but for me, that was never the plan for Forget Me Not. Covid-19 became a natural part of the narrative, and made elements of the low-carbon travel immensely challenging and stressful. Over the course of the 18 months of travelling and writing, I was prepared to have writers block and want to give up. Many people told me to expect this. But weirdly, that never happened. As I write this we are finalising the text, before I escape to a studio and record the audiobook. It’s a bizarre experience in a way. I often dream about certain paragraphs, and can place words and sentences exactly in the text, remembering where I was when I wrote it, what music I may have been listening to. Even what I was wearing!

Writing a book has by far been the hardest and most exhausting marathon of my life, but I adored every second. With just one month to go until publication day (9th June!) I’m still pinching myself at this surreal opportunity. I had no idea ‘science communication’ could look like this.

Sophie Pavelle is a writer and science communicator. Sharing stories about British wide audiences, she puts a contemporary twist on the natural history genre. Sophie works for Beaver Trust and presented their award-winning documentary Beavers Without Borders. She is also an Ambassador for The Wildlife Trusts and sits on the RSPB England Advisory Committee. Her writing has appeared in The Metro, BBC Countryfile, BBC Wildlife and Coast magazines. Her first book ‘Forget Me Not: finding the forgotten species of climate-change Britain’ is published on June 9th by Bloomsbury. You can pre-order it here: https://linktr.ee/forgetmenotbook

Graduating and working during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Finishing our MSc in Science Communication and graduating during a pandemic and national lockdowns was not how any of us expected it to go. But despite that I managed to get a job a few months after submitting my thesis. Not only that, but what I learnt, the work I did and the experiences I had on the MSc helped me to get the role along with my previous experience working in NHS roles.

I am working as content coordinator for NHS Blood and Transplant, the organisation which is responsible for the supply of blood, organs, tissues and stem cells. Most of my role is about developing and producing content for The Donor, a newsletter which is sent to everyone who is registered as a blood donor four times per year. We share donor stories, recipient stories, updates about the donation process, information about different blood types and types of donations, how important blood and organ donations are etc. Whilst not every article is super sciency, the aim is to engage the readers and keep the donors donating to meet the constant demand for blood products.

My writing improved so much during the masters and I think that has definitely helped me get the role as I had to write an article as part of the interview process. It has also helped in my day-to-day work. I go back to the news structure we learnt in the Writing Science module again and again when writing articles at work. It’s currently on a sticky note stuck on the wall above my desk.

Starting a new job whilst working from home in lockdown wasn’t without its challenges but in the past year and a bit I have:

  • Contributed to five editions of The Donor
  • Learnt the editorial process and house style of writing; spoken to/interviewed donors, recipients and internal/external stakeholders
  • Built confidence and developed my personal style
  • Learnt about blood donation, blood components and treatments
  • Chosen supporting images, designed articles and uploaded them onto the content management system

Researched and written a new regular scientific feature called functions of blood. Each article focuses on a different key role of our blood: transport, immunity and clotting. Did you know that the body has 60,000 miles of blood vessels? This is long enough to circle the globe more than twice.

I’ve also donated blood three times so far and counting!

By Morwenna Bugg

Morwenna was a student on the MSc in Science Communication at UWE Bristol in the 2019-2020 academic year.

New publication – Transforming tradition: how the iconic Christmas Lectures series is perceived by its audiences

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Photo credit: Paul Wilkinson Photography

Margarida SardoHannah Little and Laura Fogg Rogers conducted research to explore strengths and opportunities for improving the series and modernising the Christmas Lectures. The SCU team has recently published a full paper on the findings: A.M. Sardo, H. Little & L. Fogg-Rogers (2021) Transforming tradition: how the iconic Christmas Lectures series is perceived by its audiences, International Journal of Science Education, Part B, 11:4, 378-393.

The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures are a landmark in the history of science communication. Started in 1825 by Faraday, they continue to be broadcast in the UK every year.

In this paper we explore the characteristics of the audiences for the current Christmas Lecture offerings and investigate how these engagements are perceived by their audiences. This is significant and timely since viewing habits are shifting away from traditional television and even iconic landmarks such as the Christmas Lectures have to adapt to remain relevant to old and new audiences. With today’s changing media landscape, it is important to know who is currently watching, how they are watching, and how they are perceiving the content. This cross-sectional study evaluated perceptions of live audiences, people watching at home via Twitter, and awareness of the Lectures by science-interested audiences. The Lectures play a key role as a traditional cultural event for science enthusiasts and are valued by these audiences for performative identity sharing and valued tradition. However, younger generations are shifting away from traditional television to online videos, and the Lectures must adapt to remain relevant to new audiences.

Photo credit: Paul Wilkinson Photography

While the Lectures themselves may not need changing, the broadcast Lectures as a vehicle to reach young people, or to enhance science capital for non-science enthusiasts, may have to be further thought through. Younger audiences are spending less time viewing traditional television and more time viewing online content, which tends to be shorter and enable interactive online con- versations. If the Ri wishes to extend the reach of its audience for the Lectures, the broadcast format may need to change to feature on channels or media which younger non-science enthusiasts are more likely to watch.

Margarida Sardo, Senior Research Fellow in Science Communication, Science Communication Unit, UWE Bristol.

UWE Repository link

The Importance of Being Interested

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Robin Ince is now renowned as “the science guy” of comedy. From The Infinite Monkey Cage on BBC Radio 4, to his huge cabaret-style shows with Professor Brian Cox and a whole host of scientists and comedians performing at venues as big as the Royal Albert Hall. With all this, he is possibly one of the biggest names in science communication in the UK and has recently written a book, The Importance of Being Interested, where he explains his long journey from being a child bored by science, to a comedian whose interest in science has grown to be career-defining.

The first time I saw Robin Ince was back in 2008 in a dark basement venue below a cinema in York where I regularly attended comedy gigs as an undergrad. At that point, his shows didn’t have the primary theme of science, but there was interesting bits of evolutionary theory peppered in to his set which I’d never heard in a comedy set before. I was a linguistics student myself, and a stand-up comedy nerd who had long ago decided, despite being quite good at it, that my love of science was very much secondary to my love for language. But something about Robin’s interest and enthusiasm got to me, and among his shows and a host of public engagement events around the 200th Anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, I started to wonder if I hadn’t made a terrible mistake in rejecting a future in science.

I distinctly remember at this time lamenting to my personal tutor in the linguistics department that I was struggling with feeling like I should have gone in to evolutionary biology. I remember her considering this before asking me if I knew evolutionary linguistics was, in fact, a thing. The study of how humans evolved to communicate using language. I didn’t, but as soon as I was aware I was hooked and ended up doing my master’s degree in language evolution and ultimately a PhD on the topic. In that moment, I found my “thing”, and I can’t imagine my life without it now. In many ways, I think I only made the choices I did because of Robin Ince raising evolutionary topics into my consciousness at a time when it wasn’t too late. In science communication, we often talk about the objective of raising the “science capital” of children to try and get people to feel like science is “for me” at an age where it can still affect their subject and career choices. I feel like Robin Ince pushed me into that space at the very last second when it could have still affected my career. And now, here I am, a lecturer in science communication who researches, among other things, science comedy.

Recently, I had the pleasure to interview Robin Ince to mark the publication of his new book. In the interview, we discuss in depth the role of science fiction in engagement with science, the role of comedy and cabaret in the communication of science, and attitudes towards offense in both science and comedy. You can listen here:

By Dr Hannah Little, Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at UWE Bristol.

The Academy Zone: Reflective Online Science Communication Training

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This blog post is part of an exhibit for Engage Conference 2021.

“I’m a Scientist, get me out of here” is an online communication activity where school students interact with scientists. Classes of students ask scientists about their work and lives in a live, text-based, fast-paced chatroom, as well as on a question-answer platform which allows for more considered interactions.

Over the 10 years it has run, scientists have often reported that their communication skills have improved through participation in I’m a Scientist. However, this experiential training has never been formalised, and the scientists aren’t always aware of what they are learning. As such, in 2019 a short communication course was designed to run alongside the I’m a Scientist event.

This course comprised of resources, such as short videos and articles, and questions designed to help the scientists reflect on their learning from participation. They were also invited to participate in daily live text-based chats with a science communication expert to help them reflect on their learning, make connections and receive advice.

We evaluated the course using the responses scientists provided throughout the course to analyse their reflections and understanding. Data from 11 scientists, who gave their consent to have their responses analyzed and presented in this work, showed reflections around the themes of raising science capital, providing an inclusive environment for all students to ask questions and engage, and also an inclusive environment for the scientists participating too.

Scientists felt that the I’m a Scientist format worked to help the students lead the conversation to be about what interests them, and also to see the scientists as humans with lives and interests outside of science. This linked nicely to resources about science capital, as linking science to your interests or seeing scientists as sharing your interests can help students see that science could be for them (Archer et al., 2015):

“I like that we are not expected to tell the students about science and being scientists – sometimes it could seem like we are talking at them rather than them being able to find out what they really want to know. In this case, they are asking what they want to know, which probably isn’t what I would have talked to them about if I were to lead the conversation. That has been really eye-opening! “

“Often, in other outreach activities I have done previously, they would still emphasise your role as scientific expert, but not as human being with interests, hobbies, doubts and dreams.”

Scientists felt that the text-based, anonymous format worked to create an equal playing field between the scientists and students, and also among students, giving them the ability to all have their questions answered and preventing barriers for students who may be shy or anxious about asking something:

“Loud students don’t dominate our attention, and quieter, shier students can get their question across as equally as anyone else. Also, with anonymised names in the live chat, I don’t spot patterns of the same people talking to me all the time –  the pseudonyms aren’t memorable.”

“I think the text-only format helps in various ways. From the student perspective, it means that participants who might be shy or anxious about speaking in public have an opportunity to ask a question without having to actually vocalise. Students can prepare in advance exactly what they want to write, and the anonymous nature of the interactions frees students to ask anything they like without fear of embarrassing themselves. It also gives students a chance to digest the scientists’ answers at their own pace, and go back over things if they want to. From my perspective, it means that all the questions “look the same”: I won’t end up devoting all my attention to the loudest or most persistent voices in the room.”

There was also evidence that the text-only format made the chats feel more inclusive for the scientists too:

“I think the anonymity of the live chats helps immensely. It allows students to ask whatever they’d like, be it science or not, whilst removing the fear of asking a silly question in front of their classmates or even to you directly. I think being behind a screen/giving text answers works well for the scientists too! Just having a profile photo and not video chat removes a lot of visual biases – I’d be rich if I had a pound for every time someone has told me I don’t ‘look’ like a scientist! But with just the profiles, you ARE a scientist, and everyone was asked questions equally.”

By Dr Hannah Little, Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at UWE Bristol.

References:

Archer, L., Dawson, E., DeWitt, J., Seakins, A., & Wong, B. (2015). “Science capital”: A conceptual, methodological, and empirical argument for extending bourdieusian notions of capital beyond the arts. Journal of research in science teaching52(7), 922-948.

Meet Me in Another STEM Career

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In science communication, we often talk about science capital: the concept of feeling like science is “for me” as a result of sum of all the experiences and resources we’ve encountered that build up an interest in science. Everything from having parents in science, being taken to science-related events and having just one excellent teacher can change our lives to one where we pursue a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths).

It’s sometimes difficult to work out exactly what might have pushed us into ambitions within science as a child, especially as we don’t know what we would have ended up doing if it wasn’t for that one teacher we had, or we had been ill the day the school trip went to the science centre. But what if we did have the opportunity to live our lives over and over again? We’d be able to work out exactly what it is that leads to the career paths we take. This is exactly what happens in Catriona Silvey’s “Meet Me in Another Life”, a soft sci-fi novel coming out on 8th July 2021. The novel follows two protagonists, Thora and Santi, who share the same preoccupation with science, the stars, and astronomy. They live their lives over and over, with each chapter painting them in a different relationship (e.g. friends, parent/child, teacher/student, colleagues, lovers, doctor/patient, etc.). In each life, they’re the same people, but due to different circumstances and relationships they don’t always end up following the same careers. Their careers are usually science-related, but not always, and it’s interesting to think about where they end up in their lives through the lens of science capital.

Catriona Silvey

I recently interviewed for Catriona Silvey for The Cosmic Shed and asked her about science capital. In her answer she lays down barriers resulting from internal, personal struggles, interpersonal relationships, and structural barriers in our society. She said: “I realised that I’d written book about these two very driven, very passionate people who mostly repeatedly fail to achieve their dreams.”

“Barriers can be very different for different people depending on their circumstances. Thora’s problem, especially towards the beginning of the book, is that she feels like she has too many choices. Which is quite a privileged position to be in, but it means she sort of ends up sabotaging herself, because quite often she won’t pick the thing she really wants to do because, fundamentally, she’s scared she’ll fail at it, and there’s nothing worse than failing at the thing you really, really want to do. So that’s very much a personal, internal barrier.”

“Another barrier for her is her parents,” Silvey goes on, “her parents have a very fixed idea of the person she is and what she should focus on, and it’s the humanities. And that, in some of her lives, really strongly influences her.”

“Santi’s problem is kind of the opposite of Thora’s problem in that he has a lack of opportunities. He’s a man and he’s straight, but on every other access he has less privilege than Thora has. His parents are working class, whereas hers are professors. He is not a native English speaker, whereas she is. Thora’s family are usually immigrants by choice, whereas Santi’s family are immigrants through economic necessity. For all these reasons, he often doesn’t have the opportunities he wishes he would have, and so his barriers are a lot more structural.”

While investigating what leads us into our careers certainly isn’t the central point of the book (the most pressing theme is really the need to find out why the protagonists are stuck in a time loop), I think for those working in science communication, Meet Me in Another Life offers an interesting meditation on science capital, giving us an experiment we can’t do in real life and wrapping it up in a vivid, gripping, beautifully-written novel.

You can listen to the podcast here:

Dr Hannah Little, Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at UWE Bristol.

Creating a short science based multilingual film for a European audience

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I recently had the opportunity to produce a documentary about the concerning shortage of early career pollinator taxonomists in Europe. The film was made to complement a Science for Environment Policy (SfEP) report that I co-authored, about the  important role of pollinators in the survival of the global ecosystem, and highlighting the vital role of monitoring them, to understand the causes of their declining numbers1. As a former TV documentary producer, and now science communicator, it is always enjoyable to revisit my filmmaking skills. But, for anyone contemplating making a film – whether it’s the first — or the twentieth they have made — it is always a little daunting and exciting to figure out where to start, and who will be your charismatic interviewees that compel your viewers to watch the film to the end?

Focus

The first task, after deciding on the outline of content for the pollinators report, was to come up with a list of topics for our client that the film could focus on. Our client, the European Commission’s Environment Directorate-General, chose the decline in taxonomy — the classification of species — as a scientific discipline for the narrative focus of the film. Experts in this discipline are vital in monitoring pollinator populations in different habitats over time, to record the causes and effects of pollinator decline. This topic encompassed both professional and citizen science monitoring projects, as both are needed to understand the immense diversity of pollinators present in Europe, whilst collecting robust data over space and time to inform pollinator conservation measures.

On a budget

Budget constraints, coupled with a request from our client to feature scientists from across Europe set the parameters for the content of the film. Working within these constraints required careful consideration of how the film could be made — assessing content versus cost for each of the potential shoots we were planning.

For example, changing the logistics of a particular shoot, by asking an expert to travel to a more convenient location, saved a great deal of time and money. It is all too easy to become fixed on an approach when setting up a film, but sometimes, out of necessity and with flexibility, creative solutions can be found which end up working better.

To free up some additional budget I managed to negotiate a discounted rate with our camera hire company and due to the environmental nature of the films they part sponsored us to complete the project. Further savings were made when instead of hiring a sound operator to work alongside me on camera, I gave my colleague Michelle, a science writer on the report, on-the-job training on how to swing a boom. Michelle’s lesson, learned from one of our outdoor shoots, is to always wear long trousers when filming outdoors in a field to avoid biting insects! Similarly, I regretted my lack of hat on that shoot, as there was little shade. Preparation is key — always look at the weather forecast beforehand (and out of the window on the day) and bring all that you may need, including lots of water whatever the weather.

Painted Lady butterfly in a specimen pot for identification, before release, by a Citizen Science Volunteer of the CBMS.

Interviewees

Securing the right interviewees for our film meant finding people who could tell the story of pollinator monitoring in Europe, covering both citizen science involvement and the need for professional career taxonomists. A longlist of potential experts had been recommended to us by our client, and this made the process somewhat quicker. However, we still needed to speak to these individuals and ascertain what they had to say on the topic, and how comfortable they might be at articulating their viewpoints for a non-specialist audience.

Adam Vanbergen being interviewed for the documentary on a balcony at the headquarters of the Institute National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA) in Paris.

We were pleased to secure interviews with our scientific advisor for the written report, Adam Vanbergen, Director of Research, Agroecology, for the Institute National de la Recherche Agronomique, in Paris. In addition, we spoke to a pollinator expert based just outside Barcelona in Spain — Constanti Stefanescu, who manages a long-running citizen science butterfly monitoring programme. Constanti also helped us with another of the sequences on our wish list, filming a group of citizen scientists conducting a butterfly monitoring transect (a fixed-route walk on which butterflies are recorded). On this shoot we interviewed some of the dedicated citizen science volunteers, who, for a number of years, had been regularly monitoring butterfly populations near their homes across Spain. Their voices spoke of the joy of conducting butterfly transects, walking in the natural environment and contributing to a long-term scientific project.

The last two contributors we needed to secure for our film, were a late stage career bee taxonomist, and a new entrant scientist considering taxonomy.  I focused my research on locating a female bee expert, to give balance to the film as both the other experts were male. These enquiries led me to Professor Concepción Ornosa Gallego, and her PhD student Daniel Romero in Madrid. I knew from my initial conversation with Concepción, that she was perfect for the film and keen to be involved — she preferred speaking in Spanish, so we recorded her interview in her native language, with Daniel kindly translating.

This was the first time I’d conducted an interview in this way, and it certainly made things a bit tougher in the edit. However, it worked well on location, and Concepción spoke eloquently about the current barriers discouraging young people viewing taxonomy as a good career choice, and how these might be overcome. She also showed us how difficult it can be to identify one species from another — when it comes to the thousands of bee species that exist, the anatomical differences can be tiny. This is in contrast to butterfly species, which are much easier to identify and lend themselves well to citizen science monitoring programmes.

We had a number of locations open to us at the University of Madrid — Concepción’s office, the ‘type’ collection of pollinators housed at the university and the botanical gardens. This gave us a range of filming options on the day, an important insurance for inclement weather when a recce trip prior to filming isn’t possible and there is only a limited time period for the shoot to take place.

Concepción Ornosa Gallego examines bee specimens in her laboratory in Madrid, for a scene in the documentary – explaining the very small anatomical differences between some bee species.

Daniel’s interview gave the viewer the perspective of an early career scientist, who is currently choosing which path to take. Pollinator taxonomy was an option; however, he explained that the lack of jobs in this area, and difficulty in getting publications in this discipline in publications (which aid career development) put him off this choice. This is an issue he believes should be addressed to encourage more young people to enter this discipline. With many late career taxonomists set to retire, without more career entrants, we could be left with a dearth of expertise in identifying and monitoring pollinators, which are vital for the health of our ecosystems.

Having a balance of experts, early career scientists and volunteer citizen scientists, gives the viewer a range of relatable voices. It is important to reflect the diversity of the viewing public within your film as much as possible.

Finishing touches

The interviews and actuality footage were secured, but the film still needed something to add visual interest and colour, which, when you are discussing pollinators, should be the critters themselves, pollinating in all their wondrous forms. The film was made with the available light and a standard camera, which is great for filming interviews in brightly lit rooms, or in a sunny garden or field, but not so good for filming small pollinators on the wing. Luckily, there is a plethora of amazing Creative Commons footage available on a number of websites, shot by members of the public or budding natural-history camera operators.  This footage added the movement, colour and beauty of the pollinators to the narrative voices of the interviewees.

Butterfly identification chart, and data collection sheet for a field survey by the CBMS.

The editing and post production process are as important as all other aspects of making a film. I edited this film, but benefitted in doing so from the input of other members of the SfEP team, as well as several of the client’s team. These varied opinions help produce a good product.  However, it is always good to remember the mantra of professional editors ‘that the client is always right’. This doesn’t mean that you cannot offer your perspective to them, but ultimately, they know their end aims and audience best.

The written facts that were chosen to appear over some parts of the film, were an important aspect of the finished product, as was the subtitling. The latter was the very last thing that was added, and it was rewarding to see the final subtitled product delivered to the client. The client and contributors were pleased with how the film conveyed the message about the import of monitoring of pollinators, and have distributed it amongst their networks, and at conferences.

The film highlighted the need for understanding and classifying pollinators whose enormous economic and social importance is crucial for raising awareness about the cascading effects that will ensue from their absence. However, it is worth noting that the current lack of evidence for some groups of pollinators should not delay the urgent work of putting in place solutions we know will help: creating and preserving bigger, higher-quality and better-connected habitat for pollinator species.

You can watch the film below:

Nicky Shale, Science Writer and Communicator


1This report was written for the European Commission’s Science for Environment Policy environmental information service, jointly run by the Science Communication Unit (SCU) at UWE Bristol and Ecorys, a European research company.

How open are we as science communicators?

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Photo credit: Marten Newhall, Unsplash

Words: Andy Ridgway

When I started teaching science writing after spending years as a journalist, I wanted to share my experience, my way of doing things, in the classroom. But I quickly struck upon a problem. What did I actually do? How did I find and research stories? How did I choose interviewees? I had been doing all of these things for so long (and often at speed) that the process I followed had become automatic – not the stuff of conscious thought. It took a fair bit of reflection to unravel the processes that had become so hardwired so I could try to explain them in the classroom.

When we are conducting research as science communicators, a lot of our decisions come down to who and what we trust. What sources can we rely on for fact and who can we rely on for opinion? In reality, faced with the pressures of time, as communicators we typically rely on a limited range of sources – the likes of peer reviewed papers, the scientists directly involved with the research (or at least someone in their field) and possibly the odd press release. But how many of us give conscious thought in our working day to what we trust and why? How often are we open to ideas, perspectives and knowledge that come from outside our usual circle of trust?

It’s questions such as these that are at the heart of the latest report from the European Commission-funded RETHINK project. This report synthesised research we had already done to consider the ‘openness’ and ‘reflexivity’ of science communicators and also of citizens; those who read, watch or listen to what we create. How open are we to a wide range of information, ideas and perspectives? And how reflexive are we, consciously thinking about where we search for information, how that influences the information we find and then how choices we make influence what we write or create?

A guiding principle of RETHINK is that openness and reflexivity on the part of communicators, citizens, scientists and everyone else for that matter are a good thing – helping to create a more effective exchange of ideas and knowledge. On their own, all of these principles sound straightforward. Source information you can trust. Be open. Be reflexive. It’s just that when you put all those ideas together, things start to get complicated.

A survey of the working practices of science communicators we conducted earlier in RETHINK shows that academic journals, university press releases and personal contacts are consulted widely during research. After all, these are sources we can trust for the most part. But if this is what we always do as communicators, often without conscious thought (or reflexivity) it limits the opportunities for readers, viewers and listeners to be exposed to different information and perspectives.

So it is in the implementation of these principles that things get challenging. How prepared are we as communicators to step outside our research comfort zone and take information from sources, from people, we wouldn’t usually consult? When would we want to do this? Are there circumstances when it’s more appropriate than others? After all, openness on the part of science communicators doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll simply report information and opinions from anyone. There’s a widely circulated quote (that’s been attributed to several people) that may apply here: “Let us keep our minds open…but don’t keep your minds so open that your brains fall out!”

Our new RETHINK report also explores how open and reflexive citizens are when they are interpreting information about science. Specifically, it looked at their ‘sensemaking practices’ in relation to coronavirus – sensemaking being the process by which we develop an understanding of something complex. It showed that there is some evidence of openness, with people consulting a range of newspapers and websites to help them triangulate information and understand what’s happening. But in many instances, citizens’ sensemaking practices are understandably heavily influenced by their context – they speak with friends, family, find information from online social media groups they’re part of and have a limited range of online sources they trust. They are also unlikely to shift from pre-existing beliefs during this sensemaking process. In other words, some sensemaking is not particularly open, or particularly reflexive for that matter.

So what we can do about all this? How can we as science communicators become open and reflexive in what we do in a way that’s compatible with the need to source trustworthy information? And is there anything we can do to encourage others, those who watch, listen or read what we create, to be open and reflexive too? Let’s have an (open and reflexive) conversation about this – tweet us at @SciCommsUWE @RETHINKscicomm with your thoughts and ideas.

Kitchen Cultures: cultivating cross-cultural conversations towards inclusive climate futures

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Introduction

These are some of the questions that have emerged through Kitchen Cultures, a project that has been developed with the Eden Project’s Invisible World exhibition during lockdown as part of a remote residency. In collaboration with six migrant women+ of colour (all from formerly European-colonised nations) and no-waste chef Fatima Tarkleman (herself a first generation migrant of mixed Nigerian-Ugandan-Pakistani heritage), we created a process to gather existing recipes that referenced the diverse cultures, knowledge and experiences of our participants, and to develop new recipes that that could be used to reduce food waste in the home.

By creating new collaborative recipes that utilised preservation techniques to keep or extend the life of locally grown/available ingredients, this project seeks to:

  • Discover existing and create new recipes to address food waste;
  • Create cultural encounters that tell us something about food, migration and colonialism;
  • Include women who are often excluded from the conversations about sustainability;
  • Learn about different ways of thinking about sustainability from different cultures;
  • Create a relationship with the land in which we live now in order to take responsibility for its future.

Food waste in the UK

In the UK we waste over 70% of food waste post-farm gate in the home (6.6mT annually), although many households have adopted behaviours that reduced this during the pandemic. At the same time, COVID-19 has exposed major inequalities in the UK food system, and left millions living in food insecurity. However, it is important to note that the vast majority of food waste happens at the industrial scale due to exploitative and extractive agricultural systems.

As such this project does not intend to use these issues in order to justify the sticking plaster of reducing food waste in the home as an answer to systemic food inequality. It is possible to cheaply preserve foods at home if you have time, money, resources and knowledge to do so, and some of the outcomes from the project will enable you to do so more effectively. However, in order to properly address food poverty, we need agricultural and hospitality policy that supports a resilient food system, and the political will to create a more just and equitable society.

As a collective, what we feel is important is to think about ourselves and our food systems as implicated within an ecological system that is currently facing a major crisis. The primary aim of this project is to pluralise conversations about climate change and sustainability by drawing from the knowledge, experience and values of diverse cultural imaginaries. The practice developed thus sought to acknowledge and honour the ways in which ecological knowledge is held and communicated in families and communities through our food traditions, and to learn from them in order that we may find new ways to live ethically in a world that we share with multiple species.

Sustainability and colonialism

Industrial agriculture is one of the biggest drivers of climate change, contributing to emissions, fossil fuel extraction and deforestation. Global agricultural systems destroy biodiversity and create dependencies on industries such as GMO seeds and livestock, fertiliser and machinery which has created billions in farming debt. In the exchange value system, where fossil fuels were conceived as a direct replacement for slave labour on the plantation and in the factory, the bodies of black and brown people and land continue to be seen as cheap resources to be extracted for profit. Climate change as we currently understand it is implicitly constructed through the logics of colonialism, and explicitly maintained through the infrastructures of racial capitalism.

People in the global south are more likely to be living the direct effects of climate change (flooding, drought, biodiversity loss, crop failure), despite contributing the least emissions. One of the primary threats to human life due to climate change is food insecurity, yet the 10 most food-insecure countries in the world generate just 0.08% of total global CO2. The 50 least developed nations of the world have contributed only 1% of global greenhouse emissions in total. The Global North is responsible for 92% of carbon emissions, yet instead of addressing this debt, climate change campaigners Europe and the US often frame the responsibility for the ecological as shared by all humans equally, and advocate for deeply racist ideas such as population and immigration control.

All of us involved in Kitchen Cultures are from countries that are living the legacy of colonisation in terms of the resources, people and land that have been extracted, and which formed the basis of the wealth that in the UK. Colonisation was an ideological project that reshaped the bodies, minds and lands of colonised people, and its legacy of globalised capital and cheap industrial labour is one of the main drivers of climate change today. The legacy of colonisation on the wealth, land and other resources in our countries of origin meant many migrant families moved to the UK to provide better opportunities for their children; we come from cultures that think intergenerationally, and as a result we tend to waste as little as possible (food or otherwise). 

We know that there’s knowledge in diaspora communities that isn’t always visible to outsiders; our recipes tell the stories of who we are, of where we are from, where we have been, and where we live now; and the climates, resources and species we’ve encountered along the way. We wanted to create a space in which our participants could tell their stories, in their own words, or through their own practice(s) in a space in which they are the experts, their kitchens.

Over six weeks we worked remotely with our collaborators to develop recipes, and to tell stories, through poetry and through food. By working with diverse food preservation knowledge in partnership with holders of that knowledge from diaspora communities in the UK to develop recipes and processes, we wanted to invite ways of thinking sustainability and ecology from the perspective of different cultures (human, ecological, microbial). Starting as a simple recipe development exercise, it evolved into a community storytelling and recipe sharing project that, as a result of COVID-19, has predominantly run remotely on Zoom, Whatsapp, Instagram, and via discussions over the phone.

We were extremely lucky in this unprecedented time to get some funding from Eden Project to do this work, so we were able to facilitate access to the project through bursaries, and to cover all associated costs, including for home filming equipment. The recipes and stories that are the outcome from this stage will become a series of documents and workshops which will then be shared with communities around the UK via the Eden Project’s community outreach program. As they are shared, we expect that these recipes will evolve/adapt/respond to their context, and participant stories and recipes will be enriched through this network of cross-cultural sharing across the UK. 

COVID-19 and connecting to others

We are living through extraordinary times; however, this moment offered us an opportunity: to address social isolation in marginalised communities; to think about and act differently towards nature; to learn from and value different ways of knowing the world; and to do all of this in solidarity with each other. By engaging communities (human and other) traditionally left out of debates about the future of science, technology and ecology, we might begin to address some of the systemic (racial, gendered, economic) inequalities in our society that have been highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Through our experience of the collective grief, confusion and trauma, we felt that it was important to create connections between communities and people who might be experiencing isolation and disconnection. After the murder of George Floyd by police in the US, and the resulting wave of protests, there was also an increased awareness about the ongoing legacy of colonialism in the form of systemic and structural racism experienced by migrants daily. It was in this moment that it felt more important than ever to create a space in which PoC/BAME/global majority women+ could talk about their experiences of migration, colonialism and race in a way that was generative, healing and respectful.

Food is one of the ways in which we care for each other in our communities, and many of us come from cultural and cosmological traditions that consider nature (land, animals, rivers, trees) as part of these communities. By working collaboratively with each other, and by drawing attention to the organisms (bacteria, yeasts) in our environment and in/on our bodies who we also collaborate with through food preservation, I wanted to create conversations about what it means to care for each other when resources and opportunities globally are scarce for all species.

We’ve just completed the first stage of research with our participants, but the work is currently still in progress. We will be running the second stage of workshops with the Eden Project later in the year, with a view to developing a recipe kit that they can share as part of the Big Lunch next year. This is the first blog post introducing the project; in the future I hope to share some recipes and poetry that we are collecting from our participants, and to talk a bit more about the process we developed to conduct the research. We are also producing a short film, which will be available to watch on the Eden Project Invisible Worlds’ site as of December.

About

Kaajal Modi is an artist/designer and practice-based PhD Candidate at UWE Bristol, supervised by Teresa Dillon from the Digital Cultures Research Centre, and Emma Weitkamp from the Science Communication Unit. She is interested in fermentation as a metaphoric and material practice to create cross-cultural conversations about climate, migration and justice. Kitchen Cultures is a project developed in collaboration with the Eden Project and no-waste chef Fatima Tarkleman.

You can follow the outcomes on our Instagram: www.instagram.com/our_kitchen_cultures

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