Living in cities impacts on our health and the health of the planet. If you were able to develop your city to prioritise health, what would you change first?
The SCU team have just launched Shape Our City, a creative, online consultation that allows you to step into the shoes of a city decision maker, weigh up the evidence and have your say on the health of our city. Working within a realistically limited budget, you will have to make trade-offs between types of investment and the scale at which you invest. Do you think it’s more urgent to improve the quality of buildings, to make roads safer, to increase the number of cycle paths or amount of green space, or to improve access to healthy food?
Shape Our City is part of a project encouraging citizens to take a more active role in urban decision-making concerning their health – and the health of future city residents. Luke Jerram’s Inhale diesel soot particle sculpture, 3 million times larger than the real size of a diesel soot particle and designed to start conversations about the invisible health risks of air pollution, is another part of the project, and, in Bristol, Shape Our City will be gathering citizen preferences until November 2018.
What you choose to prioritise will be used to inform city developers and future research on designing cities for people and planetary health: so make sure you invest wisely!
Sophie Laggan, Project Coordinator of Our City, Our Health in SCU says: “We have gathered the latest evidence on the links between the built environment and our health and also quantified the health costs and savings from how cities are developed. Our consultation reveals these savings so, for the first time, we can make visible the positive benefits to be gained from prioritising our health in urban decision-making – and find out what is most important to you. It’s all quite exciting!”
May and June saw staff and students from the Science Communication Unit prepare for the Bristol and Bath Festival of Nature, run by the Bristol Natural History Consortium, of which UWE Bristol is a consortium member. For many years now, research and teaching from the Department of Applied Sciences and the Science Communication Unit have been an important part of UWE’s contribution to the Festival, alongside contributions from a variety of research projects from across the university. This year, the Department of Applied Sciences showcased research by Stephanie Sargeant and team (eDNA and eel conservation), Ruth Morse and team (genetics research on chemotherapy), and by Saliha Saad and team (oral microbiology research on oral malodour), with activities that were developed by MSc Science Communication students. An EU funded project on air pollution, ClairCity, also showcased work that had been produced by a Postgraduate Certificate student as part of the Science in Public Spacesmodule.
The activities on eDNA and genetics were developed by students of the MSc in Science communication Jake Campton and Sophie Smith and supported by postgraduate students as part of the public engagement element of their portfolio. The activity on oral malodour was supported by CRIB through the BoxEd project, led by Debbie Lewis. MSc in Science Communication student Jennie French ran the final vote of a photography competition on Nature in and around Bristol and Bath, entirely organised from her own initiative. Science Communication Unit staff from the Faculty of Health and Applied Sciences ran a stall for the Our City Our Health project, which included a board game which engaged people in weighing up the costs to health of our built environment, and a 3-metre sculpture of a diesel soot particle, created by local artist Luke Jerram entitled Inhale, that featured prominently outside UWE’s tent and attracted significant attention from visitors and press. Science Communication Unit staff from the Faculty of Engineering and Technology showcased the ClairCity project, which communicated about citizen-led air pollution reduction, and also allowed people to view real diesel soot particles through microscopes – thee million times smaller than the Our City Our Health sculpture outside.
Our presence at the Festival reached well beyond the space of the UWE tent. Many Science Communication MSc students of the current cohort were helping as volunteers for the Festival as a whole, or representing their workplace in the corresponding tents. Films made by many of the MSc students were being shown several times a day on the Big Screen presiding over Millennium Square, and Dr Hannah Little was helping at the stall of the British Science Association.
Good weather, a festive atmosphere and the enthusiasm and hard work of all involved made the event a success, with more than 15000 visitors, most of which (it felt like all of them, really) engaged with the activities of UWE Bristol’s tent. It will not be long before preparations for the 2019 edition of the Festival begin, providing a new opportunity for HAS to celebrate its commitment to research, teaching and public engagement at this fantastic event.
The Christmas Lectures are an internationally known landmark of the Science Communication landscape, and we refer to it in our teaching as one of the earliest examples of scientists engaging with the public with institutional backing. Physicist Michael Faraday initiated this series that has run at the Royal Institution of Great Britain (RI) since 1825, without interruption except World War II. Well known science communicators like David Attenborough and Carl Sagan are among more recent speakers.
It therefore came as a great opportunity to tender for the RI’s call for an evaluation project, and an honour to be selected to deliver it. A team formed by Margarida Sardo, Laura Fogg-Rogers, Hannah Little and Erik Stengler, supported by the expertise in the wider SCU, has undertaken a close collaboration with the Royal Institution to explore strengths and opportunities for improvement of what has now become a much wider project than the actual lectures delivered at the RI headquarters around Christmas each year and broadcast for over 50 years, mainly by the BBC. The Christmas Lectures has grown into a project that also includes continued provision of materials and activities for schools, public events such as talks at the Big Bang Fair and a traveling show that reaches out beyond the UK, all of which is also brought into the dimension of social media via different platforms, including YouTube, where the recordings of the Christmas Lectures are actually made available to be enjoyed at any time.
The evaluation by the SCU team will cover all these dimensions of the project and also explore what would attract people who do not yet engage with the Christmas Lectures in one way or another. It will be a great experience to be able to be part of and contribute to the continued success of the Christmas Lectures in these years leading to their 200th anniversary.
If you have any views and suggestions about the Christmas Lectures, do not hesitate to contact us so we can include them in this exciting evaluation!
Only 11% of engineers in the UK are women. Is this enough?
No, it’s really not – we have an engineering skills shortage as it is, and the low proportion of women in the workforce means that a whole pool of talent is going untapped. Girls need to be able to see engineering as for them, connect with it as career and have access to positive female role models. And in turn, women need to feel supported to make a difference in the workplace once they get there, so that they not only go into, but stay in engineering roles.
So what can we do about that, and how can we bring people together? Here at the Science Communication Unit at UWE Bristol, we’re launching ‘Women Like Me’; a project which aims to open doors to girls and build resilience for women in engineering. I will be running the project with Laura Fogg Rogers over the next year; we both have lots of experience of delivering outreach and engagement projects and are passionate about making Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths accessible to everyone, at all stages.
Supporting women and girls in engineering
Women Like Me is a peer mentoring and outreach project aimed at boosting female representation in engineering. So what does that actually mean?
The project will pair senior women engineers with junior women engineers to give them mentoring support as they start out in their engineering careers. In turn, junior women will undertake engineering education outreach in schools and at public events in the Bristol and Bath area. Engineering is a creative, socially conscious, and collaborative discipline, and this project aims to support girls and women to make a difference in society.
Who can take part?
Mid-career and early career female engineers working in the Bristol and Bath area can get involved in the project. Senior women engineers are those who are more than five years post-graduation from their first degree. Junior women engineers are those with less than five years of experience since entering the engineering profession, and can include apprentices, trainees, postgraduate students and postdoctoral researchers.
Undergraduates aren’t eligible to take part; whilst they are fantastic role models, UWE already provides public engagement training for undergraduate engineering students through the Engineering and Society module.
What will it involve?
We will offer networking opportunities to all participants at the start (October 2018) and end (April 2019) of the project. Senior engineers will receive training in mentoring and meet with their junior engineer mentee at least twice during the project.
Junior engineers will receive mentoring support from senior engineers and training in public engagement. They will then undertake at least three engineering outreach activities in local schools and at local public events. Activities and coordination of events is provided and supported by UWE; participation is voluntary and we’ll cover travel expenses.
Women Like Me is based in the Science Communication Unit at the University of the West of England, Bristol (UWE), supported by the WISE Bristol Hub and STEM Ambassador Hub West England and funded by a Royal Academy of Engineering Ingenious grant. The project is organised by Dr Laura Hobbs and was initiated by Laura Fogg-Rogers. By matching senior and junior female engineers and supporting junior engineers to connect with the children and young people as the engineers of tomorrow, the project will lead to impact both in the workplace today, and for the future of the engineering profession.
This time last year during our MSc Science Communication at UWE Bristol, we were buried under a mountain of coursework deadlines, research proposals and that creeping question of ‘what next’? We never thought that so soon after that joyous dissertation hand-in day we would be off on a sci-comm adventure to Hong Kong, to make a documentary and inspire 10,000 local school children to study science!
We teamed up with Anturus Education – a Welsh organisation that uses expedition, media and adventure to inspire kids to learn about the natural world. Our mission was to use film and public speaking to demonstrate that Hong Kong is far more than just an urban hotspot – it is in fact, a thriving wildlife hotspot with many nature-filled surprises!
Science communication is all about getting the public involved in scientific concepts and research findings — engaging them to take notice of the things that matter and spark curiosity.
Whilst we were there, we quickly became aware of the value of being creative in how we communicate science. Here are our thoughts on how filmmaking and different styles of presenting can reap meaningful rewards among your target audience.
Science Communication through filmmaking – Tay Aziz
As well as delivering 30 school shows across Hong Kong, the Anturus team also filmed and produced a fifteen-minute documentary and a few shorter one-minute clips for YouTube. These videos were disseminated to schools and the public through the Anturus website and provided useful resources that teachers could access after the team had left, helping the team achieve a legacy once the project was complete.
As a science communicator, film and video is an incredibly useful tool – it can provide a sense of escapism, a new way to visualise information with animations, or an immersive experience in interactive 3D. Film can provide a platform for scientists to share their work and promote themselves as experts in a field, and it also has the potential to reach vast audiences and can impact an audience’s emotions as well as their knowledge on a topic. I first became interested in using film to communicate science whilst taking part in the Science on Air and on Screen module, as part of the MSc in Science Communication; since then I’ve created documentaries on plastic pollution, drought research and most recently, filmed presenter-pieces in Hong Kong.
Storytelling is an integral part of film and science communication films are no different. How we perceive the world is heavily influenced by forms of entertainment media, such as sci-fi novels, fictional films and documentaries. These depictions of science encompass more than just facts, but they include other elements of science such as its methods and allow non-scientists to ‘see’ where science happens, who does it, and how it works. When choosing a problem or focus for a film, it makes sense to consider the issues and themes and anchor those ideas in contextual evidence to create emotional appeal and build interesting discourse. World-class natural history documentaries, such as Blue Planet II, have gathered popularity as they follow key principles to engage interest in their audience.
‘If something is unusual it will be interesting. Where it comes to be dangerous is when you introduce an element of it being strange without relating it to the central idea of the topic you are talking about without a solid theoretical structure present.’
Sir David Attenborough
Choosing a subject which an audience can relate to (living creatures), they showcase surprising beauty and hidden stories in the real world, and they have substance to reinforce that initial generic interest.
Top Tips from Tay for getting into Science Communication filmmaking:
Don’t underestimate the value of your academic qualifications. Science production companies are always looking for people who are highly qualified in an academic area and are good writers.
You don’t need to go to film school. A qualification like the MSc can teach you most of the basics, and there are millions of excellent (and free) tutorials on YouTube. Try searching ‘documentary filmmaking’.
Practice makes perfect. Make your own stuff, even if it’s a small project about something down the road from where you live.
All the gear…no idea. Don’t spend tonnes of money on expensive equipment that you don’t need. Learn with what you have first – Sophie created a 22-part vlog series using just her iPhone!
Keep it simple. Make sure you don’t cram huge amounts of information into a film – there should be a main idea or two, with a sequence of ideas to hold the viewer’s attention and lead them to the end.
Science Communication through Presenting – Sophie Pavelle
Science can be communicated in many different ways, but I have enjoyed communicating my adventures in the natural world using contemporary media and online platforms. Since my rather quirky trek around Cornwall for my MSc project, I’ve been surprised with how much I have enjoyed presenting as a route into science communication – especially as I’m not the most confident of people! By talking through a topic out loud – I find that I not only offer information to others, but I have learnt so much through the process of film production and presentation. The research that goes into a script, the hours spent modifying it before delivery, help you to think about an environment, a process, a species of wildlife, much more creatively. Your ultimate goal is to leave the audience with more knowledge of a subject or an enlightened view on an issue than before – and so by dissecting information and identifying the key points to present, in a way that is interesting and understandable, well, you end up learning a huge amount!
Pieces to camera
Our presenting experience during Hong Kong was two-fold: pieces to camera and live presentation across 30 schools – both completely different methods of communication and new experiences for me! The documentary sought to uncover the wilder parts of the city and reveal the complex relationship the locals have with its wildlife. My job was to research what wildlife was in store for us during our visit. Learning about the natural history of Chinese white dolphins, black kites, Rhesus and Long-tailed macaques, was a refreshing change from the garden birds and local kittiwake colony back home! Being part of a small, inter-dependent production crew was also a valuable opportunity; making a welcome change from being a one-woman filming team as I am for my online content. Learning from our trip leader Huw James about shot composition, different presenting angles and even things such as stance, breathing techniques, voice cadences and body language; offered invaluable on-location hints and tips as to how to boost your chances of gaining and maintaining the attention of your audience. If there’s one thing I remember from the MSc Science Communication, it’s that knowing your audience is EVERYTHING.
Live Science Shows
Following the first few days of filming in some impressive national parks such as Sai KunGreatand secondary schools. Here was our chance to now personally interact with our audience, to initiate that all-important dialogue that is integral to effective science communication. Our tour formed part of the Hong Kong Science Festival, coinciding with Science Week back in the UK. Organised by the Croucher Foundation which aims to promote science communication and teaching over Hong Kong, we had quite the schedule! 10 days. 30 different schools. 30 shows. Travelling in-between. I arrived having never done a live science show before – it was safe to say my last stage performance may well have been Villager Number 5 in the school nativity!! Many of the schools required translation into Cantonese – adding an extra hurdle to the learning curve.
Being a team of three co-presenters worked well; while two presenters steered the show, the other became the stage hand. It also meant that I could spend the first few shows nursing a lost voice and learning from Huw and Tay, both of whom are far more experienced with delivering science content on stage. The shows were largely based around ‘Our Wild World’, covering everything from deep-sea adaptations of the blobfish, how to be more ‘plastic-smart’, to exploring how volcanoes and glaciers interact. The Hong Kong students were a dream to present to – polite, attentive and practically bursting with enthusiasm to volunteer for on-stage activities and ask questions; it was an opportunity I relished as someone so fresh from education myself, to interact with such eager students and try and inspire them to further their curiosity in science and the natural world.
It was wonderful to see the children’s reactions to seeing photos and film of awesome nature – my favourite being their reaction to seeing clips from our documentary of the azure waters of the Geopark and its dramatic coastline, as many of them were not aware of its proximity to their home. We soon realised the apparent disconnect Hong Kong has with its natural land, particularly during one bizarre moment with a teacher, who was asking us for recommendations on which national park to visit!
Top Tips from Sophie for getting going with Presenting
Just go for it. Nothing is harder but more important than just getting over those first few hurdles of getting your content out there. Experiment with different styles – but just practise, practise, practise. Take every opportunity you can to speak publicly, grow in confidence and learn your style.
Do your research. As a science communicator its so important to do your research and be sure you’re conveying the correct facts to your audience. Keep your facts accurate – but keep them snappy and interesting.
Be creative. This industry is competitive. Try to think of stories or angles to present that are different and innovative – give your audience something remember and your cameraman/woman something fun to film.
Network. The MSc Science Communication has been amazing for meeting likeminded individuals who are passionate about the same ultimate goal. If you want to try out presenting, see if you can find someone who wants to practise their filming and plan some fun filming trips together.
Overall, as newbies into the science communication world, Hong Kong offered a vibrant, challenging and fascinating experience to develop technique and learn an invaluable amount about the various elements that form a documentary and a science show.
Tay Aziz is a passionate science communicator, physiologist and filmmaker. She is currently working as a researcher for the BBC’s Natural History Unit and is the curator of STEMinist, an online community to empower women and girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths.
Sophie is an adventurous zoologist with a passion for using expedition to learn about the natural world. Sophie regularly explores the UK and overseas, sharing fun stories about wildlife and conservation through social media, writing, public speaking and workshops.
Sophie’s next project will involve working alongside The Wildlife Trust’s, making some online content for their 30 Days Wild Campaign in June. She’ll also be running digital content workshops for the City Nature Challenge in Bristol and speaking at the Festival of Nature.
With a total of six workshops across the country, the events were held at key mining locations across the South West (Tavistock and Redruth), the Pennines (Matlock Bath and Reeth) and Wales (Capel Bangor and Barmouth). At each paired location one workshop was held on a Wednesday evening and the other over a Thursday lunchtime – we wanted to ensure that the workshops were attended by a range of people, rather than those with a specific interest in mining heritage.
The Q method was used to examine the preferences of those living in areas of metal mining in England and Wales. This method was selected as it is suitable for contentious issues where there is no consensus of opinion and is effective at ensuring participants prioritise different outcomes. For example, instead of reporting that everything is ‘very important’, the Q Method allows participants to ‘sort’ a series of statements based on the degree to which the statement represents their perspective on a subject: the Q sort.
Evaluation on the chosen method was carried out and the data is currently being analysed. Preliminary results show this is a promising method of in-depth engagement. The Q sort was perceived by the participants as a time-consuming and demanding process but also interesting, thought provoking and challenging (in a good way!). Definitely a method to consider in a public engagement context, especially when looking for in-depth thoughts and views on certain issues.
We are now busy analyzing both the Q Method results and the full data from the evaluation and look forward to sharing the results in the near future.
I am not a scientist. There, I said it. But I am a science communicator.
A couple of decades ago, someone like me, with an airy fairy English literature degree, wouldn’t have found themselves working with university scientists. But these days, more and more people like me – science cheerleaders but not necessarily actual scientists – are helping communicate research in the real world.
Science is definitely changing – even in the last five years since I’ve been working closely with researchers. The Research and Excellence Framework (REF) and funding bodies now demand impact that’s way beyond papers, posters and citations. In this climate, enrolling on UWE’s Postgraduate Certificate in Practical Science Communication made total sense to me.
The fact such a qualification even exists signals that the discipline of science communication is definitely A Thing, and should be taken seriously. Researchers are an increasingly diverse bunch: the days of the don in his (or sometimes her) ivory tower are (mostly) a thing of the past. Scientists are open to communicating their findings with a wider audience beyond other academics – and we science communicators have a vital part to play in helping them do this well. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about researchers in the last few years, it’s that they respect academic qualifications.
Health is my area of expertise, where it’s vital that we get messages from research right. If a physicist discovers something new about the origins of the universe and it gets misreported, that’s frustrating but it’s not exactly life-threatening. But health stories are bread and butter for certain sections of the mainstream media, and scientific nuance can be sacrificed on the altar of clickbait headlines. Obviously I’m not going to change that culture singlehandedly, but if I can help research teams produce accurate copy that’s still accessible and engaging to the person in the street that’s a good start.
For me, there’s also a political drive at work. In the current climate of fake news and the devaluing ‘experts’, helping more people understand science is a small but valuable contribution to a better, more informed society.
And there are also personal gains. I wanted to hone my skills and formalise the knowledge I’ve accumulated from my work. It’s been fascinating to discover that things I do intuitively, like framing a story, have whole bodies of theory behind them. In fact, sometimes this new knowledge has brought a sort of paralysis when writing something that I would normally knock out quickly in my day job. It’s certainly made me take stock and adopt a more analytical approach to what I do at work, though pressures still demand the odd bit of knocking stuff out.
I spend a lot of time training and supporting other people to be good communicators, so the course has enhanced my confidence in doing this. It’s reinforced the fact that I do already know a lot about effective science communication, and rounded the rough edges off things I’ve picked up informally over the years.
It’s well known that lifelong learning is an essential element of personal wellbeing. This course has invigorated me, helping me see new perspectives, meet new people and work on out of the ordinary projects. I’ve created a magazine with a group of people I didn’t know six months ago, and developed a board game for a UWE air quality project. It’s been an energising experience.
I won’t pretend it’s all been easy. I have a family and a full time job, and fitting the course in around these responsibilities has been challenging. I’m lucky that my employers have funded and supported me to do this course and have been generous in allowing me study leave. My partner has taken up the slack and generally been a rock when deadlines bite. I wouldn’t have been able to do the PGCert without the support of colleagues, friends and family.
Science communication is an alchemical mix of creativity and scholarship, where apparently clashing cultures meet. This course has really brought that to life for me. I’ve enjoyed the journey so far so much that I’m seriously considering doing the full MSc – if my work and personal life can accommodate it!
Sometimes I am amazed at how life just seems to fit seamlessly into place. You have to take a step back on the odd occasion to see how every step has added to the goal that you may still not see.
I was always fascinated with the sea from a young age. It captivated me, fuelled my curiosity, and enticed me to explore its depths and this caused me to pursue a degree in marine biology. To be totally honest, I didn’t really know what I was going to do after I had completed my childhood dream of studying marine biology but my part-time job at the National Marine Aquarium ignited a passion in communicating to visitors the incredible creatures of the sea. By my final year at university I became aware that, despite us still discovering novelties in science and marine biology, many people were unaware of some of the most crucial threats our oceans were facing.
I found out about the MSc Science Communication at UWE Bristol, and knew that I needed to learn more about how to bridge the gap between contemporary science and peoples’ perspectives of the seas around them. When I started the MSc I quickly found out about the complexities of communicating current research to the “public” and started to understand why it was so hard to initiate change.
However, after six months in the MSc programme I needed to decide what I’d do for my final project. I hadn’t found a subject matter that resonated with me and I didn’t want to carry out a project on something for the sake of completing my Masters. It meant more to me than that.
Again, life gave me an answer. On a complete whim, I applied for a scuba diving scholarship, which happened to be one of the most prestigious awards that could be bestowed on a young person seeking to forge a path in the underwater world. The Our World Underwater Scholarship Society offers three scholarships a year; one in North America, one in Australasia and one in Europe. I was lucky enough to be the 2017 European scholar, sponsored by Rolex.
At the time I wondered why I had been picked out of so many others. And now I truly believe it was because of my time spent on the MSc course, studying a programme which combined my love of marine science, with communication, social science and practical engagement skills. It gave me the chance to redirect myself and see where I wanted to be. The scholarship now presented me with time to put it in action, to be at that forefront of scientific discovery and learn from others who were taking theory to practice. And so, with the MSc course being so flexible to my needs, I put my final project on hold and began my year of adventure into the blue!
It has been an incredible journey and throughout it, my project has always been at the back of my mind. In Micronesia, I was able to participate with award winning scientists in talking to local college students about their reefs. In Australia, I was able to change people’s opinions of the most iconic and misrepresented predator, the Great White Shark. In Fiji, I witnessed locals, who would have in the past sold sharks as a commodity, instead help volunteers tag sharks and release them back into the wild to try and understand where the sharks give birth in their local marine environment.
Without always realising, I have been communicating science and conservation issues throughout my blogs and social media presence, which have not only showcased the beauty and mysteries of oceans but have also rallied my family and friends to start to make changes in their own lives, especially in terms of plastic pollution.
I am now almost spoilt for choice in terms of ideas for my final project, and as my scholarship year comes to a close, I am excited to return to UWE Bristol for my final project, knowing once again that every step of the way I’m getting closer to where I want to be… even if I still don’t know quite where that is yet.
Mae Dorricott is an MSc Science Communication student at UWE Bristol with a BSc in Marine Biology. Diving since the age of 12, she has always been passionate about the sea. The Masters programme contributed to her winning an international diving scholarship that provided the perfect space for her to explore the seas and initiate ideas for her final year project.
You can find out more about Mae’s experiences at https://owusseurope.org/ and via Instagram at ‘maekld’.
My name is Hannah Little. I’m a new lecturer at the Science Communication Unit. I will be teaching Science Communication at foundation, undergraduate and postgraduate levels, specially focussing on areas in digital communication.
Placement programmes in the North East of England. I have come to the Science Communication Unit after completing a PhD at the Artificial Intelligence Lab at the VUB in Belgium, and a PostDoc at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. My work throughout both my PhD and PostDoc was primarily on the evolution of linguistic structure. One method I have used in my research is cultural transmission experiments in the lab.
These experiments investigate how language (or any behaviour) is changed as a result of being passed from one mind to another in a process similar to the game “Telephone”. One person’s output becomes the input for a new person, whose output is fed to a new person and so on! This method is being used more and more to look at processes of cultural evolution, and I am interested in using these methods to investigate processes in science communication.
I see existing work in cultural evolution fitting into science communication in 3 main areas:
Using experiments to investigate how stories and information are culturally transmitted isn’t new. As far back as 1932, Bartlett’s book “Remembering” describes experiments that looked at how transmission of a memory from one person to another can affect what information persists, and what is forgotten through a failure in the transmission process. More recently, Mesoudi et al. (2006) used similar experiments to systematically investigate whether information is transmitted more faithfully when it is embedded in a narrative around social interactions compared to equivalent non-social information. I am keen to explore these findings in practical contexts in science communication, for instance looking at how well information persists from scientific article to press release to media story as a result of different types of content in a press release.
The internet is the home of the “meme” a culturally transmitted idea (this could be any idea, picture, video, gif or hashtag). New methods from big data analysis are being used by scholars interested in cultural evolution to explore the proliferation of memes, and this is even starting to happen in science communication too. Veltri & Atanasova (2015) used a database of over 60,000 tweets to investigate the main sources of information about climate change that were proliferated on twitter and the content of tweets that were most likely to be retweeted. They found that tweets and text with emotional content was shared more often. These findings fit with the findings from Mesoudi et al. (2006) above, demonstrating that multiple sources and methods can be used to accumulate evidence on what it is that allows scientific information to be a) transmitted in the first place, and b) transmitted faithfully.
Hands-on science activities
Another hot topic in cultural transmission is the role of innovation and creativity in the transmission of information resulting in an accumulation of information. Caldwell and Millen (2008) investigated this process using an experiment whereby participants were asked to build the tallest tower possible using just dried spaghetti and blue tack, or the paper aeroplane that flew the furthest. Participants were able to see the attempts of people who had gone before, giving them the option to copy a design that had already been tried, or innovate a new design. The study found that participants got better at building successful towers and aeroplanes later in transmission chains than earlier, indicating that successful engineering skills were being acquired just from the process of cultural transmission. This, of course, is a brilliant finding in its own right, but there is a huge amount of scope for using this paradigm to investigate what affects cumulative cultural evolution in the context of issues relevant to science communication. For example, does explicit learning or simple imitation affect rates of innovation and success? This question has previously been explored using cooking skills in Bietti et al. (2017) and paper aeroplanes in Caldwell & Millen (2009). You can also use these methods to investigate questions about whether the characteristics of the person transmitting the information plays a role in faithful transmission or innovation (e.g. their gender, age, perceived authority, etc.).
Together, I think these case studies of existing literature outline the scope of methods and insight available from the field of cultural evolution to questions in science communication, and I look forward to working with the unit at UWE to generate some new research in these areas!
How we make choices as consumers, patients, parents and members of the public has, of course, long been of interest to science communicators, and topics like immunisation can continue to raise differences in perspectives, as well as media interest. A few years ago we started to think about the sometimes challenging process of weaning a baby. Ruth had recently had two young children herself, whilst completing her MSc Science Communication with us, and I’d been doing some research with parents and caregivers in community groups, so we knew weaning was a topic that was being discussed. But what about the parents who might not be out there in these social spaces, what was happening online? We asked the question ‘how do people on Mumsnet frame media coverage of weaning?’
As our starting point we considered a review of scientific evidence published in the British Medical Journal in 2011. This work, by Fewtrell and colleagues, suggested the period of exclusive breastfeeding recommended by the World Health Organisation be reduced from six months to four. Unsurprisingly the study attracted media attention, particularly in ‘quality’ newspapers like The Times, The Guardian, and especially, The Telegraph, and was frequently reported on by specialist health and science correspondents. They tended to talk about ‘risk’ but rarely contextualised that with further information on the study itself.
On Mumsnet it was clear that a vibrant community was keen to discuss the issue of weaning, and we located 112 comments that directly referred to the Fewtrell example and its media coverage. What were people most wanting to talk about? The inaccuracy of media coverage really stood out in their comments, as well as frustration that it was returning to the breast vs. bottle aspects of the debate. And the forum discussions often presented more context, nuances around the question of ‘risk’ and the details of the study itself. Of course, they had more room to do so, but it was interesting to see these types of details being discussed.
What does this tell us about science, the media and how it’s discussed online? Well it suggests that at least amongst this very small sample of Mumsnet users there is some awareness of the weaknesses that can be present in science and health reporting, but also that people often use scientific and personal information in transitionary means, embellishing some of the deficiencies of media coverage in interesting and new ways. As people become more and more reliant on social media sources for information, further work is needed on how this is supplementing and challenging our relationships with scientific and medical expertise but also how we use our social networks to support decision making. You can find out more about this work in a recent Journalism article or at: