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.
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.
This blog post was originally included in Transforming Society published by Bristol University Press and Policy Press, on 12th November 2020, and is reproduced with their kind permission here.
Like many publishing projects this one started like any other. An exchange of emails, a flurry of ideas, and a conversation over tea in a university coffee shop, followed by a shake of hands. What’s changed since that initial conversation is that we are now experiencing a global pandemic. No more physical greetings or coffee shop meetings, instead conversations conducted by Zoom and significant ramifications which impact on our personal and professional lives. However, what hasn’t changed in that time period, and what’s perhaps come even more to the fore, is the role of science communication. In many senses this is an optimum, if exceptionally challenging and sensitive time, to launch a book series on Contemporary Issues in Science Communication, though science communication can still be a field which is relatively unknown for many working in academia.
Science Communication has an extensive global history, but its UK efforts particularly came to the fore post 1985, with the publication of a well-known report, the ‘Bodmer report’ on Public Understanding of Science. Since then science communication has emerged as a space for an eclectic range of disciplines to consider how science and research more broadly is communicated, and importantly engaged around. This means it can encompass disciplinary insights from scholars in a range of social sciences, including informal learning and education, communication and media studies, science and technology studies, psychology, the arts, history, philosophy and more. A recent study of published research in the field identified that research has increased over the last four decades and become more ‘pluralistic’, whilst those receiving training in science communication can range undergraduate and postgraduate students, to working scientists, as well as those who work at science museums and other public sites. Science communication has porous boundaries, is often reluctant to provide exclusive definitions (for example, Trench and Buchhi’s discussion of an emerging discipline), and thus can attract people from a wider range of interests, as well as practical and/or theoretical insights.
Returning to the coffee shop, during those first conversations about a potential book series there were a number of key topics discussed. This included the ways that ‘Fake’ news and digital marketing are changing the context for science journalism. How emerging political eras are altering the way we think about expertise and trust in policymaking, as well as the power of protest. How inclusivity is being considered in science communication from the perspectives of gender, class, disability, ethnicity and other ‘intersectional’ perspectives. As well as underexplored issues within science communication, such as the relationship between public health topics, medical settings and patient and public involvement.
Since then such topics have become all-encompassing in the context of COVID-19. Topics which are not only relevant for science communication scholars, but for academics working over a wide range of disciplines, for policymakers seeking an evidence base to inform decision making, to science museums and centres battling for their survival in a time of ‘lockdowns’, and members of the public encountering the latest data visualisations broadcast live into their homes. Of course, the main priority is not academic in this global context. People are losing their lives, their incomes, their social contact, and their loved ones, but many science communicators will have a desire to contribute their expertise at this time.
This means we are already seeing an emergence of academic science communication work in this area. Studies are examining a range of topics including fake news, media framing, disinformation, use of metaphors, governmental responses, public perceptions, as well as how particular communities are being more directly impacted. A useful special issue on COVID-19 covering such subjects has already been produced by the Journal of Science Communication (JCOM) and no doubt more publications are on the way. However, as the pandemic still impacts all around us, with different regions and countries continuing to adapt to rising rates, fluctuations in data, nudges and regulations around social behaviours and responsibilities, as well as the extended social, economic, moral and political implications of the first global pandemic in generations, there remains a space in the literature for manuscripts not only focussed on COVID-19 but a wide range of contemporary science communication issues.
Contemporary Issues in Science Communication seeks to offer such a space. Publications in this peer-reviewed book series will cover a range of topics relevant to contemporary science communication, including, but not limited to disciplinary insights, science communication mechanisms and techniques and inclusivity in science communication. Proposals can be focussed on specific science, health, environmental and other research subjects, provided the core theme is science communication or engagement related.
As COVID-19 continues to be a pressing matter in 2020, as well as responses to Black Lives Matters, and ongoing political elections, this may not be an easy time for authors to consider proposals in this area. Nevertheless, in providing a book series such as this it is hoped there will be opportunities for longitudinal considerations of the role of science communication within such societal issues, increasing not only the breadth and depth of accounts in science communication, but also opening up such spaces to a wider range of academics, disciplines and authors. Science communication has, after all, never been more public.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s a central theme to any science communication training – to communicate science effectively you need to know who it is that you’re communicating with. Call them what you will – audience, publics, participants – getting to know those who read, watch or listen to what you create and adapting what you are creating accordingly is of vital importance. Getting to know your audience often involves a two-way exchange – allowing your readers, viewers and listeners to comment on and contribute to what you’ve created in some way.
On the face of it, digital forms of communication such as social media make starting conversations with audiences much easier than ‘traditional’ formats such as newspapers and magazines. After all, these digital platforms allow anyone to like, share and, most importantly, comment on what you write. But as a report on the latest research published as part of the RETHINK science communication research project shows, in practice these conversations between science communicators such as journalists and scientists and their audiences, often don’t happen. In other words, in spite of the mechanisms for conversations that digital media allow, in reality they act as a one-way broadcast media – the audience is very much an audience; playing a passive role in the process.
Insights like this into the connections science communicators have with their audiences came from a series of ‘Rethinkerspace’ meetings that took place across Europe as part of the RETHINK project. These Rethinkerspaces are communities of practice made up of the likes of journalists, bloggers, scientists involved in sci com, academics and university press officers. Typical of the comments in the Rethinkerspace meetings, a member of the UK Rethinkerspace related how they found it difficult to create a conversation with audiences on digital platforms – in turn making it hard know what the audience wants. Similarly a member of the Swedish Rethinkerspace who runs a podcast stated that they face a “lack of time to engage with listeners.” UWE Bristol’s Rethinkerspace was led by Andy Ridgway.
RETHINK, a European Commission-funded research project that involves partners across Europe including VU Amsterdam and Ecsite, is focused on the opportunities and challenges presented by digitization and how to create a closer integration of science with society. So the connections between communicators and their audiences are important.
The same RETHINK report that describes the nature of the connections science communicators have with their audiences also describes who these audiences are. Here the insights came from a questionnaire developed by Elena Milani, Emma Weitkamp and Clare Wilkinson, who all work within UWE Bristol’s Science Communication Unit. What is notable is out of 460 communicators who completed the questionnaire, only seven said their target audiences do not already have an interest in science, technology or health. The majority of respondents (74%) indicated that their audiences are mixed in terms of their level of interested in science – with some interested and others not.
Many of the questionnaire respondents were press officers and communications officers but there were also journalists, researchers and university lecturers and professors, among others. The participants were from the UK, The Netherlands, Sweden, Portugal, Italy, Poland and Serbia. Most of these communicators, 94%, indicated that they aim to reach a ‘non-specialist audience’, indicating that for many, their conception of their audience is quite generalised.
The results of this study prompt some important questions. Not least of which is how meaningful conversations between communicators and audiences can be encouraged on digital platforms such as social media. In part, the answer to this question will depend on where the underlying problem lies. Is it down to a lack of time among those communicating science to engage in discussions? Or is it that many science communicators and institutions communicating science just don’t want a conversation – they still see their role as reporters of new research? Or is it something else entirely?
What do you think? Tweet us at @SciCommsUWE and let’s start a conversation.
With just ten years left to change our carbon intensive lifestyles to mitigate climate chaos, urgent decisions need to be made about how we can reach net zero and clean air. Meanwhile, the Covid19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement show that citizen involvement in science communication has never been more critical to ensure a socially just transition.
At this critical moment, the ClairCity project has reached its final dissemination stage; Europe’s largest ever research project on citizen-led decision making for clean air and carbon reductions. Six cities and regions came together to share engagement methods to involve citizens in policymaking, namely, Amsterdam in The Netherlands, the Aveiro Region of Portugal, Bristol in the UK, the Liguria region of Italy, Ljubljana in Slovenia and Sosnowiec in Poland.
As a result of the project team’s efforts, 818,736 citizens were involved in some form or another. Of these, 8,302 were directly engaged through workshops, events, schools’ activities, mobile games and apps, and even videos, a number which far exceeded the expectations of the team.
Why was this significant? Because these 8,302 citizens all influenced clean air and climate change decisions in their local context.
Over four years, the project partners and Council officers made many collaborations with local community organisations and together with a strong social media presence, the project’s on- and offline presence grew. Through a variety of engagement tools, citizens were able to have their say on what mattered to them regarding transport and home heating and what they would like to see change to enable them to make greener choices. There were also candid discussions on the potential barriers to such changes to not only make these concerns known to decision makers, but to have a deeper understanding of the challenges and trade-offs that need to be made when taking policy decisions.
Equipped with this information, ClairCity was then able to consult policy makers about the policies proposed by citizens and discuss how to operationalise them. As a final step, the top citizen policies were modelled against current policy plans for each case study to assess whether citizens’ demands could affect future emissions and associated health impacts. In nearly every context, citizens were more ambitious than ‘business as usual’, with the exception of Amsterdam where the local government was in fact more ambitious than its citizens.
The aim of the evaluation was to see whether the project had fulfilled its aim of ‘raising awareness of environmental challenges and their solutions through proactive dissemination of the project outcomes’. To do this, we explored the demographics of participants and those less directly involved, examined indicators of awareness, attitudes, knowledge and enjoyment (so called Generic Learning Outcomes) and citizen’s intended behavioural changes. Additionally, we explored differences across countries, demographics and engagement tools, to understand perceptions in different contexts. Data collection was carried out through paper/online questionnaires, including pop-up windows in the game and app, as well as in-depth interviews with staff and social media analysis.
All tools exceeded their targets for audience reach, apart from the App which remained at BETA testing due to technical issues. The Delphi workshops were particularly impressive, with 4887 participants compared with 200 expected, and the ClairCity Skylines game, with 2,800 players worldwide compared with 1500 players expected. Both successes can be largely attributed to the on-the-ground outreach and marketing activities of our case study partners, who made connections with community organisations, produced flyers, spoke on the radio, attended events, and generally made lots of noise to attract people. The cities that spent less time and resources on this groundwork had fewer participants as a result.
Our social media platforms gained a lot of traction over the years, although they were again limited by time and resources available. Our Communication Coordinator in Bristol was able to orchestrate our main sites, resulting in (at the time of writing) 1,392 Twitter followers and 416 Facebook followers, and 36,482 website visitors. Sites managed by our partners – who weren’t dedicated science communicators – had considerably less traffic.
Data was collected for age, gender and educational attainment. Given the fact that ClairCity had targeted schools’ engagements, with several team members having direct connections to local schools, in addition to a mobile game, over 40% of participants were aged between 13-24. Working adults occupied around 50% of participants, and over 55+ represented less than 10%. This is quite an impressive finding considering most engagement projects fail to capture the full spectrum of ages.
63% of participants in the study identified as male. The biggest gender differential came from the game, with more than twice as many male players than female, which skewed the gender balance. Alongside this, many stakeholder workshop participants were senior men in regional organisations, which again skewed the gender balance.
Participants were asked about their education level in our workshops. 81% of respondents held a Bachelor’s degree or above. On the other hand, in the game, 79% ranked their level of knowledge on air quality as being low/none. In other words meaning, the game appealed to people with less expertise.
Both policy makers and teachers were asked about the usefulness of the tool relevant to them. An overwhelming percentage of policy makers found the policy workshop useful/very useful (95%), compared with a more modest percentage of teachers finding for the schools’ competition (61%). The schools’ activities have since been expanded following this feedback, and our Educator Pack (part one and two) is freely available online, and has been featured in the British Science Association Science Week pack, and through Sustainable Learning.
The majority of participants enjoyed or loved the activities in which they were involved. Both the Delphi and Stakeholder workshops greatly improved participants’ understanding of air quality (88% and 82% more understanding, respectively). 39% of game players left with more understanding, however for 45% their understanding stayed the same. The app mainly left people with the same understanding (47%), or feeling confused (18%).
Perhaps one of the biggest findings was in regards to behaviour change. At least half of all participants in the Delphi workshops, game, schools’ activities and stakeholder intended to change their behaviours as a result of their involvement (58%, 80%, 67% and 79%, respectively).
Upon cross-comparison, it was found that the more participants enjoyed the activity, the more they reported that their understanding of air quality had improved. Similarly, the more participants reported that their understanding had improved, the more they reported that they would change their behaviour. Younger people and those with lower education to start with were more likely to say they would change their behaviour. All of these relationships were highly statistically significant.
Ultimately, the more enjoyable the engagement activities, the more people gain understanding about the issues, and the more likely people are to make a change to their behaviour to reduce air pollution and carbon emissi0ns, and improve the health of our cities.
Reflections on the evaluation process
In future we would recommend other projects take additional time to target women’s groups, or develop ‘tools’ that appeal to women
While efforts were made to reach representivity through undertaking the Delphi process in low socio-economic status neighbourhoods, in hindsight we would have worked harder to amplify under represented voices. Recent Black Lives Matter protests have been a stark reminder of the need to make our work inclusive..
Working on an international project presented issues with translating the website and evaluation forms. More dedicated evaluation time, or expert science communicators in each country, would have helped researchers who were less experienced in social science research methods.
We benefitted from having evaluation embedded from the beginning (rather than an add-on), and as such designed our evaluation methods to work in different contexts and cultures
Most ClairCity staff found engaging with citizens challenging (due to not having experience in this) but highly rewarding. By the end of the project the vast majority stated they have enjoyed engaging with citizens. This was a rich experience in terms of new skills, with our staff reporting to have learned how to pitch their ideas, how to talk to citizens and how important is to listen to people as well.
If you are interested in our experiences, or in benefitting from our reports, please check out our website for a variety of resources and tools to aid future citizen-led decision making on climate change and air pollution.
Why do those who blog, tweet, run events at festivals, give talks and engage in all the myriad of other forms of science communication do what they do? What do they aim to achieve when they communicate science?
While many of those who communicate science may well be too busy to ponder these questions day to day, they are important questions because, perhaps subconsciously for the most part, they influence the nature of the communication work they do. Not only that but when we look at these aims and motivations of science communicators at the macro scale, they provide an insight into their perceptions of the relationship between science and society. Are science and society connected and integrated, or somewhat disconnected?
It’s why questions about the motivations and aims of science communicators were an important part of the latest research organised by UWE Bristol’s Science Communication Unit as part of the European Commission-funded RETHINK project which is exploring the nature of online science communication and how people make sense of science online.
A questionnaire, developed by Elena Milani, a Research Fellow within the Unit, and Unit co-directors Clare Wilkinson and Emma Weitkamp, was distributed to science communicators in the UK, The Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Portugal, Italy and Serbia and sought to find out more about why science communicators do what they do and how they do it.
Many of the 778 people who responded were press officers (just over 140), or described themselves as freelance communicators or writers (nearly 120). We also received responses from journalists and researchers, as well as those who described themselves as a blogger, YouTuber or social media influencer and a whole host of other science communicators.
What the questionnaire responses make clear is that for many of those who communicate science across Europe, it’s an enthusiasm for science that lies behind what they do. Many of those who communicate science said they do it because it’s part of their job. Others say their motivation, which might be very relevant at the moment, is to counter misinformation.
What was also noticeable was that nearly 300 of our respondents said their motivation was to ‘educate’ others about science. Perhaps not surprisingly then, when Europe’s science communicators were asked what they hoped to achieve when they communicate science, the most popular responses were ‘inform’ and ‘educate’.
This implies that in the minds of many who communicate science, the way we produce knowledge through science is distinct from knowledge use by society and how society might contribute to that knowledge. Knowledge is a one-way street that leads from scientists to the outside world.
That said, a fairly high proportion of European science communicators, 65%, said in the questionnaire that they are looking to create conversations between researchers and the public. This implies a more blurred line between science and society – a two-way street, with knowledge exchanged between scientists and the outside world.
This is interesting in its own right. But the nature of the science and society relationship has assumed greater significance and visibility since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s why there’s never been a more important time to think about this relationship, and maybe RETHINK some aspects of it.
In addition to asking science communicators about their motivations and aims, the questionnaire also sought to find out what they communicate, how they communicate science (whether they use social media or blogs for instance) and the barriers that stand in the way. The full report, including how this research links to science communication theory and previous research, is available here:
Walking around the Frenchay campus at UWE Bristol is an intriguing experience. Wander down one corridor and you find yourself in the Centre for Appearance Research, down another and you’ll find yourself flanked by science labs. Just what is that researcher doing, hunched over their experiment? What about the one peering at their computer screen? Step outside and, tucked away behind the student union, is the Bristol Robotics Lab. Just what is going on behind those doors?
The Science Chatters podcast is a collaboration between students and staff from the SCU and seeks to answer such questions.
From that sublime beginning, we had to turn to something more ridiculous and the second episode of Science Chatters is now live, with the enticing theme of Poo and Wee. Chloe Russell, studying the MSc in Science Communication speaks to Dr. Iwona Gadja about the Urine-tricity project, gaining electricity from urine.
The Urine-tricity project is one way in which researchers in the Bristol Robotics Lab are seeking to find ways to apply their knowledge of how to use “Pee Power” to provide electricity in areas including displacement and refugee camps.
Fellow MSc student, Jessica Howard interviews Angeliki Savvantoglou about her PhD research into the bears of Greece…through the flies that interact with that thing that bears do in the woods.
Science Communication comes in many forms and Angeliki is an illustrator alongside her work on her PhD. If she is allowed to use the illustrations in her thesis, the reviewers will have a treat…as well as reading a lot of detail about poo.
Jessica Howard, who interviewed Angeliki, is also an illustrator and designed the Science Chatters logo.
I’ve been something of a podcast fan for many years, both as a listener and as a creator. There’s something about the medium which lends itself to conversations which are filled with insight and honesty. In a world seemingly dominated by opinion and spin (to put it mildly), podcasts can provide a much needed escape. The relaxed format allows for conversations which are not afforded by other media and being able to hear directly to researchers involved in the science is really revealing.
UWE Bristol is a hotbed of research and Science Chatters allows listeners to listen in behind the scenes.
Andrew Glester, Lecturer in Science Communication at UWE Bristol.
The inside of the human body, and all its organs, cells and molecules can be tricky to visualise, and that makes it difficult to understand how conditions like diabetes work. We can use things like models to help us see all these different features, and work out how they link together to do different things.
But models can take up a lot of space, and most of us don’t have anatomically accurate physical representations of the internal workings of the human body conveniently accessible at home, or even in many schools. Diagrams are an alternative, but they’re generally not very interactive.
The virtual construction game Minecraft, on the other hand, is great for exploring scientific concepts because it has many features and processes that relate to the real world, and can be used to visualise things that we can’t usually see – such as cells in the human body. Children and young people are often familiar with the game as it’s hugely popular, and this can give them a sense of expertise and ownership. We know Minecraft can act as a hook for children to engage with science topics, and that by participating in our sessions they can increase their subject knowledge and understanding, making it an effective tool for both catching children’s interest, and supporting their learning.
So what if we could use Minecraft to view and explore a large model of a human body on a computer? We could even get right inside it to investigate the internal organs, cells and processes.
In our ‘Building our understanding of diabetes with Minecraft’ project, we did just that. We have a human body constructed in Minecraft, which users can move around inside. They can explore the organs, cells and molecules inside it, and visualise and learn about processes that occur when someone does, and does not, have diabetes.
During the 2019-2020 school year, we began using this specially constructed Minecraft human body to deliver sessions about diabetes in schools in England and Scotland. However, now we are unable to do that during the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve created a slideshow to explain how diabetes works, using examples from the Minecraft build to illustrate components and concepts, and an accompanying video run through of the Minecraft human body. This way, more people can explore diabetes and the human body in Minecraft, even if we can’t visit them in schools or they don’t have Minecraft at home.
The slideshow and video can be used together, or the slideshow can be used as standalone resource. Each takes you on a virtual tour through the human body, exploring the relevant parts and processes involved in diabetes. They talk about what it’s like to have diabetes, and how it’s treated, and explore the pancreas, blood vessels, and cells and molecules to learn about their roles in diabetes. If you would like a creative challenge, the slideshow gives some ideas for activities, including building with Minecraft and Lego.
The slideshow and video can be viewed below.
If you use the resources, we would really appreciate some feedback! There is a short online form here where you can report how children and young people found using them.
Exploring the molecular basis of diabetes with Minecraft is a Science Hunters project based at UWE Bristol, in collaboration with the University of Aberdeen, the University of Hull and Lancaster University and funded by a Royal Society of Chemistry Outreach Fund grant. The project was devised by Dr Laura Hobbs (UWE Bristol and Lancaster), Dr John Barrow (Aberdeen) and Professor Mark Lorch (Hull), and developed and delivered by them along with Sophie Bentley (UWE Bristol and Lancaster), Dr Jackie Hartley (Lancaster), Naziya Lokat (Lancaster), Jonathan Kim (UWE Bristol and Lancaster), Rebecca Rose (Lancaster), Dr Carly Stevens (Lancaster) and Jordan Bibby (NHS Lanarkshire). Science Hunters projects takes a child-led, play-based approach to learning and engagement, and have an inclusive Widening Participation ethos.