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.
This blog post was originally published in Spanish
and we thank our former SCU colleague Dr Erik Stengler, for sharing the English
version with us here.
Just a few hours ago, one of our authors (Erik Stengler) instructed his first class through an “alternate mode of delivery”, with students attending from their homes. He is one of so many who have always been reluctant towards online teaching. At least with synchronous delivery it wasn’t that hard after all – recording classes for asynchronous delivery would have been a much bigger challenge for him. This is actually surprising, because Erik is someone who feels quite at home in TV studios and even presented his own TV show for children. To understand this, it is important to realise that even though shooting a TV show and recording a class may look similar externally, they are conceptually very different. In a TV studio everything is geared towards creating an audiovisual product whereas recording a class entails translating a product from a completely different context into the audiovisual language. For a TV show, it is part and parcel of the format that the audience will enjoy the product sitting at home on their sofas in front of their TV sets completely removed in time and space from what is recorded. For a recorded class this separation is an extraneous element that will require that the translation somehow makes up for the absence of the human contact and social interaction that is inherent to education. No wonder that the best educational TV shows look nothing like a classroom delivery broadcast or recording on camera.
Museums, in the unusual and unexpected current circumstances of
isolation and social distancing, are also choosing or rather being forced to
come up with online and virtual modes for visitation. Many have been doing this
for a long time, but having to close the doors has been the final spur for many
to join in the exploration of this option. Some voices have already raised
concerns about whether there will be such a leap in the quality of virtual
visits or collections that in-person visits will be perceived as superfluous
and ultimately visitor numbers will never recover after the COVID-19 crisis. If
the future is digital, will museums ultimately be replaced by digital
Simon reflects, perhaps this deluge of online museum offerings is more the
result of the need for a rapid response, to show that we are “doing something”
than the outcome of a reflective process about what is happening and how
museums should respond to the new challenges. This would not be a surprise,
since a lack of strategic planning is a recurring issue in a sector that is often
pushed to rush into executive action.
Here we wish to shed a ray of hope for museum professionals, pointing out that virtual museum visits will not replace in-person visits. The key lies in understanding that the museographic language is autonomous and independent of other communicative modes such as the audiovisual, and that it has its own assets and resources that other languages do not have. As explained in The Transformative Science Museum, these assets and resources include sharing a space with the exhibit and engaging in social interaction and conversations.
There is a generalized tendency to think that new technologies will replace existing ones, even though there are plenty of relevant examples to the contrary. In the 1960s, the popularization of photography led many to think that painting would soon disappear. In the 70s, the proliferation of TV sets was feared as the demise of radio. Powerful computers were seen in the 80s as a threat to games likes chess.
The Russian chess player Anatoli Kárpov is believed to have said that “Chess will not disappear with the advance of computers, just as athletics did not disappear with the introduction of cycling.”
Museums are singular spaces. Their mode of communication is based on
their own language: the museographic language. This language is characterized
by several endemic communicative resources, based on real and tangible objects
and experiences. These are presented, rather than represented – which makes for
an asset that is all the more relevant in the day and age of the virtual.
As mentioned, this is complemented seamlessly by the social experience that is
so inherent to a shared museum visit, with conversation as the main
common thread, within the context of many other modes of interpersonal
relationship that can even include physical contact. In all, only in a museum
is it possible to live an intellectual experience that engages visitors in this
particular way that cannot be replaced by other languages. Museums are a unique
and therefore necessary mode of communication.
Audiovisual technology has not always been introduced in museums in
a balanced way that is respectful of the singular nature of the museum experience.
Even before the arrival of infographics, virtual reality and augmented reality experiences,
this already happened with the introduction of audio guides. These devices require
individual use, and while they can certainly have interesting uses in a museum,
they can also remove all chances of interpersonal communication and
conversations within a visiting group. It was posited at some point that audio
guides could even substitute well prepared and enthusiastic museum educators.
Needless to say, museums can and should adopt new technologies, but they need
to keep in mind that museums already have their own technologies with potential
to be developed without having to borrow from other languages, such as the
audiovisual, unless it is done in a measured and well-thought-out manner, and
always as an auxiliary and not a core resource.
Often museums contradict themselves in this regard. Many museums and
exhibitions have fully embraced new Information and Communication Technologies,
in a manner that shows little knowledge of the characteristic features of the
museum experience, and reduce it to a very naïve caricature. Some exhibitions
are very difficult to tell apart from a Samsung showroom. We will not discuss
here the lack of social relevance of such expensive products – luckily their
heyday is already in the past and they are gradually being superseded.
for example, would never even dream of replacing their successful tanks full of
marine life by video recordings, no matter how technologically sophisticated
these views could get to be. We are not denying that a virtual visit to a museum
can complement a museum’s own communication mode, or bring it to new audiences,
but it will never be able to replace it. Otherwise we would have to think that
the wide availability of photographs and videos of all corners of the world
over the Internet could replace travel. Rather, the opposite has happened, as
they have sparked widespread interest in tourism.
Of course there is such a thing as a virtual museum. Just as
there are virtual cuisine and virtual sex. As said, such
approaches can complement a museum experience but, even though they are
valuable in their own way, they cannot naively claim to be offering the same
experience by replacing through new technologies precisely those aspects that
these new technologies are unable to offer.
So, while we are confined, what are we doing to respond to the
challenges that museums are going to face in the future? Why don’t we use this
valuable time forced upon us by COVID-19 to pro-actively reflect, though
telecommuting and videoconferencing, on how we will transform ourselves in
order to become agents of transformation and the cultural leaders that
contemporary museums are called to be in their communities? Or are we going to
just respond reactively to whatever comes next?
Erik Stengler†*, Guillermo Fernández*,
Javier Hidalgo*, Marta Soler*, Pere Viladot* and Sarah Callan†.
[i] Aquariums, together with zoos, were explicitly included in the
definition of museum at ICOM’s 11th General Assembly held in Copenhagen in
1974. Therefore, and independently of one’s personal views about these
organizations, it is accurate to fully consider aquariums and zoos part of the
To apply for the bursary, you must have applied for the MSc Science Communication by Friday 5th June 2020 and be wishing to start the course in September 2020. Only those who have been or who are in the process of being offered a conditional or unconditional full time place will be considered eligible. The bursary may only be used on the Science Communication courses offered at UWE Bristol.
MSc in Science Communication is taught at UWE Bristol’s Frenchay campus. If
however restrictions due to coronavirus are in place during part of the
programme, full teaching will be provided online so that your learning is not
To apply for the
bursary, please complete one of the following;
Write a short popular article that is no more than 300 words long on an area of science, health or the environment. The article should include a headline. Also provide brief details of the publication where the article would appear, outlining its audience, the types of article it publishes and why your article is a good fit with the publication – this should be no more than 200 words. The chosen publication should be a newspaper, magazine or website that covers science-related topics for non-experts.
Write an outline for a science communication activity (maximum 500 words) on an area of science, health or the environment. The outline should describe the planned activity, give an indication of content and details of the target audience.
Your work should be emailed to Andy Ridgway (details below) to be received by 5pm on Monday 15th June 2020. You will be informed if you have been successful in your application for a bursary by Friday 3rd July 2020. The successful applicant should inform us if they are subsequently successful in receiving funding from a different source or sponsor i.e. employers, local schemes, so that the bursary may be allocated to a different student.
Further information on UWE Bristol fees, studentship and bursary advice is also available here:
If you are not interested in applying
for a bursary, the deadline for applications to the programmes remains the 31st
July 2020. Please note – we are currently receiving a high number of
applications and would encourage you to apply as soon as your application is
Have you ever considered researching corporate misbehaviour?
I hadn’t either until October when, just after I had started
my MSc, a placement opportunity came through the Science Communication Unit and
landed in my email inbox. It was asking for applicants with attention to
detail, good writing ability, an enquiring mind, and an interest in public
health or social policy.
I was interested so I applied and that is how I ended up
walking, getting the train, and jumping on a bus to get to Bath and back on some
of the coldest and darkest days in January.
I spent a week with the Tobacco Control Research Group at the
University of Bath. The placement and training course supported the work of the
team of academics and journalists who produce the Tobacco Tactics website. This investigates and
publishes on the activities of international tobacco companies and their
We spent the first two days hearing from academic
members of the research group and guest speakers as well as getting acquainted
with the research topics. We participated in lectures on topics such as writing
for different audiences, investigative techniques and freedom of information
requests. By Wednesday we were ready for practical sessions. In groups we spent
three days working on different topics, researching and writing up our
findings. We worked hard!
Each day we also heard from PhD students. They presented
their research topics which included corporate influence on science; illicit
trade; and social media monitoring. These lunchtime talks were interesting and
I particularly enjoyed learning about digital methods such as collecting and
analysing Twitter data.
Working with students from undergraduate and postgraduate courses at
Bath, UWE Bristol and Gloucester universities was really valuable as we were
able to share our wide range of interests and experiences to learn from and
collaborate with each other during the placement.
Throughout the week I had many moments where I linked what I was
learning on placement to what I was learning in my MSc, to my previous studies,
and to experiences I have had in different job roles. This was rewarding and
motivating whilst I am studying and thinking about my future career plans.
Because of the industry the group researches, in order to undertake the
placement we had to sign a conflict of interest form and our conversations and
work were kept on a secure network which is required for this area of public
a junior assistant professor at Utrecht
University, which means I split my time 50/50 between teaching and PhD
research. The moment I knew I wanted to specialize in science communication was
when I was attending a lecture about an – at that time – recently published
study as part of my training in Ecology. I remember being upset by the fact
that no one outside the academic world had caught onto the study that the
researchers had spent six years on. So many more people could benefit from the new
That’s why I specialized in science communication
through a graduate program in Writing and Communication at the University of Amsterdam. It involved a year of
training in Communication Studies and Argumentation Theory as well as a six-month
internship. For my internship, I worked at the science department of a Dutch
national broadcasting agency (VPRO): I worked in communication,
was an editor for the website and assisted in the production of Labyrint, a weekly science
popularization program on national television.
finishing my training, I worked as a teacher both at the University of
Amsterdam, where I taught science communication and academic skills, and at
Utrecht University where I taught in interdisciplinary research skills and
academic writing. In my role as a teacher, I became interested in teaching practices
and wondered why science communication played such a small role in academic
programs. In the Dutch educational context, science communication training is
part of graduate training although it is mostly confined to dedicated science
communication programs or electorate courses. I especially noticed the lack of
structural training in science communication and a lack of attention being paid
to skills associated with communication in undergraduate training programs. As
such, I wanted to know how science communication training could be implemented
in the undergraduate program where I taught: Liberal Arts and Sciences at
Utrecht University. Liberal education students are trained in interdisciplinary
research skills and use insights from different disciplinary fields to study societal
issues. These are real-world problems that often need societal awareness to
come to a solution. Because most liberal education students pursue a career
that enables them to make an impact on society, it’s important for them to
learn how to communicate outside of their academic specialization.
my PhD project, I get to explore science communication for interdisciplinary
research settings. As my passion as a teacher is on teaching writing skills,
they are the focus of my project. I use insights from both Linguistics and
Educational Sciences to discover how writing skills in the genre of science
communication, or popularization, can best be taught in liberal education
settings. I use Liberal Arts and Sciences at Utrecht University as a case study.
I found out about the Science Communication Unit (SCU)
when I was applying for the
Julie Johnson Kidd Travel Research Fellowship. This grant allows teachers
in liberal education to spend time at another university. Although Utrecht
University has a highly regarded Linguistics department, it does not have a
research group dedicated to science communication research, which is why I felt
I could really benefit from input from the Science Communication Unit at UWE
Bristol. What attracted me to the SCU was the fact that the research group
combines insights from theory and practice, being known internationally as a
leader in academic research into science communication, as well as producing its
own science communication efforts. What made me especially enthusiastic about a
stay at the Science Communication Unit was the MSc Science
Communication that offers training to a new generation of science
In terms of my PhD, the literature told me that
explicit teaching of science communication skills would lead to better scores
and a higher self-perception of writing abilities. The next step was finding teaching
interventions that are effective in teaching these writing skills, and the Science
Communication programme was the perfect way for me to see teaching activities in
action. The module ‘Writing Science’ was of specific interest to me as it is
unique to have a course that focuses solely on writing skills in science communication.
As part of my sabbatical I could sit in on teaching in this course and observe
best practices in teaching. I was also able to ask students taking the module to
participate in my research by letting them write one-minute papers and reflect
on learning goals, the content of the classes and the results of the teaching
efforts. Furthermore, I let students fill in a questionnaire about
self-perception of their science communication skills and writing abilities.
This gave me insights into the self-perception of their writing skills as well
as their likes and dislikes in the way that the curriculum was built. I’ve
never seen a more enthusiastic group of students! They loved everything about
the programme and had no dislikes.
I was also able to interview Emma Weitkamp, Hannah Little and Andy Ridgway, staff who teach on the module, about their didactical frameworks, educational vision, how to build a science communication curriculum, and educational techniques. I got to sit in on teaching for undergraduate programmes at UWE Bristol and on masterclasses, continuing professional development aimed at those working in the field. What really stood out to me is that in all their teaching, the SCU team would actively make the connection between theory and practice, offering many examples of science communication efforts to their students, as well as enabling students to participate in real-world science communication themselves.
generally, my time in Bristol gave me insights into effective teaching
techniques for science communication within the context of a specialized
graduate programme. I will bring these insights with me to inform my further
research. The next step in my own project is implementing teaching
interventions in the undergraduate programme Liberal Arts and Sciences, and my
stay in Bristol gave me some great insights into how I might construct this
part of my research.
I felt like a research stay at the start of my second year of research was a great time for me to spend some time at SCU. This stay gave me some great insights into theory and practice and helped me bring more focus to my project. The entire team made me feel very welcome during my time at UWE, with academics Andy Ridgway, Andrew Glester, Clare Wilkinson and Kathy Fawcett, letting me sit-in on their teaching. Furthermore, it was great to spend time with fellow PhD students David Judge and Elena Milani, who became real friends and helped exploring Bristol. In short, I would highly encourage any PhD student thinking about spending time at UWE Bristol to say yes to the opportunity!
We spent the
morning with Isla Gladstone, a senior curator at Bristol Museum, learning about
the museum’s action plan and ambitions. In the morning, we were given a group
exercise to pick an audience and create a science communication led activity
based on the taxidermy animal we were given. The groups were given a kiwi bird
(Apteryx mantelli), a shrew (Soricidae), a couple of toads (Bufonidae),
and an Eurasian jay (Garrulus glandarius). Through this exercise we
found out that Eurasian jays are as sociable as dolphins and kiwi birds have
enormous eggs! Seriously, google it.
You often see big doors in museums saying ‘private’ and it leaves you wondering what sort of wonders could be behind those doors… Well believe you me, it’s everything you could have dreamed of. Think ‘Night in the Museum’ with Ben Stiller. We met Geology curator Deborah Hutchinson, who led us down into the basement via a public floor of the museum, but not before we were warned of the low oxygen density and potential to faint in such conditions. These air settings are under high control to manage the artefacts’ quality.
It was very exciting indeed, one step into the basement of wonders and I noticed my first gulp of air was tighter than usual. It felt like the air I was breathing couldn’t reach the bottom of my lungs unless I took a longer, deeper breath. This must be how people faint! Soon this feeling evaporated and we were left in awe of the countless, brilliant objects in the Geology stores. I say countless, but there is a margin of a million objects in there… Drawers and drawers and drawers of ‘Jurassic’ labels, skulls and bones of pre-existing dinosaurs strewn near and wide. So many incredible fossils, minerals and stories to be told including Bristol diamonds, which are in fact none other than quartz!
After our tour in the Geology store, we were led to the Natural History store. Immediately you were met with a cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) holding its prey just above your eye level. Led by Natural Sciences curator Rhian Rowson, we were guided through the narrow hallways, walking single file, listening intently to some of the stories behind the collection. There were a couple of house sparrows (Passer domesticus) pulled out of their drawer, one was darker than the other, and to our shock it was due to the coal in the air during the industrial revolution. Researchers can use the darker house sparrow as an indicator of the extent of air pollution during this time.
What really amazed and humbled me were the personal touches within both collections. The hand written labels, hand thrown plastic covers over the odd elephant skeleton in the room… it felt very homely. There wasn’t a need to present the spaces as squeaky clean galleries, which you see so often. I did however, walk backwards into a deer, which between me and the deer, I’m not sure who was more startled. There was a feeling of genuine character, care and comfort of stepping into these narrow hallways and oxygen thin walkways. For someone like myself, with a keen interest in geology and natural history, this trip was a massive privilege, and I’m very fortunate to take my camera along with me.
Chloe Russell, MSc Science Communication student, UWE Bristol