With a total of six workshops across the country, the events were held at key mining locations across the South West (Tavistock and Redruth), the Pennines (Matlock Bath and Reeth) and Wales (Capel Bangor and Barmouth). At each paired location one workshop was held on a Wednesday evening and the other over a Thursday lunchtime – we wanted to ensure that the workshops were attended by a range of people, rather than those with a specific interest in mining heritage.
The Q method was used to examine the preferences of those living in areas of metal mining in England and Wales. This method was selected as it is suitable for contentious issues where there is no consensus of opinion and is effective at ensuring participants prioritise different outcomes. For example, instead of reporting that everything is ‘very important’, the Q Method allows participants to ‘sort’ a series of statements based on the degree to which the statement represents their perspective on a subject: the Q sort.
Evaluation on the chosen method was carried out and the data is currently being analysed. Preliminary results show this is a promising method of in-depth engagement. The Q sort was perceived by the participants as a time-consuming and demanding process but also interesting, thought provoking and challenging (in a good way!). Definitely a method to consider in a public engagement context, especially when looking for in-depth thoughts and views on certain issues.
We are now busy analyzing both the Q Method results and the full data from the evaluation and look forward to sharing the results in the near future.
I am not a scientist. There, I said it. But I am a science communicator.
A couple of decades ago, someone like me, with an airy fairy English literature degree, wouldn’t have found themselves working with university scientists. But these days, more and more people like me – science cheerleaders but not necessarily actual scientists – are helping communicate research in the real world.
Science is definitely changing – even in the last five years since I’ve been working closely with researchers. The Research and Excellence Framework (REF) and funding bodies now demand impact that’s way beyond papers, posters and citations. In this climate, enrolling on UWE’s Postgraduate Certificate in Practical Science Communication made total sense to me.
The fact such a qualification even exists signals that the discipline of science communication is definitely A Thing, and should be taken seriously. Researchers are an increasingly diverse bunch: the days of the don in his (or sometimes her) ivory tower are (mostly) a thing of the past. Scientists are open to communicating their findings with a wider audience beyond other academics – and we science communicators have a vital part to play in helping them do this well. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about researchers in the last few years, it’s that they respect academic qualifications.
Health is my area of expertise, where it’s vital that we get messages from research right. If a physicist discovers something new about the origins of the universe and it gets misreported, that’s frustrating but it’s not exactly life-threatening. But health stories are bread and butter for certain sections of the mainstream media, and scientific nuance can be sacrificed on the altar of clickbait headlines. Obviously I’m not going to change that culture singlehandedly, but if I can help research teams produce accurate copy that’s still accessible and engaging to the person in the street that’s a good start.
For me, there’s also a political drive at work. In the current climate of fake news and the devaluing ‘experts’, helping more people understand science is a small but valuable contribution to a better, more informed society.
And there are also personal gains. I wanted to hone my skills and formalise the knowledge I’ve accumulated from my work. It’s been fascinating to discover that things I do intuitively, like framing a story, have whole bodies of theory behind them. In fact, sometimes this new knowledge has brought a sort of paralysis when writing something that I would normally knock out quickly in my day job. It’s certainly made me take stock and adopt a more analytical approach to what I do at work, though pressures still demand the odd bit of knocking stuff out.
I spend a lot of time training and supporting other people to be good communicators, so the course has enhanced my confidence in doing this. It’s reinforced the fact that I do already know a lot about effective science communication, and rounded the rough edges off things I’ve picked up informally over the years.
It’s well known that lifelong learning is an essential element of personal wellbeing. This course has invigorated me, helping me see new perspectives, meet new people and work on out of the ordinary projects. I’ve created a magazine with a group of people I didn’t know six months ago, and developed a board game for a UWE air quality project. It’s been an energising experience.
I won’t pretend it’s all been easy. I have a family and a full time job, and fitting the course in around these responsibilities has been challenging. I’m lucky that my employers have funded and supported me to do this course and have been generous in allowing me study leave. My partner has taken up the slack and generally been a rock when deadlines bite. I wouldn’t have been able to do the PGCert without the support of colleagues, friends and family.
Science communication is an alchemical mix of creativity and scholarship, where apparently clashing cultures meet. This course has really brought that to life for me. I’ve enjoyed the journey so far so much that I’m seriously considering doing the full MSc – if my work and personal life can accommodate it!
Sometimes I am amazed at how life just seems to fit seamlessly into place. You have to take a step back on the odd occasion to see how every step has added to the goal that you may still not see.
I was always fascinated with the sea from a young age. It captivated me, fuelled my curiosity, and enticed me to explore its depths and this caused me to pursue a degree in marine biology. To be totally honest, I didn’t really know what I was going to do after I had completed my childhood dream of studying marine biology but my part-time job at the National Marine Aquarium ignited a passion in communicating to visitors the incredible creatures of the sea. By my final year at university I became aware that, despite us still discovering novelties in science and marine biology, many people were unaware of some of the most crucial threats our oceans were facing.
I found out about the MSc Science Communication at UWE Bristol, and knew that I needed to learn more about how to bridge the gap between contemporary science and peoples’ perspectives of the seas around them. When I started the MSc I quickly found out about the complexities of communicating current research to the “public” and started to understand why it was so hard to initiate change.
However, after six months in the MSc programme I needed to decide what I’d do for my final project. I hadn’t found a subject matter that resonated with me and I didn’t want to carry out a project on something for the sake of completing my Masters. It meant more to me than that.
Again, life gave me an answer. On a complete whim, I applied for a scuba diving scholarship, which happened to be one of the most prestigious awards that could be bestowed on a young person seeking to forge a path in the underwater world. The Our World Underwater Scholarship Society offers three scholarships a year; one in North America, one in Australasia and one in Europe. I was lucky enough to be the 2017 European scholar, sponsored by Rolex.
At the time I wondered why I had been picked out of so many others. And now I truly believe it was because of my time spent on the MSc course, studying a programme which combined my love of marine science, with communication, social science and practical engagement skills. It gave me the chance to redirect myself and see where I wanted to be. The scholarship now presented me with time to put it in action, to be at that forefront of scientific discovery and learn from others who were taking theory to practice. And so, with the MSc course being so flexible to my needs, I put my final project on hold and began my year of adventure into the blue!
It has been an incredible journey and throughout it, my project has always been at the back of my mind. In Micronesia, I was able to participate with award winning scientists in talking to local college students about their reefs. In Australia, I was able to change people’s opinions of the most iconic and misrepresented predator, the Great White Shark. In Fiji, I witnessed locals, who would have in the past sold sharks as a commodity, instead help volunteers tag sharks and release them back into the wild to try and understand where the sharks give birth in their local marine environment.
Without always realising, I have been communicating science and conservation issues throughout my blogs and social media presence, which have not only showcased the beauty and mysteries of oceans but have also rallied my family and friends to start to make changes in their own lives, especially in terms of plastic pollution.
I am now almost spoilt for choice in terms of ideas for my final project, and as my scholarship year comes to a close, I am excited to return to UWE Bristol for my final project, knowing once again that every step of the way I’m getting closer to where I want to be… even if I still don’t know quite where that is yet.
Mae Dorricott is an MSc Science Communication student at UWE Bristol with a BSc in Marine Biology. Diving since the age of 12, she has always been passionate about the sea. The Masters programme contributed to her winning an international diving scholarship that provided the perfect space for her to explore the seas and initiate ideas for her final year project.
You can find out more about Mae’s experiences at https://owusseurope.org/ and via Instagram at ‘maekld’.
My name is Hannah Little. I’m a new lecturer at the Science Communication Unit. I will be teaching Science Communication at foundation, undergraduate and postgraduate levels, specially focussing on areas in digital communication.
Placement programmes in the North East of England. I have come to the Science Communication Unit after completing a PhD at the Artificial Intelligence Lab at the VUB in Belgium, and a PostDoc at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. My work throughout both my PhD and PostDoc was primarily on the evolution of linguistic structure. One method I have used in my research is cultural transmission experiments in the lab.
These experiments investigate how language (or any behaviour) is changed as a result of being passed from one mind to another in a process similar to the game “Telephone”. One person’s output becomes the input for a new person, whose output is fed to a new person and so on! This method is being used more and more to look at processes of cultural evolution, and I am interested in using these methods to investigate processes in science communication.
I see existing work in cultural evolution fitting into science communication in 3 main areas:
Using experiments to investigate how stories and information are culturally transmitted isn’t new. As far back as 1932, Bartlett’s book “Remembering” describes experiments that looked at how transmission of a memory from one person to another can affect what information persists, and what is forgotten through a failure in the transmission process. More recently, Mesoudi et al. (2006) used similar experiments to systematically investigate whether information is transmitted more faithfully when it is embedded in a narrative around social interactions compared to equivalent non-social information. I am keen to explore these findings in practical contexts in science communication, for instance looking at how well information persists from scientific article to press release to media story as a result of different types of content in a press release.
The internet is the home of the “meme” a culturally transmitted idea (this could be any idea, picture, video, gif or hashtag). New methods from big data analysis are being used by scholars interested in cultural evolution to explore the proliferation of memes, and this is even starting to happen in science communication too. Veltri & Atanasova (2015) used a database of over 60,000 tweets to investigate the main sources of information about climate change that were proliferated on twitter and the content of tweets that were most likely to be retweeted. They found that tweets and text with emotional content was shared more often. These findings fit with the findings from Mesoudi et al. (2006) above, demonstrating that multiple sources and methods can be used to accumulate evidence on what it is that allows scientific information to be a) transmitted in the first place, and b) transmitted faithfully.
Hands-on science activities
Another hot topic in cultural transmission is the role of innovation and creativity in the transmission of information resulting in an accumulation of information. Caldwell and Millen (2008) investigated this process using an experiment whereby participants were asked to build the tallest tower possible using just dried spaghetti and blue tack, or the paper aeroplane that flew the furthest. Participants were able to see the attempts of people who had gone before, giving them the option to copy a design that had already been tried, or innovate a new design. The study found that participants got better at building successful towers and aeroplanes later in transmission chains than earlier, indicating that successful engineering skills were being acquired just from the process of cultural transmission. This, of course, is a brilliant finding in its own right, but there is a huge amount of scope for using this paradigm to investigate what affects cumulative cultural evolution in the context of issues relevant to science communication. For example, does explicit learning or simple imitation affect rates of innovation and success? This question has previously been explored using cooking skills in Bietti et al. (2017) and paper aeroplanes in Caldwell & Millen (2009). You can also use these methods to investigate questions about whether the characteristics of the person transmitting the information plays a role in faithful transmission or innovation (e.g. their gender, age, perceived authority, etc.).
Together, I think these case studies of existing literature outline the scope of methods and insight available from the field of cultural evolution to questions in science communication, and I look forward to working with the unit at UWE to generate some new research in these areas!
How we make choices as consumers, patients, parents and members of the public has, of course, long been of interest to science communicators, and topics like immunisation can continue to raise differences in perspectives, as well as media interest. A few years ago we started to think about the sometimes challenging process of weaning a baby. Ruth had recently had two young children herself, whilst completing her MSc Science Communication with us, and I’d been doing some research with parents and caregivers in community groups, so we knew weaning was a topic that was being discussed. But what about the parents who might not be out there in these social spaces, what was happening online? We asked the question ‘how do people on Mumsnet frame media coverage of weaning?’
As our starting point we considered a review of scientific evidence published in the British Medical Journal in 2011. This work, by Fewtrell and colleagues, suggested the period of exclusive breastfeeding recommended by the World Health Organisation be reduced from six months to four. Unsurprisingly the study attracted media attention, particularly in ‘quality’ newspapers like The Times, The Guardian, and especially, The Telegraph, and was frequently reported on by specialist health and science correspondents. They tended to talk about ‘risk’ but rarely contextualised that with further information on the study itself.
On Mumsnet it was clear that a vibrant community was keen to discuss the issue of weaning, and we located 112 comments that directly referred to the Fewtrell example and its media coverage. What were people most wanting to talk about? The inaccuracy of media coverage really stood out in their comments, as well as frustration that it was returning to the breast vs. bottle aspects of the debate. And the forum discussions often presented more context, nuances around the question of ‘risk’ and the details of the study itself. Of course, they had more room to do so, but it was interesting to see these types of details being discussed.
What does this tell us about science, the media and how it’s discussed online? Well it suggests that at least amongst this very small sample of Mumsnet users there is some awareness of the weaknesses that can be present in science and health reporting, but also that people often use scientific and personal information in transitionary means, embellishing some of the deficiencies of media coverage in interesting and new ways. As people become more and more reliant on social media sources for information, further work is needed on how this is supplementing and challenging our relationships with scientific and medical expertise but also how we use our social networks to support decision making. You can find out more about this work in a recent Journalism article or at:
Entrants can be residents anywhere in the world, but must be non-professionals (professional journalists and anyone else who writes for money). All others, including scientists and bloggers, are welcome to apply. There are no residency restrictions, and we have separate categories for under 18s and over 18s. Closing date for applications is 24th June 2016. For full details, please see the SCU website.
We’re excited to have an impressive judging panel on board, who’ve prepared some excellent tips for new science writers. Fascinating stuff for newbies and old-timers alike.
What happens when social scientists and natural scientists start to work together? Clare Wilkinson summarises her recent research.
As a social scientist whose research has spanned a range of scientific issues, from genetics, to nanotechnologies, robotics to the environment, I’ve always been intrigued to think about the roles that social scientists play when they are working in cross or interdisciplinary settings. A few years ago, with the support of some funding from the British Academy I had the opportunity to consider some of those roles, as well as their benefits and challenges with a small group of interviewees based here in the UK.
Why then? It was a timely opportunity to talk to social scientists about these topics. The social science community was really starting to consider how it demonstrated impact, serves a real purpose and has a role to play in the types of large-scale interdisciplinary research projects that now seem so common. Examples like The Campaign for Social Science and the LSE Impact blog were spurring social scientists to think critically about disciplinary relationships and influence, and I was interested to explore some of these themes within this small piece of research.
Social scientists found working in the field inspiring, thought provoking and fascinating… they also expressed challenges in collaboration.
21 social scientists participated in the interviews, and they were working at a variety of career stages and in a range of different areas associated to science and technology. It was clear from the data that they found working in the field inspiring, thought provoking and fascinating, and that collaborating with scientists is often essential when you are interested in some of the social ramifications science potentially creates. However, they also expressed challenges in collaboration. Creating shared languages and understandings of the differing disciplinary approaches was often the most obvious, and this is of course not isolated to working with scientists, the language and approaches used in the social sciences can often be as daunting to ‘outsiders’ as that used in any other academic field.
Collaboration works best when it is given the time, trust and respect to be nurtured and cherished.
What really came across in the data though was that collaboration works best when it is given the time, trust and respect to be nurtured and cherished. When assumptions around what a disciplinary perspective might provide could be set aside, by both parties, there were opportunities to create fruitful and more creative collaborations. At a time when talk of ‘the two cultures’ is often revisited (see, for example, the recent British Science Association collection of essays Science: Not just for scientists which has some fascinating reflections on this age old argument) the paper concludes that for the best collaborative opportunities we don’t need ‘shotgun ceremonies’ or ‘brief encounters’ but more sustainable relationships over time.
Clare Wilkinson is an Associate Professor in the SCU at UWE.
At postgraduate level we work with students in a number of ways. Most students join our MSc Science Communication programme, as either a full or part-time student. Running for over ten years this programme has developed an excellent reputation for its combination of theory and practice. This means it continues to attract both those who have just completed a university degree and have already made the decision that their future lies in science communication, as well as students who have been working in a related field for a while and either are looking to make a career transition or to firmly establish a more formal qualification.
Running for over ten years this programme has developed an excellent reputation for its combination of theory and practice.
We also have a smaller number of students who take our Postgraduate Certificate in Practical Science Communication. Typically students on this programme tend to be practicing researchers who have been communicating their own research alongside their ‘day job’ and are looking to develop that experience further. On similar lines we also have a number of PhD students, from a wide range of areas at UWE, who are taking one or two of our science communication modules as part of their PhD programme. It’s fantastic to see early career researchers identifying a role for communication and engagement and building this into their research from the outset.
I tend to think about the programme in three ways; as ‘back to school’, the ‘light bulb’ moment and the ‘university of life’.
Back to school
As programme leader I tend to be in touch with our new students a lot, even before they start their courses. I’ll be confirming people’s module choices, double checking they are on the right programme and often having last minute meetings to let new students, and sometimes their families, get a feel for our campus and team.
Deciding to undertake postgraduate study is a big commitment, intellectually but also from a time and financial perspective, and so it’s understandable that often our students, their partners and families can feel a little nervous about it. I vividly remember once having to explain the potential job prospects of our course to an applicant’s father. Science communication was new to him and he wanted to be 100% sure it would offer his science graduate son a potential route to his desired employment in the future. I’m also well practiced in finding the odd coloured pen or piece of paper for a restless five-year old accompanying their parent to a UWE open evening, with very little interest in the new MSc their caregiver is about to undertake.
Any fearfulness will turn to smiles. A realisation takes hold that they have found a place where everyone shares their interests.
So, whatever the age, circumstances or commitments of our new students, starting a postgraduate programme will often mean change, uncertainty and challenges. My aim is that by the first day all new students feel confident that they have made the right decision for them, so that the ‘back to school’ feeling is one they (and their families) can embrace.
The light bulb moment
The start of the programme is always really busy, and this year was no different. Amongst registration activities, introductions to the library and the practicalities of life as a UWE student we also try to fit in content about life as a science communicator, and importantly, lots of opportunities for our students to meet and talk with each other. You only need to look around the room on the first day to realise that people are feeling nervous, anticipating what they will have in common with their new peers and eyeing up those they might potentially be friends with. This brings me to the light bulb moment.
We get introductions happening straight away… ‘Tell us about yourself’, I will say to each person, ‘just some snippets about you, where you are from and why you are here’. It’s then that it starts, each person around the room expressing their passion for communicating, that they love their subject (whatever that might be – we don’t only accept only science-based students on our programme), but that they think their real strengths lie in engaging around it. And one after another, any fearfulness will turn to smiles. A realisation takes hold that they have found a place where everyone shares their interest in communicating and that this will be their home for the coming weeks, months or years.
The university of life
On the first day, we distribute module guides and assessment information, talk about the various disciplines that influence science communication, and outline the expected level of reading. It will become clear that no student can learn all that there is to know about science communication in the first days or weeks of teaching and that much, much more is to come. As one door has closed on their undergraduate studies, the possibilities at Masters level can seem endless. It can be overwhelming, but as with the start of any new project the possibilities are exciting.
If you are interested in finding out more about the UWE Bristol Science Communication Masters or Postgraduate Certificate, please go to our website.
Hello new readers and welcome to the first post of the Science Communication Unit Blog. If you don’t know much about us we are a team of staff based at the University of the West of England, Bristol who work in science communication practice, teaching and research. We comprise PhD students, science writers and editors, researchers and academics, who come from a variety of academic perspectives to consider the theory and practice of science communication. You can visit our website to find out more about us.
In recent years our team has expanded considerably and so now seemed a good time to launch a blog dedicated to the Unit to help us, and you, to keep up-to-date on our latest happenings. On this blog we will be regularly posting our thoughts and ideas on a range of subjects associated to science communication. This will include updates on our current projects, reflections on science communication theories and ideas, our responses and thoughts on current issues facing the sector, as well as some occasional image and video-based content. We will be posting content every two to three weeks and whilst a lot of the material will be drawn from research evidence and academic materials, we will also use this as a space to occasionally share our personal views.
Does this sound like a good idea? Are there other subjects you’d like to see covered on the blog? Don’t forget you can also use the blog as a space to interact with us, sharing your views and ideas on the subjects we post around.