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
The Shape Our City research project and consultation offers a new way to engage residents in decision-making in Bristol. As a participatory artist with a background in Sustainable Development and Community Development, I was interested to work with the Shape Our City team to bring my own creative methods and engagement activities together with the fantastic digital consultation tools, public art and illustration they had already initiated.
My process focussed on creative, versatile and participatory tools, which could be used and re-used in a variety of contexts – by researchers, facilitators and, most importantly, residents. This took the form of a series of icons for each of the research areas as round stickers, which were used to code tags of comments and ideas from residents. The tags were added to three fabric banners, which were made for each of the focus areas: Barton Hill; Lawrence Weston and Knowle West. This took place over a series of community workshops; a free lunch in Barton Hill and stall at Knowle West Fest. The banners showed an illustrated map of each area as a visual prompt for residents to identify areas for public health and urban improvement in their communities. They were designed intentionally unlabelled and unbranded so the communities can be gifted them to use for their own projects, consultations and events.
From these events we saw that residents were interested in the banners themselves, and the stickers worked well to help prompt conversation in each of the research areas. Children in Barton Hill loved leading the banner walk themselves, parading the map proudly as they ran around the local area, with parents identifying areas for public health improvement. One of the researchers attended the local lunch, which was a great way to show residents that they were influencing research and genuinely being listened to. It was also beneficial to show researchers the effectiveness and impact of creative consultation processes and the power of talking to people in a more informal environment.
In order for the process to continue to increase participation in public decision making, creative engagement processes and community conversations need to become more embedded in research and urban planning processes and more of a genuine exchange. Local people need to be further seen as the true experts in their local area, and a diverse group of residents needs to be continuously engaged and welcomed into a two-way dialogue and relationship with the powers that be. This needs to be beyond (but still including) the community planning groups, the local forums and active residents to include others who may get left off the rota of groups to consult. Blaise Weston Residential Home was a great example of a group of residents with a wealth of knowledge of the local area actively wanting to take part in consultations but being regularly left out of such conversations. We held a drop in workshop with Blaise Weston Court and simply sat and chatted with residents, staff and volunteers in the community cafe with the map across a table, making notes on tags as we spoke.
Creative community consultation processes have developed hugely over the last ten years or so. Companies such as Bristol’s Mufti Games are using play to engage communities in discussions about the housing sector; Place Studio use ‘Spaceshaper’ workshops to support resident-led neighbourhood plans amongst other urban change projects; or Make-Good who involve communities in design and architecture of their own neighbourhoods. There does seem to be a gap for awareness raising consultation activities around both urban planning and public health, which is perhaps a niche Shape Our City will continue to carve.
Taking part in Shape Our City has further affirmed for me the importance of the connections, mutual understanding and respect necessary to affect real change involving residents’ voices and experience, research and planning. There need to be as many opportunities as possible for these conversations to happen: in multiple places – from the office to the allotment to the living room; in multiple ways – from the post-it workshop to the three dimensional creative project; and at multiple levels – researchers and residents, residents and planners, planners and researchers – everyone and everybody.
The winner of the Medical Research Council’s (MRC) 2018 Max Perutz Science Writing Competition has been announced. The competition, now in its 21st year, was open to all PhD students funded by the MRC and entrants were tasked with writing about their own research, explaining to non-scientists why their research matters in just 800 words. Since the competition started in 1998, more than 1,000 researchers have submitted entries and taken their first steps into science communication.
This year’s winner is Natasha Clarke of St George’s, University of London with her article: ‘How artificial intelligence, and a cup of tea, could help diagnose Alzheimer’s disease’. Briet Bjarkadottir, of the Nuffield Department of Women’s and Reproductive Health at the University of Oxford was the runner up with her article: ‘Stopping the conveyor belt – cancer and fertility’. Fraser Shearer, of the Centre for Cardiovascular Science at the University of Edinburgh, was commended for his article ‘Keep calm and carry to term’.
Andy Ridgway, a Senior Lecturer within the Science Communication Unit, was among this year’s judges that also included the MRC’s Executive Chair, Professor Fiona Watt, Dr Claire Ainsworth, freelance journalist and science writer; Stephen Curry, journalist and science writer; Dr Roger Highfield, MRC Council member and director of external affairs at the Science Museum Group and Jennifer Rohn, journalist, novelist and scientist at University College London.
Andy said: “What really shone though in the shortlisted entries was the power of telling a relatable, human story when explaining the importance of medical research. By showing how a disease or condition impacts an individual and how this new treatment will change their lives, it conveys the impact of the research in a powerful, engaging way.
“It was a pleasure to read all the shortlisted entries and there are some gifted writers in the field.”
Fiona said: “It has been a great pleasure to chair the judging panel of this year’s Max Perutz Award.
“The competition is a great way to highlight to early-career scientists the importance of science communication and to showcase their work. This year we received a record number of entries, from about 10% of MRC-funded PhD students.
“The topics of the winning articles are artificial intelligence and Alzheimer’s disease; cancer and fertility; mental health, depression and stress. I’d like to thank everyone who entered the competition – the judges had a tough time making the selection. Our PhD students do a brilliant job at bringing their research to life – using everyday language, rhetorical devices and personal anecdotes.”
A new UWE project is working with artists and community organisations to creatively engage the public on issues around healthy urban development. A team from the project has recently been in Barton Hill listening to local people’s ideas on how to improve the area.
Cities are fascinating places to live. And Bristol is no exception. It frequently makes the top-spot for ‘best place to live in the UK’, due to its ‘small city that feels like big city’ vibe, with beautiful scenery, green rolling hills and easy connections to the countryside. It is also overflowing with creativity, from its industries to its thriving arts scene. Most people you speak with say they love living here! Yet despite all the praise, Bristol has many inescapable health issues. Chronic air pollution, growing levels of inequality linked with malnutrition and obesity, fly tipping, drug use, crime, increasing rent and house prices… there is a lot these Top 10 lists forget to consider.
When talking about who should address these issues the response may be ‘it’s their responsibility’ – whoever ‘their’ is. In reality, we all have a part to play in the health of our city. We cannot blame any one person because the design of our cities often make it hard for us to make the healthy choices.
Take food. If you live in a poor household then statistically you are less likely to have access to fresh food in your area and have increased exposure to food high in fat, salt and sugar. In an average day, we are exposed to 100s of food adverts, from billboards to supermarket promotions and TV ads, and may walk or drive past dozens of fast food shops – if you live in a poor part of the city this number will often be higher. Clearly it’s not just free choice here, the design of our cities and regulations are important factors in determining our health.
For a growing number of Bristolians, they have to make daily trade-offs about what to prioritise for their health.
In a recent Bristol Mag article one person was quoted as saying: “Food has to come low on the list of priorities in my household, the same as it does for so many others. Rent has to be paid, or my family will be hungry and homeless, rather than just hungry…”
With the health challenges continuing to mount, especially among the poorest of society, it feels like we are almost at breaking point. Something has to give.
So what can we do about it?
This year UWE Bristol launched Our City Our Health (OCOH) to ask the public just that. Over the past year, they have been gathering public opinion to feed back to researchers and city decision makers so health is prioritised in cities.
Keen to think outside the box when having these conversations, they drew on Bristol’s creative talents. They commissioned Luke Jerram to create Inhale, a giant diesel-soot particle to visualise air pollution and commissioned a graffiti artist to paint a Park Replacement Service so we could imagine what life might be like without green space to roam. They even worked with residents and artist Andy Council to produce their Shape Our City consultation, which allows you to step inside the shoes of decision makers and trade-off health priorities with a limited city budget. There is still time to have your say. Head to: bit.ly/shapeourcity.
Sophie, the project coordinator says: “OCOH is not only influencing decision makers; it is a campaign to encourage the public to take a more active role in city decision making. Most of us are aware that our neighbourhoods are rough around the edges but there is a real sense in Bristol that we are prepared to pick up a sander and smooth out the diamonds. We’re here to offer the sanders!”
So in addition to gathering ideas for a better Bristol, the project is helping to put these ideas into action in Barton Hill and Lawrence Weston – two areas where poverty levels are higher than the Bristol average.
In July, OCOH together with Ellie Shipman, a Bristol-based participatory artist, organised a lunch at Barton Hill Settlement, with lunch provided by a local women’s group. Over 50 people came along to share food and recipe ideas and discuss their health priorities for change. Several eager children then led a banner walk around the neighbourhood, with their parents pointing out all of the things that make the area an unhealthy place to live. Based on these conversations, the project is now connecting local residents with UWE’s Hands On Bristol to address some of these health challenges. A similar event happened a month later at Blaise Weston Retirement home.
“Architecture students are being set a design challenge and must work with the residents to create an action that improves the health of the area based on their priorities. They’ll also create a toolkit for other residents in Bristol, showing them the steps they need to take to create their own action,” explains Sophie.
The challenge began this month and will end in late November with a party in each neighbourhood to celebrate. Keep an eye on their social media to find out when @ShapeOurCity
For more information about the project visit: bit.ly/OurCityOurHealth, or contact Sophie on Sophie.email@example.com
Living in cities impacts on our health and the health of the planet. If you were able to develop your city to prioritise health, what would you change first?
The SCU team have just launched Shape Our City, a creative, online consultation that allows you to step into the shoes of a city decision maker, weigh up the evidence and have your say on the health of our city. Working within a realistically limited budget, you will have to make trade-offs between types of investment and the scale at which you invest. Do you think it’s more urgent to improve the quality of buildings, to make roads safer, to increase the number of cycle paths or amount of green space, or to improve access to healthy food?
Shape Our City is part of a project encouraging citizens to take a more active role in urban decision-making concerning their health – and the health of future city residents. Luke Jerram’s Inhale diesel soot particle sculpture, 3 million times larger than the real size of a diesel soot particle and designed to start conversations about the invisible health risks of air pollution, is another part of the project, and, in Bristol, Shape Our City will be gathering citizen preferences until November 2018.
What you choose to prioritise will be used to inform city developers and future research on designing cities for people and planetary health: so make sure you invest wisely!
Sophie Laggan, Project Coordinator of Our City, Our Health in SCU says: “We have gathered the latest evidence on the links between the built environment and our health and also quantified the health costs and savings from how cities are developed. Our consultation reveals these savings so, for the first time, we can make visible the positive benefits to be gained from prioritising our health in urban decision-making – and find out what is most important to you. It’s all quite exciting!”
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:
Research shows that audiences at a health science festival prefer lectures.
We all know the debates about deficit versus dialogue, but what do audiences prefer? This was the central research question in my recent study looking at a health science festival in New Zealand.
Science festivals offer an interesting environment to explore preferences for format design, as they usually feature a huge variety of different event styles. The science festival in question was held in Auckland, New Zealand, and focussed on health science research around the brain and psychology. Held as part of international Brain Awareness Week, ‘Brain Day’ attracts over 3000 people to this free one-day annual event- not an insignificant number in a country of just 4.5 million people!
The festival formats under question were lectures, discussions, a community expo, laboratory experiments and a general good day out. Festival entrants were handed a questionnaire to fill in, and could return it anonymously to a drop-box at the exits, with a prize draw incentive. The experiment was repeated over three years, and in total we reached a sample of 661 people.
So which format did they prefer? Overwhelmingly, this sample significantly preferred lectures; with 76% ranking them the main attraction, 89% attending them, and 84% stating lectures were the most useful. This was irrespective of age, gender, education, or the year the festival was run. In open response questions participants described their reasons – stating that ‘knowledge is power’. Participants were attending the festival to learn something new, and lectures presented a good way to hear about research and expert opinion.
But wait – don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater! We conclude that all formats have a part to play in the science communication landscape. Over two-thirds of the sample visited more than one format, and indeed, laboratory experiments were the second choice for family visitors. Yet however you look at it, the much derided format of lectures is still clearly popular with audiences.