WeCount is a citizen science research project funded by the H2020 SwafS-programme and aims to empower citizens to take a leading role in the production of data, evidence and knowledge around mobility in their own neighbourhoods. The project started in December 2019 and was designed to have lots of face-to-face engagement and interaction between the project team and citizens in five European cities and regions (Leuven in Belgium; Madrid and Barcelona in Spain, Ljubljana in Slovenia, Dublin in Ireland and Cardiff in the UK).
Just as the project started recruiting citizens and running workshops, the world was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant restrictions on who we could meet and where we could meet them. Eventually, all WeCount countries went into lockdown, which placed additional challenges on delivering the project as it was originally planned.
Dr Margarida Sardo, from the Science Communication Unit conducted a short evaluation aimed at understand the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in running and delivering a large-scale, international citizen science project.
Main challenges faced by the WeCount team:
Reaching specific groups, such as senior citizens and low socio-economic groups
Fear of face-to-face
The COVID-19 pandemic has no doubt created new challenges for some citizen science projects, but with hybrid approaches to participant recruitment and engagement, projects can still thrive. This study provides useful advice for creating the flexibility, adaptability, refocus required to overcome the challenges faced.
Based on the findings of this evaluation, Sophie Laggan has created a full infographic, highlighting both the challenges faced by the WeCount team, but also offering helpful approaches to counterbalance the impacts of the pandemic on delivering the project.
For a closer look at the infographic below or to download a copy, please click here.
Neurodiversity Week (15-21 March 2021) celebrates our unique strengths and differences, while recognising that the many talents of people with ADHD, autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia and other neurodiverse ways of thinking and learning are often not suited to traditional, formal learning environments. Science Hunters is a Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) outreach and research programme that uses Minecraft to engage children from under-represented groups with STEM. Projects have covered a wide range of topics such as the Amazon rainforest, understanding diabetes, earth science and volcanoes and space, with the Building to Break Barriers project currently running at UWE Bristol engaging children with many aspects of engineering.
Minecraft is the second-best selling video game of all time and extremely popular with children. Players place and break blocks with a wide range of appearances and properties, to build a huge range of constructions. It can be played either as a single-player game or in a shared virtual world with multiple users playing together, and was chosen for Science Hunters because of its popularity (children want to play it!), particular appeal to children who learn differently, and suitability for explaining science.
A key target group for Science Hunters is children with Special Educational Needs (SEN), particularly through a dedicated Minecraft Club that has been running since 2015. It soon became clear that taking part in the club, alongside children with similar needs in an accepting environment, and playing a game which was a shared special interest, had more benefits for participants than STEM learning alone.
When face-to-face sessions are possible, as they were until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Minecraft Club uses a dedicated server, so that children can play together in a safe social online space. Most of the children who attend have ADHD, autism and/or dyslexia. Spaces are limited to no more than 16 at a time, with simple guidelines to keep the club fun; children are not under pressure to conform to ‘neurotypical’ behaviour norms as may be expected in non-specific settings. STEM topics are briefly introduced, and then participants are free to build in Minecraft in relation to that topic; while adults are there to guide and support, children are encouraged to follow their own interests and ideas to create their own unique designs. For four years, data were collected from participating children and their parents/carers, who attended with them, through surveys and interviews.
During this time, 101 children aged 5-17 years attended; responses were gathered from 29 children and 37 caregivers. Results indicated that children both enjoyed and learnt something from attending, and while their feedback understandably often focused on Minecraft, they also indicated that they had benefitted socially and emotionally from being in the shared space with other children with similar interests. This was supported by insights from parents and carers, who described benefits outside the club, such as improved confidence and wellbeing, improved social skills, and reduced need for formal learning support.
Interest in playing Minecraft is what motivates children to attend, and the game provides a range of opportunities for children to potentially develop social and educational skills. This is supported by the process of designing and completing builds, independently or collaboratively, and communicating with others within the shared virtual world. Playing in the same physical space enhances this, as communication can move between the virtual and real worlds and allow in-person peer support and the ‘safe space’ provided in our Minecraft Club supports children with SEN to interact naturally and spontaneously. While it was set up as part of STEM outreach, the social communication impacts of our Minecraft Club – such as making friends, fitting in, and feeling valued without judgement regardless of completing tasks or conforming to expected social behaviours – are at least as important.
Minecraft Club is currently running virtually as part of Building to Break Barriers. We’ve looked at earthquake-proof buildings, protecting against flooding, tunnels, drones and more, and are exploring the effects of the change to meeting online.
When children are asked what an engineer is, and what they look like, it can often be a tricky question. They may jump to the image of an engine mechanic, or a man in overalls with a spanner and a hard-hat. They may also have trouble recognising familiar jobs as coming under the umbrella of engineering.
Engineering is defined as ‘working artfully to bring something about’. More literally, it is the application of science and maths to solve problems. And it’s a career that is more relevant than ever – to achieve net zero and a low carbon global economy, everything we make and use, from aircraft to cars, batteries to wind turbines, will need to be completely re-imagined and re-engineered.
When a child does not personally know an engineer, or does not recognise the role of engineering in solving the problems faced by a society, then this notion of an engineer becomes more removed from their view, and critically, from their career aspirations. In science communication, we encounter children with low science capital throughout our work. So how can the children dream of becoming an engineer, if they don’t know what one is?
You can’t be what you can’t see
It is difficult for children to imagine themselves in that job, when the engineer does not look like them. Encouraging girls and children from minority ethnic groups into engineering careers, and STEM careers more broadly, is a key focus of the DETI Inspire team working out of UWE.
In collaboration with My Future My Choice, as well as many local engineers; the DETI Inspire team at UWE have developed the Engineering Curiosity cards and lesson resources for schools. The aim is to bring the diversity of the West of England’s amazing engineers into the classroom and enthuse and inspire both primary and secondary pupils. Through not only learning about what an engineer is and recognising their role, but also introducing them to real-life local engineers that may come from similar beginnings, so that they can start to think of engineering as something that could be for them!
Engineering Curiosity is a collection of 52 cards, based upon 52 local engineers in a wide variety of different roles and industries, in a kind of ‘Top Trumps’ meets ‘Happy Families’ style game. The engineers featured have also each produced an engaging TikTok style video, giving a fun snapshot of their role and their route into it. The project has developed lesson plans, curriculum linked worksheets and activities, and school-wide assemblies to accompany the cards and videos, all to aid schools in running sessions that involve the real engineers joining them live in the classroom through video link.
During the recent British Science Week, local schools around the West have been taking part in DETI’s ‘Big Beam In!’, bringing the sessions to life and reaching over 3500 pupils. Some of which may just be the West’s future engineers!
Looking to inspire in your science communication, or want to check out all the engineering roles for yourself? You can find the resources, lesson plans and cards on the Curiosity Connections website.
We’re living through a Climate and Ecological Emergency and we urgently need to reduce carbon emissions. And yet society seems frozen into inaction. Could a new modelling and communication approach help to gather momentum?
In a journal paper recently released, the research team detailed their innovative method to bring these results together, through citizen-centred source apportionment. Traditional methods for monitoring air pollution and carbon emissions look at what is creating the emissions (vehicles, heating etc), and where the emissions end up (pollution hot spots).
Focus on Who and Why
This new approach focusses on who is burning fossil fuels and why they are doing so. This means we can understand the human dimension of emissions to improve policymaking, accounting for demographics (gender or age groups), socio-economic factors (income/car ownership) and motives for specific behaviours (e.g., commuting to work, leisure, shopping, etc.).
The modelling produced some surprises when applied to traffic in Bristol – as leisure travel accounted for the most km travelled, and therefore the most emissions per year. Local councils usually focus on school traffic or commuting, but this provides a new way to approach emissions reduction. Policymakers plan to look at ways to reduce car use for leisure travel, for instance locating leisure venues near to public transport or cycling paths, or even considering plans for 15 minute cities, where any necessary city amenities are within a 15 minute walk from homes.
For science communicators, there is also much to think through as well. The modelling showed that emissions are not evenly produced; certain types of people produce more emissions than others, and some feel the effects of pollution more than others. For instance, men travel by car more than women, and people who earn over £50,000 per year tend to own more cars, and therefore drive far more often.
Perceptions of ‘sensible’ climate action vary between groups
We therefore need a far more nuanced approach to communicating about climate action. Climate Outreach have done some excellent work on this topic, with their work on seven segments of British society and their attitudes to climate action. Science communicators need to focus on the segments polluting the most, and tailor communications showing the benefits of each relevant action they can take.
The UWE team’s new journal paper take this further using social psychology theories, explaining how the social contexts of the groups to which we belong influence what we perceive to be ‘normal’ in society. This means that cultural realities can change between social groups, cities, regions and countries. This ‘Overton Window of Political Possibility’ can shift over time so that an idea moves from unthinkable to radical, to acceptable, to sensible, to popular and finally into policy. For example, a climate change policy which is considered quite sensible in one city, such as an extensive network of segregated bike lanes allowing for cars to be curtailed in the city centre (Amsterdam in the Netherlands), may be considered to be quite radical in another city (such as Bristol, U.K.).
Science communications needs to focus on group lived experience of this ‘normality’, in order to understand more about why our day-to-day behaviours happen, and how we can change if we see others doing the same. Politicians will generally only pursue policies that are widely accepted throughout society as legitimate policy options, or otherwise, they may risk losing popular support and become unelectable. In order to introduce new policies, we therefore need to show how an idea can be communicated so that it resonates with what is deemed ‘acceptable’ or ‘sensible’ to the majority of citizens.
People like me create emissions, and people like me can take action
The UWE team showed how social cognitive theory can be used to help improve individual and collective self-efficacy for climate action. Using an example of more women cycling to activities, we need to focus on:
Vicarious experiences (i.e., comparisons of capability to others, modelling and observing)—a woman deciding whether to cycle will be influenced by whether other women cycle; if this is considered a ’normal’ thing for women to do, then other women will likely join in.
Mastery or performance accomplishments (i.e., experiences of relevant success)—a beginner female cyclist will be more likely to continue cycling if they have a positive experience cycling on main roads; they will then have a memory to recall about their ability to cycle alongside cars.
Verbal persuasions (positive feedback from peers and supervisors, coaching)—to continue cycling, the female cyclist would need to receive direct positive feedback on this activity.
Emotional arousal – both vicarious (indirect) and mastery (direct) experiences can influence our emotional states. To improve self-efficacy for an activity, we need to experience positive emotional responses. Therefore, the woman would need to feel that she is capable and confident at cycling and that other people approve or admire her behaviour.
So climate action needs positive (and relevant) role models, alongside positive press or communications (in relevant media) in order to help change our behaviours.
The ClairCity project showed how new thinking about the role of people in relation to air pollution and carbon emissions can widen options for action, leading to more acceptable and effective policies. Climate communications should draw on social learning in order to tailor communication efforts towards relevant groups. Ultimately, we need to become more aware that ’people like me’ create emissions and, equally, ‘people like me’ can take action to reduce emissions.
Fogg-Rogers, L.; Hayes, E.; Vanherle, K.; Pápics, P.I..; Chatterton, T.; Barnes, J.; Slingerland, S.; Boushel, C.; Laggan, S.; Longhurst, J.. Applying Social Learning to Climate Communications—Visualising ‘People Like Me’ in Air Pollution and Climate Change Data. Sustainability 2021, 13(6) 3406 doi.org/10.3390/su13063406
Kassie at NASA Ames in front of the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA)
My name is Kassie. I’m a storyteller, science facilitator, and science advocate. I work as a federal contractor for the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute at NASA Ames in Silicon Valley. A decade ago, I would have never expected my career to head in this direction. I’ve always enjoyed science – especially robotics and space science – but early on I was drawn to the humanities. Reading literature taught me about the human condition and prepared me to think critically and communicate clearly. Effective science communication follows a similar thread: communicate clearly and connect with your audiences through good storytelling. We’re not data processors, after all.
I discovered science communication after a bit of soul-searching. In my early 30s, I worked as a research communicator at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford and I wanted to level up my practical experience with training courses. Well, I didn’t find research communication training, however, ‘science communication’ popped up. Huh, interesting. I was curious and signed up to the week-long Science Communication Masterclass taking place in Bristol and organised by the SCU. At the end of the week I was hooked. That was it for me. I didn’t know in what shape or form, but science communication needed to be in my future!
At NASA, I’m the go-between for our scientists (the science community) and members of the public. The best way I can explain it is finding that sweet spot connection between exploring the science and humanity in our work. I do a lot of interviewing. I ask scientists about their science journey and challenge them to explain their science like they were presenting at a science museum and to eager science enthusiasts. Explain the acronyms!
I learned to practice upstream engagement at UWE Bristol. Now I understand how to better incorporate inclusive learning experiences and fostering two-way dialogues. Just as it sounds, it implies creating space for members of ‘publics’ early on in science conversations and working together – as opposed to disseminating and hoping for the best. It challenges perceptions in our current model of science discourse. At NASA this can be a tricky, however, things are getting better! Citizen science is where it can really take off.
It took a few years, but we’ve recently developed a citizen science proposal around this concept. We – a small group of astronomers and science communicators – are developing engaging science communication content via videos, inviting people along the science journey with astronomers as they look through data – augmenting a current citizen science project called ‘Planet Hunters’. We are not shying away from technical aspects and delving into the nitty-gritty astronomers experience during the process. Citizen scientists will lend their expertise, lead video content, and can influence the direction of the tutorials. Instead of pushing out content WE think people are interested in seeing, we will be working alongside citizen scientists and listening to their anxieties, concerns, and building our project together with them. Scientists, citizen scientists, and science communicators. Our little project is only just starting – wish us luck!
None of this would have been possible without my training at UWE, which I continued after the Masterclass by completing an MSc in Science Communication. The teaching staff nurtured my budding interest in robotics and electric vehicles. I decided to focus my MSc project dissertation on public perceptions of autonomous vehicles. I felt a personal sense of accomplishment with my deep dive dissertation. Shortly thereafter, I interviewed with NASA leadership and moved back to California for this job. Like any new role, it has evolved over time. I still get to write about cool science topics, but now I’m more involved in day-to-day management as a managing editor and my brand new citizen science project!
My advice: if you’re thinking about science communication, give it a go. Attend a taster, attend the Masterclass. It will be rigorous and challenging, but you’ll walk away with skills and confidence to go after anything. I know I did. Then come join me at NASA!
This blog post was originally included in Transforming Society published by Bristol University Press and Policy Press, on 12th November 2020, and is reproduced with their kind permission here.
Like many publishing projects this one started like any other. An exchange of emails, a flurry of ideas, and a conversation over tea in a university coffee shop, followed by a shake of hands. What’s changed since that initial conversation is that we are now experiencing a global pandemic. No more physical greetings or coffee shop meetings, instead conversations conducted by Zoom and significant ramifications which impact on our personal and professional lives. However, what hasn’t changed in that time period, and what’s perhaps come even more to the fore, is the role of science communication. In many senses this is an optimum, if exceptionally challenging and sensitive time, to launch a book series on Contemporary Issues in Science Communication, though science communication can still be a field which is relatively unknown for many working in academia.
Science Communication has an extensive global history, but its UK efforts particularly came to the fore post 1985, with the publication of a well-known report, the ‘Bodmer report’ on Public Understanding of Science. Since then science communication has emerged as a space for an eclectic range of disciplines to consider how science and research more broadly is communicated, and importantly engaged around. This means it can encompass disciplinary insights from scholars in a range of social sciences, including informal learning and education, communication and media studies, science and technology studies, psychology, the arts, history, philosophy and more. A recent study of published research in the field identified that research has increased over the last four decades and become more ‘pluralistic’, whilst those receiving training in science communication can range undergraduate and postgraduate students, to working scientists, as well as those who work at science museums and other public sites. Science communication has porous boundaries, is often reluctant to provide exclusive definitions (for example, Trench and Buchhi’s discussion of an emerging discipline), and thus can attract people from a wider range of interests, as well as practical and/or theoretical insights.
Returning to the coffee shop, during those first conversations about a potential book series there were a number of key topics discussed. This included the ways that ‘Fake’ news and digital marketing are changing the context for science journalism. How emerging political eras are altering the way we think about expertise and trust in policymaking, as well as the power of protest. How inclusivity is being considered in science communication from the perspectives of gender, class, disability, ethnicity and other ‘intersectional’ perspectives. As well as underexplored issues within science communication, such as the relationship between public health topics, medical settings and patient and public involvement.
Since then such topics have become all-encompassing in the context of COVID-19. Topics which are not only relevant for science communication scholars, but for academics working over a wide range of disciplines, for policymakers seeking an evidence base to inform decision making, to science museums and centres battling for their survival in a time of ‘lockdowns’, and members of the public encountering the latest data visualisations broadcast live into their homes. Of course, the main priority is not academic in this global context. People are losing their lives, their incomes, their social contact, and their loved ones, but many science communicators will have a desire to contribute their expertise at this time.
This means we are already seeing an emergence of academic science communication work in this area. Studies are examining a range of topics including fake news, media framing, disinformation, use of metaphors, governmental responses, public perceptions, as well as how particular communities are being more directly impacted. A useful special issue on COVID-19 covering such subjects has already been produced by the Journal of Science Communication (JCOM) and no doubt more publications are on the way. However, as the pandemic still impacts all around us, with different regions and countries continuing to adapt to rising rates, fluctuations in data, nudges and regulations around social behaviours and responsibilities, as well as the extended social, economic, moral and political implications of the first global pandemic in generations, there remains a space in the literature for manuscripts not only focussed on COVID-19 but a wide range of contemporary science communication issues.
Contemporary Issues in Science Communication seeks to offer such a space. Publications in this peer-reviewed book series will cover a range of topics relevant to contemporary science communication, including, but not limited to disciplinary insights, science communication mechanisms and techniques and inclusivity in science communication. Proposals can be focussed on specific science, health, environmental and other research subjects, provided the core theme is science communication or engagement related.
As COVID-19 continues to be a pressing matter in 2020, as well as responses to Black Lives Matters, and ongoing political elections, this may not be an easy time for authors to consider proposals in this area. Nevertheless, in providing a book series such as this it is hoped there will be opportunities for longitudinal considerations of the role of science communication within such societal issues, increasing not only the breadth and depth of accounts in science communication, but also opening up such spaces to a wider range of academics, disciplines and authors. Science communication has, after all, never been more public.
I recently had the opportunity to produce a documentary about the concerning shortage of early career pollinator taxonomists in Europe. The film was made to complement a Science for Environment Policy (SfEP) report that I co-authored, about the important role of pollinators in the survival of the global ecosystem, and highlighting the vital role of monitoring them, to understand the causes of their declining numbers1. As a former TV documentary producer, and now science communicator, it is always enjoyable to revisit my filmmaking skills. But, for anyone contemplating making a film – whether it’s the first — or the twentieth they have made — it is always a little daunting and exciting to figure out where to start, and who will be your charismatic interviewees that compel your viewers to watch the film to the end?
The first task, after deciding on the outline of content for the pollinators report, was to come up with a list of topics for our client that the film could focus on. Our client, the European Commission’s Environment Directorate-General, chose the decline in taxonomy — the classification of species — as a scientific discipline for the narrative focus of the film. Experts in this discipline are vital in monitoring pollinator populations in different habitats over time, to record the causes and effects of pollinator decline. This topic encompassed both professional and citizen science monitoring projects, as both are needed to understand the immense diversity of pollinators present in Europe, whilst collecting robust data over space and time to inform pollinator conservation measures.
On a budget
Budget constraints, coupled with a request from our client to feature scientists from across Europe set the parameters for the content of the film. Working within these constraints required careful consideration of how the film could be made — assessing content versus cost for each of the potential shoots we were planning.
For example, changing the logistics of a particular shoot, by asking an expert to travel to a more convenient location, saved a great deal of time and money. It is all too easy to become fixed on an approach when setting up a film, but sometimes, out of necessity and with flexibility, creative solutions can be found which end up working better.
To free up some additional budget I managed to negotiate a discounted rate with our camera hire company and due to the environmental nature of the films they part sponsored us to complete the project. Further savings were made when instead of hiring a sound operator to work alongside me on camera, I gave my colleague Michelle, a science writer on the report, on-the-job training on how to swing a boom. Michelle’s lesson, learned from one of our outdoor shoots, is to always wear long trousers when filming outdoors in a field to avoid biting insects! Similarly, I regretted my lack of hat on that shoot, as there was little shade. Preparation is key — always look at the weather forecast beforehand (and out of the window on the day) and bring all that you may need, including lots of water whatever the weather.
Securing the right interviewees for our film meant finding people who could tell the story of pollinator monitoring in Europe, covering both citizen science involvement and the need for professional career taxonomists. A longlist of potential experts had been recommended to us by our client, and this made the process somewhat quicker. However, we still needed to speak to these individuals and ascertain what they had to say on the topic, and how comfortable they might be at articulating their viewpoints for a non-specialist audience.
We were pleased to secure interviews with our scientific advisor for the written report, Adam Vanbergen, Director of Research, Agroecology, for the Institute National de la Recherche Agronomique, in Paris. In addition, we spoke to a pollinator expert based just outside Barcelona in Spain — Constanti Stefanescu, who manages a long-running citizen science butterfly monitoring programme. Constanti also helped us with another of the sequences on our wish list, filming a group of citizen scientists conducting a butterfly monitoring transect (a fixed-route walk on which butterflies are recorded). On this shoot we interviewed some of the dedicated citizen science volunteers, who, for a number of years, had been regularly monitoring butterfly populations near their homes across Spain. Their voices spoke of the joy of conducting butterfly transects, walking in the natural environment and contributing to a long-term scientific project.
The last two contributors we needed to secure for our film, were a late stage career bee taxonomist, and a new entrant scientist considering taxonomy. I focused my research on locating a female bee expert, to give balance to the film as both the other experts were male. These enquiries led me to Professor Concepción Ornosa Gallego, and her PhD student Daniel Romero in Madrid. I knew from my initial conversation with Concepción, that she was perfect for the film and keen to be involved — she preferred speaking in Spanish, so we recorded her interview in her native language, with Daniel kindly translating.
This was the first time I’d conducted an interview in this way, and it certainly made things a bit tougher in the edit. However, it worked well on location, and Concepción spoke eloquently about the current barriers discouraging young people viewing taxonomy as a good career choice, and how these might be overcome. She also showed us how difficult it can be to identify one species from another — when it comes to the thousands of bee species that exist, the anatomical differences can be tiny. This is in contrast to butterfly species, which are much easier to identify and lend themselves well to citizen science monitoring programmes.
We had a number of locations open to us at the University of Madrid — Concepción’s office, the ‘type’ collection of pollinators housed at the university and the botanical gardens. This gave us a range of filming options on the day, an important insurance for inclement weather when a recce trip prior to filming isn’t possible and there is only a limited time period for the shoot to take place.
Daniel’s interview gave the viewer the perspective of an early career scientist, who is currently choosing which path to take. Pollinator taxonomy was an option; however, he explained that the lack of jobs in this area, and difficulty in getting publications in this discipline in publications (which aid career development) put him off this choice. This is an issue he believes should be addressed to encourage more young people to enter this discipline. With many late career taxonomists set to retire, without more career entrants, we could be left with a dearth of expertise in identifying and monitoring pollinators, which are vital for the health of our ecosystems.
Having a balance of experts, early career scientists and volunteer citizen scientists, gives the viewer a range of relatable voices. It is important to reflect the diversity of the viewing public within your film as much as possible.
The interviews and actuality footage were secured, but the film still needed something to add visual interest and colour, which, when you are discussing pollinators, should be the critters themselves, pollinating in all their wondrous forms. The film was made with the available light and a standard camera, which is great for filming interviews in brightly lit rooms, or in a sunny garden or field, but not so good for filming small pollinators on the wing. Luckily, there is a plethora of amazing Creative Commons footage available on a number of websites, shot by members of the public or budding natural-history camera operators. This footage added the movement, colour and beauty of the pollinators to the narrative voices of the interviewees.
The editing and post production process are as important as all other aspects of making a film. I edited this film, but benefitted in doing so from the input of other members of the SfEP team, as well as several of the client’s team. These varied opinions help produce a good product. However, it is always good to remember the mantra of professional editors ‘that the client is always right’. This doesn’t mean that you cannot offer your perspective to them, but ultimately, they know their end aims and audience best.
The written facts that were chosen to appear over some parts of the film, were an important aspect of the finished product, as was the subtitling. The latter was the very last thing that was added, and it was rewarding to see the final subtitled product delivered to the client. The client and contributors were pleased with how the film conveyed the message about the import of monitoring of pollinators, and have distributed it amongst their networks, and at conferences.
The film highlighted the need for understanding and classifying pollinators whose enormous economic and social importance is crucial for raising awareness about the cascading effects that will ensue from their absence. However, it is worth noting that the current lack of evidence for some groups of pollinators should not delay the urgent work of putting in place solutions we know will help: creating and preserving bigger, higher-quality and better-connected habitat for pollinator species.
When I started teaching science writing after spending years as a journalist, I wanted to share my experience, my way of doing things, in the classroom. But I quickly struck upon a problem. What did I actually do? How did I find and research stories? How did I choose interviewees? I had been doing all of these things for so long (and often at speed) that the process I followed had become automatic – not the stuff of conscious thought. It took a fair bit of reflection to unravel the processes that had become so hardwired so I could try to explain them in the classroom.
When we are conducting research as science communicators, a lot of our decisions come down to who and what we trust. What sources can we rely on for fact and who can we rely on for opinion? In reality, faced with the pressures of time, as communicators we typically rely on a limited range of sources – the likes of peer reviewed papers, the scientists directly involved with the research (or at least someone in their field) and possibly the odd press release. But how many of us give conscious thought in our working day to what we trust and why? How often are we open to ideas, perspectives and knowledge that come from outside our usual circle of trust?
It’s questions such as these that are at the heart of the latest report from the European Commission-funded RETHINK project. This report synthesised research we had already done to consider the ‘openness’ and ‘reflexivity’ of science communicators and also of citizens; those who read, watch or listen to what we create. How open are we to a wide range of information, ideas and perspectives? And how reflexive are we, consciously thinking about where we search for information, how that influences the information we find and then how choices we make influence what we write or create?
A guiding principle of RETHINK is that openness and reflexivity on the part of communicators, citizens, scientists and everyone else for that matter are a good thing – helping to create a more effective exchange of ideas and knowledge. On their own, all of these principles sound straightforward. Source information you can trust. Be open. Be reflexive. It’s just that when you put all those ideas together, things start to get complicated.
A survey of the working practices of science communicators we conducted earlier in RETHINK shows that academic journals, university press releases and personal contacts are consulted widely during research. After all, these are sources we can trust for the most part. But if this is what we always do as communicators, often without conscious thought (or reflexivity) it limits the opportunities for readers, viewers and listeners to be exposed to different information and perspectives.
So it is in the implementation of these principles that things get challenging. How prepared are we as communicators to step outside our research comfort zone and take information from sources, from people, we wouldn’t usually consult? When would we want to do this? Are there circumstances when it’s more appropriate than others? After all, openness on the part of science communicators doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll simply report information and opinions from anyone. There’s a widely circulated quote (that’s been attributed to several people) that may apply here: “Let us keep our minds open…but don’t keep your minds so open that your brains fall out!”
Our new RETHINK report also explores how open and reflexive citizens are when they are interpreting information about science. Specifically, it looked at their ‘sensemaking practices’ in relation to coronavirus – sensemaking being the process by which we develop an understanding of something complex. It showed that there is some evidence of openness, with people consulting a range of newspapers and websites to help them triangulate information and understand what’s happening. But in many instances, citizens’ sensemaking practices are understandably heavily influenced by their context – they speak with friends, family, find information from online social media groups they’re part of and have a limited range of online sources they trust. They are also unlikely to shift from pre-existing beliefs during this sensemaking process. In other words, some sensemaking is not particularly open, or particularly reflexive for that matter.
So what we can do about all this? How can we as science communicators become open and reflexive in what we do in a way that’s compatible with the need to source trustworthy information? And is there anything we can do to encourage others, those who watch, listen or read what we create, to be open and reflexive too? Let’s have an (open and reflexive) conversation about this – tweet us at @SciCommsUWE@RETHINKscicomm with your thoughts and ideas.
These are some of the questions that have emerged through Kitchen Cultures, a project that has been developed with the Eden Project’s Invisible World exhibition during lockdown as part of a remote residency. In collaboration with six migrant women+ of colour (all from formerly European-colonised nations) and no-waste chef Fatima Tarkleman (herself a first generation migrant of mixed Nigerian-Ugandan-Pakistani heritage), we created a process to gather existing recipes that referenced the diverse cultures, knowledge and experiences of our participants, and to develop new recipes that that could be used to reduce food waste in the home.
By creating new collaborative recipes that utilised preservation techniques to keep or extend the life of locally grown/available ingredients, this project seeks to:
Discover existing and create new recipes to address food waste;
Create cultural encounters that tell us something about food, migration and colonialism;
Include women who are often excluded from the conversations about sustainability;
Learn about different ways of thinking about sustainability from different cultures;
Create a relationship with the land in which we live now in order to take responsibility for its future.
As such this project does not intend to use these issues in order to justify the sticking plaster of reducing food waste in the home as an answer to systemic food inequality. It is possible to cheaply preserve foods at home if you have time, money, resources and knowledge to do so, and some of the outcomes from the project will enable you to do so more effectively. However, in order to properly address food poverty, we need agricultural and hospitality policy that supports a resilient food system, and the political will to create a more just and equitable society.
As a collective, what we feel is important is to think about ourselves and our food systems as implicated within an ecological system that is currently facing a major crisis. The primary aim of this project is to pluralise conversations about climate change and sustainability by drawing from the knowledge, experience and values of diverse cultural imaginaries. The practice developed thus sought to acknowledge and honour the ways in which ecological knowledge is held and communicated in families and communities through our food traditions, and to learn from them in order that we may find new ways to live ethically in a world that we share with multiple species.
Sustainability and colonialism
Industrial agriculture is one of the biggest drivers of climate change, contributing to emissions, fossil fuel extraction and deforestation. Global agricultural systems destroy biodiversity and create dependencies on industries such as GMO seeds and livestock, fertiliser and machinery which has created billions in farming debt. In the exchange value system, where fossil fuels were conceived as a direct replacement for slave labour on the plantation and in the factory, the bodies of black and brown people and land continue to be seen as cheap resources to be extracted for profit. Climate change as we currently understand it is implicitly constructed through the logics of colonialism, and explicitly maintained through the infrastructures of racial capitalism.
All of us involved in Kitchen Cultures are from countries that are living the legacy of colonisation in terms of the resources, people and land that have been extracted, and which formed the basis of the wealth that in the UK. Colonisation was an ideological project that reshaped the bodies, minds and lands of colonised people, and its legacy of globalised capital and cheap industrial labour is one of the main drivers of climate change today. The legacy of colonisation on the wealth, land and other resources in our countries of origin meant many migrant families moved to the UK to provide better opportunities for their children; we come from cultures that think intergenerationally, and as a result we tend to waste as little as possible (food or otherwise).
We know that there’s knowledge in diaspora communities that isn’t always visible to outsiders; our recipes tell the stories of who we are, of where we are from, where we have been, and where we live now; and the climates, resources and species we’ve encountered along the way. We wanted to create a space in which our participants could tell their stories, in their own words, or through their own practice(s) in a space in which they are the experts, their kitchens.
Over six weeks we worked remotely with our collaborators to develop recipes, and to tell stories, through poetry and through food. By working with diverse food preservation knowledge in partnership with holders of that knowledge from diaspora communities in the UK to develop recipes and processes, we wanted to invite ways of thinking sustainability and ecology from the perspective of different cultures (human, ecological, microbial). Starting as a simple recipe development exercise, it evolved into a community storytelling and recipe sharing project that, as a result of COVID-19, has predominantly run remotely on Zoom, Whatsapp, Instagram, and via discussions over the phone.
We were extremely lucky in this unprecedented time to get some funding from Eden Project to do this work, so we were able to facilitate access to the project through bursaries, and to cover all associated costs, including for home filming equipment. The recipes and stories that are the outcome from this stage will become a series of documents and workshops which will then be shared with communities around the UK via the Eden Project’s community outreach program. As they are shared, we expect that these recipes will evolve/adapt/respond to their context, and participant stories and recipes will be enriched through this network of cross-cultural sharing across the UK.
COVID-19 and connecting to others
We are living through extraordinary times; however, this moment offered us an opportunity: to address social isolation in marginalised communities; to think about and act differently towards nature; to learn from and value different ways of knowing the world; and to do all of this in solidarity with each other. By engaging communities (human and other) traditionally left out of debates about the future of science, technology and ecology, we might begin to address some of the systemic (racial, gendered, economic) inequalities in our society that have been highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Through our experience of the collective grief, confusion and trauma, we felt that it was important to create connections between communities and people who might be experiencing isolation and disconnection. After the murder of George Floyd by police in the US, and the resulting wave of protests, there was also an increased awareness about the ongoing legacy of colonialism in the form of systemic and structural racism experienced by migrants daily. It was in this moment that it felt more important than ever to create a space in which PoC/BAME/global majority women+ could talk about their experiences of migration, colonialism and race in a way that was generative, healing and respectful.
Food is one of the ways in which we care for each other in our communities, and many of us come from cultural and cosmological traditions that consider nature (land, animals, rivers, trees) as part of these communities. By working collaboratively with each other, and by drawing attention to the organisms (bacteria, yeasts) in our environment and in/on our bodies who we also collaborate with through food preservation, I wanted to create conversations about what it means to care for each other when resources and opportunities globally are scarce for all species.
We’ve just completed the first stage of research with our participants, but the work is currently still in progress. We will be running the second stage of workshops with the Eden Project later in the year, with a view to developing a recipe kit that they can share as part of the Big Lunch next year. This is the first blog post introducing the project; in the future I hope to share some recipes and poetry that we are collecting from our participants, and to talk a bit more about the process we developed to conduct the research. We are also producing a short film, which will be available to watch on the Eden Project Invisible Worlds’ site as of December.