Kitchen Cultures: cultivating cross-cultural conversations towards inclusive climate futures

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Introduction

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.

Food waste in the UK

In the UK we waste over 70% of food waste post-farm gate in the home (6.6mT annually), although many households have adopted behaviours that reduced this during the pandemic. At the same time, COVID-19 has exposed major inequalities in the UK food system, and left millions living in food insecurity. However, it is important to note that the vast majority of food waste happens at the industrial scale due to exploitative and extractive agricultural systems.

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.

People in the global south are more likely to be living the direct effects of climate change (flooding, drought, biodiversity loss, crop failure), despite contributing the least emissions. One of the primary threats to human life due to climate change is food insecurity, yet the 10 most food-insecure countries in the world generate just 0.08% of total global CO2. The 50 least developed nations of the world have contributed only 1% of global greenhouse emissions in total. The Global North is responsible for 92% of carbon emissions, yet instead of addressing this debt, climate change campaigners Europe and the US often frame the responsibility for the ecological as shared by all humans equally, and advocate for deeply racist ideas such as population and immigration control.

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.

About

Kaajal Modi is an artist/designer and practice-based PhD Candidate at UWE Bristol, supervised by Teresa Dillon from the Digital Cultures Research Centre, and Emma Weitkamp from the Science Communication Unit. She is interested in fermentation as a metaphoric and material practice to create cross-cultural conversations about climate, migration and justice. Kitchen Cultures is a project developed in collaboration with the Eden Project and no-waste chef Fatima Tarkleman.

You can follow the outcomes on our Instagram: www.instagram.com/our_kitchen_cultures

The state of science communication as a field of research – a discussion

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The Science Communication Unit’s Dr Emma Weitkamp recently participated in an online discussion about the state of science communication as a field of research.

Emma represented the open access science communication journal, Journal of Science Communication (JCOM), alongside the editors of Public Understanding of Science (Dr Hans Peter Peters) and Science Communication (Susanna Priest).

The interview was conducted by Gustav Bohlin, Public Science V-A.

The discussion was organised by Linköping University, Public Science V-A and the Swedish Research Council . An excerpt of this interview was also presented at a webinar held in Norrköping by Linköping University on the 28 September 2020.

Science communication is still more dissemination than dialogue

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Photo credit: Pxhere.com

Words: Andy Ridgway

It’s a central theme to any science communication training – to communicate science effectively you need to know who it is that you’re communicating with. Call them what you will – audience, publics, participants – getting to know those who read, watch or listen to what you create and adapting what you are creating accordingly is of vital importance. Getting to know your audience often involves a two-way exchange – allowing your readers, viewers and listeners to comment on and contribute to what you’ve created in some way.  

On the face of it, digital forms of communication such as social media make starting conversations with audiences much easier than ‘traditional’ formats such as newspapers and magazines. After all, these digital platforms allow anyone to like, share and, most importantly, comment on what you write. But as a report on the latest research published as part of the RETHINK science communication research project shows, in practice these conversations between science communicators such as journalists and scientists and their audiences, often don’t happen. In other words, in spite of the mechanisms for conversations that digital media allow, in reality they act as a one-way broadcast media – the audience is very much an audience; playing a passive role in the process.  

Insights like this into the connections science communicators have with their audiences came from a series of ‘Rethinkerspace’ meetings that took place across Europe as part of the RETHINK project. These Rethinkerspaces are communities of practice made up of the likes of journalists, bloggers, scientists involved in sci com, academics and university press officers. Typical of the comments in the Rethinkerspace meetings, a member of the UK Rethinkerspace related how they found it difficult to create a conversation with audiences on digital platforms – in turn making it hard know what the audience wants. Similarly a member of the Swedish Rethinkerspace who runs a podcast stated that they face a “lack of time to engage with listeners.” UWE Bristol’s Rethinkerspace was led by Andy Ridgway.

RETHINK, a European Commission-funded research project that involves partners across Europe including VU Amsterdam and Ecsite, is focused on the opportunities and challenges presented by digitization and how to create a closer integration of science with society. So the connections between communicators and their audiences are important.

The same RETHINK report that describes the nature of the connections science communicators have with their audiences also describes who these audiences are. Here the insights came from a questionnaire developed by Elena Milani, Emma Weitkamp and Clare Wilkinson, who all work within UWE Bristol’s Science Communication Unit. What is notable is out of 460 communicators who completed the questionnaire, only seven said their target audiences do not already have an interest in science, technology or health. The majority of respondents (74%) indicated that their audiences are mixed in terms of their level of interested in science – with some interested and others not.

Many of the questionnaire respondents were press officers and communications officers but there were also journalists, researchers and university lecturers and professors, among others. The participants were from the UK, The Netherlands, Sweden, Portugal, Italy, Poland and Serbia. Most of these communicators, 94%, indicated that they aim to reach a ‘non-specialist audience’, indicating that for many, their conception of their audience is quite generalised.

The results of this study prompt some important questions. Not least of which is how meaningful conversations between communicators and audiences can be encouraged on digital platforms such as social media. In part, the answer to this question will depend on where the underlying problem lies. Is it down to a lack of time among those communicating science to engage in discussions? Or is it that many science communicators and institutions communicating science just don’t want a conversation – they still see their role as reporters of new research? Or is it something else entirely?

What do you think? Tweet us at @SciCommsUWE and let’s start a conversation.    

Evaluating Europe’s largest project on citizen-inclusive decision making for clean air and carbon management

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With just ten years left to change our carbon intensive lifestyles to mitigate climate chaos, urgent decisions need to be made about how we can reach net zero and clean air. Meanwhile, the Covid19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement show that citizen involvement in science communication has never been more critical to ensure a socially just transition. 

At this critical moment, the ClairCity project has reached its final dissemination stage; Europe’s largest ever research project on citizen-led decision making for clean air and carbon reductions. Six cities and regions came together to share engagement methods to involve citizens in policymaking, namely, Amsterdam in The Netherlands, the Aveiro Region of Portugal, Bristol in the UK, the Liguria region of Italy, Ljubljana in Slovenia and Sosnowiec in Poland.

As a result of the project team’s efforts, 818,736 citizens were involved in some form or another. Of these, 8,302 were directly engaged through workshops, events, schools’ activities, mobile games and apps, and even videos, a number which far exceeded the expectations of the team.

Why was this significant? Because these 8,302 citizens all influenced clean air and climate change decisions in their local context.

Over four years, the project partners and Council officers made many collaborations with local community organisations and together with a strong social media presence, the project’s on- and offline presence grew. Through a variety of engagement tools, citizens were able to have their say on what mattered to them regarding transport and home heating and what they would like to see change to enable them to make greener choices. There were also candid discussions on the potential barriers to such changes to not only make these concerns known to decision makers, but to have a deeper understanding of the challenges and trade-offs that need to be made when taking policy decisions.

Equipped with this information, ClairCity was then able to consult policy makers about the policies proposed by citizens and discuss how to operationalise them. As a final step, the top citizen policies were modelled against current policy plans for each case study to assess whether citizens’ demands could affect future emissions and associated health impacts. In nearly every context, citizens were more ambitious than ‘business as usual’, with the exception of Amsterdam where the local government was in fact more ambitious than its citizens.

An evaluation of epic proportion

ClairCity was a fascinating project to evaluate for our SCU team including Dr Laura Fogg-Rogers, Dr Margarida Sardo, Dr Corra Boushel, Sophie Laggan, and David Judge. We have produced a full evaluation report with all of the findings, which you’re welcome to read if you have the time, and a shorter one if you have less time. For those visual learners, there is also a visual evaluation report and our webinar recording. Finally, to satisfy blog readers, we have you covered too! Read on to hear our reflections and key findings.

The aim of the evaluation was to see whether the project had fulfilled its aim of ‘raising awareness of environmental challenges and their solutions through proactive dissemination of the project outcomes’. To do this, we explored the demographics of participants and those less directly involved, examined indicators of awareness, attitudes, knowledge and enjoyment (so called Generic Learning Outcomes) and citizen’s intended behavioural changes. Additionally, we explored differences across countries, demographics and engagement tools, to understand perceptions in different contexts. ­Data collection was carried out through paper/online questionnaires, including pop-up windows in the game and app, as well as in-depth interviews with staff and social media analysis.

All tools exceeded their targets for audience reach, apart from the App which remained at BETA testing due to technical issues. The Delphi workshops were particularly impressive, with 4887 participants compared with 200 expected, and the ClairCity Skylines game, with 2,800 players worldwide compared with 1500 players expected. Both successes can be largely attributed to the on-the-ground outreach and marketing activities of our case study partners, who made connections with community organisations, produced flyers, spoke on the radio, attended events, and generally made lots of noise to attract people. The cities that spent less time and resources on this groundwork had fewer participants as a result.

Social prowess

Our social media platforms gained a lot of traction over the years, although they were again limited by time and resources available. Our Communication Coordinator in Bristol was able to orchestrate our main sites, resulting in (at the time of writing) 1,392 Twitter followers and 416 Facebook followers, and 36,482 website visitors. Sites managed by our partners – who weren’t dedicated science communicators – had considerably less traffic.

Demographics

Data was collected for age, gender and educational attainment. Given the fact that ClairCity had targeted schools’ engagements, with several team members having direct connections to local schools, in addition to a mobile game, over 40% of participants were aged between 13-24. Working adults occupied around 50% of participants, and over 55+ represented less than 10%. This is quite an impressive finding considering most engagement projects fail to capture the full spectrum of ages. 

63% of participants in the study identified as male. The biggest gender differential came from the game, with more than twice as many male players than female, which skewed the gender balance. Alongside this, many stakeholder workshop participants were senior men in regional organisations, which again skewed the gender balance.

Participants were asked about their education level in our workshops. 81% of respondents held a Bachelor’s degree or above. On the other hand, in the game, 79% ranked their level of knowledge on air quality as being low/none. In other words meaning, the game appealed to people with less expertise.

Learning outcomes

Both policy makers and teachers were asked about the usefulness of the tool relevant to them. An overwhelming percentage of policy makers found the policy workshop useful/very useful (95%), compared with a more modest percentage of teachers finding for the schools’ competition (61%). The schools’ activities have since been expanded following this feedback, and our Educator Pack (part one and two) is freely available online, and has been featured in the British Science Association Science Week pack, and through Sustainable Learning.

The majority of participants enjoyed or loved the activities in which they were involved.  Both the Delphi and Stakeholder workshops greatly improved participants’ understanding of air quality (88% and 82% more understanding, respectively). 39% of game players left with more understanding, however for 45% their understanding stayed the same. The app mainly left people with the same understanding (47%), or feeling confused (18%).

Perhaps one of the biggest findings was in regards to behaviour change. At least half of all participants in the Delphi workshops, game, schools’ activities and stakeholder intended to change their behaviours as a result of their involvement (58%, 80%, 67% and 79%, respectively).

Upon cross-comparison, it was found that the more participants enjoyed the activity, the more they reported that their understanding of air quality had improved. Similarly, the more participants reported that their understanding had improved, the more they reported that they would change their behaviour. Younger people and those with lower education to start with were more likely to say they would change their behaviour. All of these relationships were highly statistically significant.

Ultimately, the more enjoyable the engagement activities, the more people gain understanding about the issues, and the more likely people are to make a change to their behaviour to reduce air pollution and carbon emissi0ns, and improve the health of our cities.

Reflections on the evaluation process

  • In future we would recommend other projects take additional time to target women’s groups, or develop ‘tools’ that appeal to women
  • While efforts were made to reach representivity through undertaking the Delphi process in low socio-economic status neighbourhoods, in hindsight we would have worked harder to amplify under represented voices. Recent Black Lives Matter protests have been a stark reminder of the need to make our work inclusive..
  • Working on an international project presented issues with translating the website and evaluation forms. More dedicated evaluation time, or expert science communicators in each country, would have helped researchers who were less experienced in social science research methods.   
  • We benefitted from having evaluation embedded from the beginning (rather than an add-on), and as such designed our evaluation methods to work in different contexts and cultures

Most ClairCity staff found engaging with citizens challenging (due to not having experience in this) but highly rewarding. By the end of the project the vast majority stated they have enjoyed engaging with citizens. This was a rich experience in terms of new skills, with our staff reporting to have learned how to pitch their ideas, how to talk to citizens and how important is to listen to people as well.

If you are interested in our experiences, or in benefitting from our reports, please check out our website for a variety of resources and tools to aid future citizen-led decision making on climate change and air pollution.

Sophie Laggan, Communications Officer, ClairCity

New insight into the motivations of today’s science communicators

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Words: Andy Ridgway

Why do those who blog, tweet, run events at festivals, give talks and engage in all the myriad of other forms of science communication do what they do? What do they aim to achieve when they communicate science?

While many of those who communicate science may well be too busy to ponder these questions day to day, they are important questions because, perhaps subconsciously for the most part, they influence the nature of the communication work they do. Not only that but when we look at these aims and motivations of science communicators at the macro scale, they provide an insight into their perceptions of the relationship between science and society. Are science and society connected and integrated, or somewhat disconnected?

It’s why questions about the motivations and aims of science communicators were an important part of the latest research organised by UWE Bristol’s Science Communication Unit as part of the European Commission-funded RETHINK project  which is exploring the nature of online science communication and how people make sense of science online.

A questionnaire, developed by Elena Milani, a Research Fellow within the Unit, and Unit co-directors Clare Wilkinson and Emma Weitkamp, was distributed to science communicators in the UK, The Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Portugal, Italy and Serbia and sought to find out more about why science communicators do what they do and how they do it.

Many of the 778 people who responded were press officers (just over 140), or described themselves as freelance communicators or writers (nearly 120). We also received responses from journalists and researchers, as well as those who described themselves as a blogger, YouTuber or social media influencer and a whole host of other science communicators.

What the questionnaire responses make clear is that for many of those who communicate science across Europe, it’s an enthusiasm for science that lies behind what they do. Many of those who communicate science said they do it because it’s part of their job. Others say their motivation, which might be very relevant at the moment, is to counter misinformation.

What was also noticeable was that nearly 300 of our respondents said their motivation was to ‘educate’ others about science. Perhaps not surprisingly then, when Europe’s science communicators were asked what they hoped to achieve when they communicate science, the most popular responses were ‘inform’ and ‘educate’.

This implies that in the minds of many who communicate science, the way we produce knowledge through science is distinct from knowledge use by society and how society might contribute to that knowledge. Knowledge is a one-way street that leads from scientists to the outside world.

That said, a fairly high proportion of European science communicators, 65%, said in the questionnaire that they are looking to create conversations between researchers and the public. This implies a more blurred line between science and society – a two-way street, with knowledge exchanged between scientists and the outside world.

This is interesting in its own right. But the nature of the science and society relationship has assumed greater significance and visibility since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s why there’s never been a more important time to think about this relationship, and maybe RETHINK some aspects of it.

In addition to asking science communicators about their motivations and aims, the questionnaire also sought to find out what they communicate, how they communicate science (whether they use social media or blogs for instance) and the barriers that stand in the way. The full report, including how this research links to science communication theory and previous research, is available here:

Thanks to researchers at Athena Institute, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in The Netherlands, Copernicus Science Centre, Poland, Vetenskap & Allmanhet, Sweden, Instituto de Tecnologia Química e Biológica António Xavier, Portugal, Sissa Medialab, Italy and the Center for the Promotion of Science in Serbia for their help in translating and distributing the questionnaire.

Science Chatters

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Walking around the Frenchay campus at UWE Bristol is an intriguing experience. Wander down one corridor and you find yourself in the Centre for Appearance Research, down another and you’ll find yourself flanked by science labs. Just what is that researcher doing, hunched over their experiment? What about the one peering at their computer screen? Step outside and, tucked away behind the student union, is the Bristol Robotics Lab. Just what is going on behind those doors?

The Science Chatters podcast is a collaboration between students and staff from the SCU and seeks to answer such questions.

For episode one of the Science Chatters podcast we chose the theme of The Arctic.  Emma Brisdion, a student on the MSc in Science Communication chatted with Dr. Stephanie Sargeant, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science about her recent research trip to the Arctic.

Priya Payment, studying on the Level 3 Wildlife Film and Media module, interviewed Annie Moir whose film, A Voice Above Nature, recently won a prestigious award at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival. Annie is a recent graduate from the MA in Wildlife Filmmaking.

From that sublime beginning, we had to turn to something more ridiculous and the second episode of Science Chatters is now live, with the enticing theme of Poo and Wee. Chloe Russell, studying the MSc in Science Communication speaks to Dr. Iwona Gadja about the Urine-tricity project, gaining electricity from urine.

The Urine-tricity project is one way in which researchers in the Bristol Robotics Lab are seeking to find ways to apply their knowledge of how to use “Pee Power” to provide electricity in areas including displacement and refugee camps. 

Fellow MSc student, Jessica Howard interviews Angeliki Savvantoglou about her PhD research into the bears of Greece…through the flies that interact with that thing that bears do in the woods.

Angeliki Savvantoglou examining bear scat.

There’s an argument that we should have called it Bears and Electricity but either way, you can listen here now.

Science Communication comes in many forms and Angeliki is an illustrator alongside her work on her PhD. If she is allowed to use the illustrations in her thesis, the reviewers will have a treat…as well as reading a lot of detail about poo.

Brown bear illustration by Angeliki Savvantoglou.

Jessica Howard, who interviewed Angeliki, is also an illustrator and designed the Science Chatters logo.

I’ve been something of a podcast fan for many years, both as a listener and as a creator. There’s something about the medium which lends itself to conversations which are filled with insight and honesty. In a world seemingly dominated by opinion and spin (to put it mildly), podcasts can provide a much needed escape. The relaxed format allows for conversations which are not afforded by other media and being able to hear directly to researchers involved in the science is really revealing.

UWE Bristol is a hotbed of research and Science Chatters allows listeners to listen in behind the scenes.

Andrew Glester, Lecturer in Science Communication at UWE Bristol.

Building our understanding of diabetes with Minecraft (even if you don’t have the game!)

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The inside of the human body, and all its organs, cells and molecules can be tricky to visualise, and that makes it difficult to understand how conditions like diabetes work. We can use things like models to help us see all these different features, and work out how they link together to do different things.

But models can take up a lot of space, and most of us don’t have anatomically accurate physical representations of the internal workings of the human body conveniently accessible at home, or even in many schools. Diagrams are an alternative, but they’re generally not very interactive.

The virtual construction game Minecraft, on the other hand, is great for exploring scientific concepts because it has many features and processes that relate to the real world, and can be used to visualise things that we can’t usually see – such as cells in the human body. Children and young people are often familiar with the game as it’s hugely popular, and this can give them a sense of expertise and ownership. We know Minecraft can act as a hook for children to engage with science topics, and that by participating in our sessions they can increase their subject knowledge and understanding, making it an effective tool for both catching children’s interest, and supporting their learning.

So what if we could use Minecraft to view and explore a large model of a human body on a computer? We could even get right inside it to investigate the internal organs, cells and processes.

In our ‘Building our understanding of diabetes with Minecraft’ project, we did just that. We have a human body constructed in Minecraft, which users can move around inside. They can explore the organs, cells and molecules inside it, and visualise and learn about processes that occur when someone does, and does not, have diabetes.

During the 2019-2020 school year, we began using this specially constructed Minecraft human body to deliver sessions about diabetes in schools in England and Scotland. However, now we are unable to do that during the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve created a slideshow to explain how diabetes works, using examples from the Minecraft build to illustrate components and concepts, and an accompanying video run through of the Minecraft human body. This way, more people can explore diabetes and the human body in Minecraft, even if we can’t visit them in schools or they don’t have Minecraft at home.

The slideshow and video can be used together, or the slideshow can be used as standalone resource. Each takes you on a virtual tour through the human body, exploring the relevant parts and processes involved in diabetes. They talk about what it’s like to have diabetes, and how it’s treated, and explore the pancreas, blood vessels, and cells and molecules to learn about their roles in diabetes. If you would like a creative challenge, the slideshow gives some ideas for activities, including building with Minecraft and Lego.  

The slideshow and video can be viewed below.

If you use the resources, we would really appreciate some feedback! There is a short online form here where you can report how children and young people found using them.

Project information

Exploring the molecular basis of diabetes with Minecraft is a Science Hunters project based at UWE Bristol, in collaboration with the University of Aberdeen, the University of Hull and Lancaster University and funded by a Royal Society of Chemistry Outreach Fund grant. The project was devised by Dr Laura Hobbs (UWE Bristol and Lancaster), Dr John Barrow (Aberdeen) and Professor Mark Lorch (Hull), and developed and delivered by them along with Sophie Bentley (UWE Bristol and Lancaster), Dr Jackie Hartley (Lancaster), Naziya Lokat (Lancaster), Jonathan Kim (UWE Bristol and Lancaster), Rebecca Rose (Lancaster), Dr Carly Stevens (Lancaster) and Jordan Bibby (NHS Lanarkshire). Science Hunters projects takes a child-led, play-based approach to learning and engagement, and have an inclusive Widening Participation ethos.

Laura Hobbs and Sophie Bentley

COVID-19 opportunities to shift artificial intelligence towards serving the common good

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Contact tracing apps are just one measure governments have been using in their attempts to contain the current coronavirus outbreak. Such apps have also raised concerns about privacy and data security. COVID-19 – and the current calls for AI-led healthcare solutions – highlight the pressing need to consider wider ethical issues raised by artificial intelligence (AI). This blog discusses some of the ethical issues raised in a recent report and brief on moral issues and dilemmas linked to AI, written by the Science Communication Unit for the European Parliament . 

AI means, broadly, machines that mimic human cognitive functions, such as learning, problem-solving, speech recognition and visual perception. One of the key benefits touted for AI is to reduce healthcare inefficiencies; indeed, AI is already widespread in healthcare settings in developed economies, and its use is set to increase. 

There are clear benefits for strained healthcare systems. In some fundamental areas of medicine, such as medical image diagnostics, machine learning has been shown to match or even surpass human ability to detect illnesses. New technologies, such as health monitoring devices, may free up medical staff time for more direct interactions with patients, and so potentially increase the overall quality of care. Intelligent robots may also work as companions or carers, remind you to take your medications, help you with your mobility or cleaning tasks, or help you stay in contact with your family, friends and healthcare providers via video link.

AI technologies have been an important tool in tracking and tracing contacts during the COVID-19 outbreak in countries such as South Korea. There are clear benefits to such life-saving AI, but widespread use of a contact-tracing app also raises ethical questions. South Korea has tried to flatten its curve using intense scraping of personal data, and other countries have been using digital surveillance and AI-supported drones to monitor the population in attempts to stem the spread. The curtailing of individual privacy may be a price we have to pay, but it is a tricky ethical balance to strike – for example, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea has expressed its concern about excessive disclosure of private information of COVID-19 patients.  

The case of the missing AI laws

As adoption of AI continues to grow apace – in healthcare, as well as in other sectors such as transportation, energy, defence, services, entertainment, finance, cybersecurity –legislation has lagged behind. There remains a significant time lag between the pace of AI development and the pace of AI lawmaking. The World Economic Forum calls for much-needed ‘governance architectures’ to build public trust in AI to ensure that the technology can be used for health crises such as COVID in future.There exist several laws and regulations dealing with aspects relevant to AI (such as the EU’s GDPR on data, or several country laws on autonomous vehicles) but no countries yet have specific laws on ethical and responsible AI. Several countries are discussing restrictions on the use of lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS).[1] However, governments in general have been reluctant to create restrictive laws.

A new report commissioned by the European Parliament will feed into the work of their Scientific Foresight Unit, STOA. The report, written by the Science Communication Unit, was led by Professor of Robot Ethics, Alan Winfield.

Broad ethical questions

Reviewing the scientific literature and existing frameworks around the world, we found there are diverse, complex ethical concerns arising from the development of artificial intelligence.

 In relation to healthcare, for diseases like COVID-19, where disease is spread via social contact, care robots  could provide necessary, protective, socially distanced support for vulnerable people. However, if this technology becomes more pervasive, it could be used in more routine settings as well. Questions then arise over whether a care robot or a companion robot can really substitute for human interaction – particularly pertinent in the long-term caring of vulnerable and often lonely people, who derive basic companionship from caregivers.

As with many areas of AI technology, the privacy and dignity of users’ needs to be carefully considered when designing healthcare service and companion robots. Robots do not have the capacity for ethical reflection or a moral basis for decision-making, and so humans must hold ultimate control over any decision-making in healthcare and other contexts.

Other applications raise further concerns, ranging from large-scale and well-known issues such job losses from automation, to more personal, moral quandaries such as how AI will affect our sense of trust, our ability to judge what is real, and our personal relationships.

Perhaps unexpectedly, we also found that AI has a significant energy cost and furthers social inequalities – and that, crucially, these aspects are not being covered by existing frameworks.

Our Policy Options Brief highlights four key gaps in current frameworks, which don’t currently cover:

  • ensuring benefits from AI are shared fairly;
  • ensuring workers are not exploited;
  • reducing energy demands in the context of environmental and climate change;
  • and reducing the risk of AI-assisted financial crime.

It is also clear that, while AI has global applications and potential benefits, there are enormous disparities in access and benefits between global regions. It is incumbent upon today’s policy- and law-makers to ensure that AI does not widen global inequalities further. Progressive steps could include data-sharing and collaborative approaches (such as India’s promise to share its AI solutions with other developing economies), and efforts to make teaching around computational approaches a fundamental part of education, available to all.

Is AI developed for the common good?

Calls have been issued for contributions from AI experts and contributors worldwide to help find further solutions to the COVID-19 crisis – for example, the AI-ROBOTICS vs COVID-19 initiative of the European AI Alliance is compiling a ‘solutions repository’. At the time of writing, there were 248 organisations and individuals offering COVID-related solutions via AI development. These include a deep-learning hand-washing coach AI, which gives you immediate feedback on how to handwash better. 

Other solutions include gathering and screening knowledge; software enabling a robot to disinfect areas, or to screen people’s body temperature; robots that deliver objects to people in quarantine; automated detection of early breathing difficulties; and FAQ chatbots or even psychological support chatbots.

Government calls for AI-supported COVID-19 solutions are producing an interesting ethical interface between sectors that have previously kept each other at arm’s length. In the hyper-competitive world of AI companies, co-operation (or even information sharing) towards a common goal is unchartered territory. These developments crystallise one of the ethical questions at the core of AI debates – should AI be developed and used for private or public ends? In this time of COVID-19, increased attention by governments (and the increased media attention on some of the privacy-related costs of AI) provide an opportunity to open up and move forward this debate. Moreover, the IEEE urges that the sense of ‘emerging solidarity’ and ‘common global destiny’ accompanying the COVID-19 crisis are perfect levers to make the sustainability and wellbeing changes required.

One barrier to debate is in the difficulty of understanding some of the most advanced AI technologies, which is why good science communication is crucial. It is vitally important that the public are able to formulate and voice informed opinions on potentially society-changing developments. Governments need better information too – and up-to-date, independent and evidence-based forms of technology assessment. Organisations such as the Science, Technology Assessment and Analytics team in the US Government Accountability Office or the European Foresight platform are examples that are trying to enable governments and lawmakers to understand such technologies deeply while they can still be shaped.

In order to enjoy the benefits of AI, good governance frameworks are urgently needed to balance the ethical considerations and manage the risks. It is yet to be seen if the COVID-19-prompted developments in AI will herald a new era of public-private cooperation for the common good, but if there was ever a time to amplify this conversation, it is now.

Ruth Larbey, Science Communication Unit, UWE Bristol.


[1] Belgium has already passed legislation to prevent the use or development of LAWS. 


Museums will open their doors again after the COVID-19 crisis – here’s why

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Adam Milner’s Late Night Space Force, 31 October 2019 – 26 Jan 2020, Everson Museum of Art.

This blog post was originally published in Spanish and Catalan, and we thank our former SCU colleague Dr Erik Stengler, for sharing the English version with us here.

Just a few hours ago, one of our authors (Erik Stengler) instructed his first class through an “alternate mode of delivery”, with students attending from their homes. He is one of so many who have always been reluctant towards online teaching. At least with synchronous delivery it wasn’t that hard after all – recording classes for asynchronous delivery would have been a much bigger challenge for him. This is actually surprising, because Erik is someone who feels quite at home in TV studios and even presented his own TV show for children. To understand this, it is important to realise that even though shooting a TV show and recording a class may look similar externally, they are conceptually very different. In a TV studio everything is geared towards creating an audiovisual product whereas recording a class entails translating a product from a completely different context into the audiovisual language. For a TV show, it is part and parcel of the format that the audience will enjoy the product sitting at home on their sofas in front of their TV sets completely removed in time and space from what is recorded. For a recorded class this separation is an extraneous element that will require that the translation somehow makes up for the absence of the human contact and social interaction that is inherent to education. No wonder that the best educational TV shows look nothing like a classroom delivery broadcast or recording on camera.

Museums, in the unusual and unexpected current circumstances of isolation and social distancing, are also choosing or rather being forced to come up with online and virtual modes for visitation. Many have been doing this for a long time, but having to close the doors has been the final spur for many to join in the exploration of this option. Some voices have already raised concerns about whether there will be such a leap in the quality of virtual visits or collections that in-person visits will be perceived as superfluous and ultimately visitor numbers will never recover after the COVID-19 crisis. If the future is digital, will museums ultimately be replaced by digital collections altogether?

As Nina Simon reflects, perhaps this deluge of online museum offerings is more the result of the need for a rapid response, to show that we are “doing something” than the outcome of a reflective process about what is happening and how museums should respond to the new challenges. This would not be a surprise, since a lack of strategic planning is a recurring issue in a sector that is often pushed to rush into executive action.

Here we wish to shed a ray of hope for museum professionals, pointing out that virtual museum visits will not replace in-person visits. The key lies in understanding that the museographic language is autonomous and independent of other communicative modes such as the audiovisual, and that it has its own assets and resources that other languages do not have. As explained in The Transformative Science Museum, these assets and resources include sharing a space with the exhibit and engaging in social interaction and conversations.

There is a generalized tendency to think that new technologies will replace existing ones, even though there are plenty of relevant examples to the contrary. In the 1960s, the popularization of photography led many to think that painting would soon disappear. In the 70s, the proliferation of TV sets was feared as the demise of radio. Powerful computers were seen in the 80s as a threat to games likes chess.

The Russian chess player Anatoli Kárpov is believed to have said that “Chess will not disappear with the advance of computers, just as athletics did not disappear with the introduction of cycling.”

Museums are singular spaces. Their mode of communication is based on their own language: the museographic language. This language is characterized by several endemic communicative resources, based on real and tangible objects and experiences. These are presented, rather than represented – which makes for an asset that is all the more relevant in the day and age of the virtual. As mentioned, this is complemented seamlessly by the social experience that is so inherent to a shared museum visit, with conversation as the main common thread, within the context of many other modes of interpersonal relationship that can even include physical contact. In all, only in a museum is it possible to live an intellectual experience that engages visitors in this particular way that cannot be replaced by other languages. Museums are a unique and therefore necessary mode of communication.

Audiovisual technology has not always been introduced in museums in a balanced way that is respectful of the singular nature of the museum experience. Even before the arrival of infographics, virtual reality and augmented reality experiences, this already happened with the introduction of audio guides. These devices require individual use, and while they can certainly have interesting uses in a museum, they can also remove all chances of interpersonal communication and conversations within a visiting group. It was posited at some point that audio guides could even substitute well prepared and enthusiastic museum educators. Needless to say, museums can and should adopt new technologies, but they need to keep in mind that museums already have their own technologies with potential to be developed without having to borrow from other languages, such as the audiovisual, unless it is done in a measured and well-thought-out manner, and always as an auxiliary and not a core resource.

Often museums contradict themselves in this regard. Many museums and exhibitions have fully embraced new Information and Communication Technologies, in a manner that shows little knowledge of the characteristic features of the museum experience, and reduce it to a very naïve caricature. Some exhibitions are very difficult to tell apart from a Samsung showroom. We will not discuss here the lack of social relevance of such expensive products – luckily their heyday is already in the past and they are gradually being superseded.

Aquariums[i], for example, would never even dream of replacing their successful tanks full of marine life by video recordings, no matter how technologically sophisticated these views could get to be. We are not denying that a virtual visit to a museum can complement a museum’s own communication mode, or bring it to new audiences, but it will never be able to replace it. Otherwise we would have to think that the wide availability of photographs and videos of all corners of the world over the Internet could replace travel. Rather, the opposite has happened, as they have sparked widespread interest in tourism.

Of course there is such a thing as a virtual museum. Just as there are virtual cuisine and virtual sex. As said, such approaches can complement a museum experience but, even though they are valuable in their own way, they cannot naively claim to be offering the same experience by replacing through new technologies precisely those aspects that these new technologies are unable to offer.

So, while we are confined, what are we doing to respond to the challenges that museums are going to face in the future? Why don’t we use this valuable time forced upon us by COVID-19 to pro-actively reflect, though telecommuting and videoconferencing, on how we will transform ourselves in order to become agents of transformation and the cultural leaders that contemporary museums are called to be in their communities? Or are we going to just respond reactively to whatever comes next?

Erik Stengler*, Guillermo Fernández*, Javier Hidalgo*, Marta Soler*, Pere Viladot* and Sarah Callan.

Cooperstown Graduate Program, SUNY Oneonta

*Promoters of The Transformative Museum (www.thetransformativemuseum.org).


[i] Aquariums, together with zoos, were explicitly included in the definition of museum at ICOM’s 11th General Assembly held in Copenhagen in 1974. Therefore, and independently of one’s personal views about these organizations, it is accurate to fully consider aquariums and zoos part of the museum sector.