Why do those who blog, tweet, run events at festivals, give talks and engage in all the myriad of other forms of science communication do what they do? What do they aim to achieve when they communicate science?
While many of those who communicate science may well be too busy to ponder these questions day to day, they are important questions because, perhaps subconsciously for the most part, they influence the nature of the communication work they do. Not only that but when we look at these aims and motivations of science communicators at the macro scale, they provide an insight into their perceptions of the relationship between science and society. Are science and society connected and integrated, or somewhat disconnected?
It’s why questions about the motivations and aims of science communicators were an important part of the latest research organised by UWE Bristol’s Science Communication Unit as part of the European Commission-funded RETHINK project which is exploring the nature of online science communication and how people make sense of science online.
A questionnaire, developed by Elena Milani, a Research Fellow within the Unit, and Unit co-directors Clare Wilkinson and Emma Weitkamp, was distributed to science communicators in the UK, The Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Portugal, Italy and Serbia and sought to find out more about why science communicators do what they do and how they do it.
Many of the 778 people who responded were press officers (just over 140), or described themselves as freelance communicators or writers (nearly 120). We also received responses from journalists and researchers, as well as those who described themselves as a blogger, YouTuber or social media influencer and a whole host of other science communicators.
What the questionnaire responses make clear is that for many of those who communicate science across Europe, it’s an enthusiasm for science that lies behind what they do. Many of those who communicate science said they do it because it’s part of their job. Others say their motivation, which might be very relevant at the moment, is to counter misinformation.
What was also noticeable was that nearly 300 of our respondents said their motivation was to ‘educate’ others about science. Perhaps not surprisingly then, when Europe’s science communicators were asked what they hoped to achieve when they communicate science, the most popular responses were ‘inform’ and ‘educate’.
This implies that in the minds of many who communicate science, the way we produce knowledge through science is distinct from knowledge use by society and how society might contribute to that knowledge. Knowledge is a one-way street that leads from scientists to the outside world.
That said, a fairly high proportion of European science communicators, 65%, said in the questionnaire that they are looking to create conversations between researchers and the public. This implies a more blurred line between science and society – a two-way street, with knowledge exchanged between scientists and the outside world.
This is interesting in its own right. But the nature of the science and society relationship has assumed greater significance and visibility since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s why there’s never been a more important time to think about this relationship, and maybe RETHINK some aspects of it.
In addition to asking science communicators about their motivations and aims, the questionnaire also sought to find out what they communicate, how they communicate science (whether they use social media or blogs for instance) and the barriers that stand in the way. The full report, including how this research links to science communication theory and previous research, is available here:
Walking around the Frenchay campus at UWE Bristol is an intriguing experience. Wander down one corridor and you find yourself in the Centre for Appearance Research, down another and you’ll find yourself flanked by science labs. Just what is that researcher doing, hunched over their experiment? What about the one peering at their computer screen? Step outside and, tucked away behind the student union, is the Bristol Robotics Lab. Just what is going on behind those doors?
The Science Chatters podcast is a collaboration between students and staff from the SCU and seeks to answer such questions.
From that sublime beginning, we had to turn to something more ridiculous and the second episode of Science Chatters is now live, with the enticing theme of Poo and Wee. Chloe Russell, studying the MSc in Science Communication speaks to Dr. Iwona Gadja about the Urine-tricity project, gaining electricity from urine.
The Urine-tricity project is one way in which researchers in the Bristol Robotics Lab are seeking to find ways to apply their knowledge of how to use “Pee Power” to provide electricity in areas including displacement and refugee camps.
Fellow MSc student, Jessica Howard interviews Angeliki Savvantoglou about her PhD research into the bears of Greece…through the flies that interact with that thing that bears do in the woods.
Science Communication comes in many forms and Angeliki is an illustrator alongside her work on her PhD. If she is allowed to use the illustrations in her thesis, the reviewers will have a treat…as well as reading a lot of detail about poo.
Jessica Howard, who interviewed Angeliki, is also an illustrator and designed the Science Chatters logo.
I’ve been something of a podcast fan for many years, both as a listener and as a creator. There’s something about the medium which lends itself to conversations which are filled with insight and honesty. In a world seemingly dominated by opinion and spin (to put it mildly), podcasts can provide a much needed escape. The relaxed format allows for conversations which are not afforded by other media and being able to hear directly to researchers involved in the science is really revealing.
UWE Bristol is a hotbed of research and Science Chatters allows listeners to listen in behind the scenes.
Andrew Glester, Lecturer in Science Communication at UWE Bristol.
The inside of the human body, and all its organs, cells and molecules can be tricky to visualise, and that makes it difficult to understand how conditions like diabetes work. We can use things like models to help us see all these different features, and work out how they link together to do different things.
But models can take up a lot of space, and most of us don’t have anatomically accurate physical representations of the internal workings of the human body conveniently accessible at home, or even in many schools. Diagrams are an alternative, but they’re generally not very interactive.
The virtual construction game Minecraft, on the other hand, is great for exploring scientific concepts because it has many features and processes that relate to the real world, and can be used to visualise things that we can’t usually see – such as cells in the human body. Children and young people are often familiar with the game as it’s hugely popular, and this can give them a sense of expertise and ownership. We know Minecraft can act as a hook for children to engage with science topics, and that by participating in our sessions they can increase their subject knowledge and understanding, making it an effective tool for both catching children’s interest, and supporting their learning.
So what if we could use Minecraft to view and explore a large model of a human body on a computer? We could even get right inside it to investigate the internal organs, cells and processes.
In our ‘Building our understanding of diabetes with Minecraft’ project, we did just that. We have a human body constructed in Minecraft, which users can move around inside. They can explore the organs, cells and molecules inside it, and visualise and learn about processes that occur when someone does, and does not, have diabetes.
During the 2019-2020 school year, we began using this specially constructed Minecraft human body to deliver sessions about diabetes in schools in England and Scotland. However, now we are unable to do that during the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve created a slideshow to explain how diabetes works, using examples from the Minecraft build to illustrate components and concepts, and an accompanying video run through of the Minecraft human body. This way, more people can explore diabetes and the human body in Minecraft, even if we can’t visit them in schools or they don’t have Minecraft at home.
The slideshow and video can be used together, or the slideshow can be used as standalone resource. Each takes you on a virtual tour through the human body, exploring the relevant parts and processes involved in diabetes. They talk about what it’s like to have diabetes, and how it’s treated, and explore the pancreas, blood vessels, and cells and molecules to learn about their roles in diabetes. If you would like a creative challenge, the slideshow gives some ideas for activities, including building with Minecraft and Lego.
The slideshow and video can be viewed below.
If you use the resources, we would really appreciate some feedback! There is a short online form here where you can report how children and young people found using them.
Exploring the molecular basis of diabetes with Minecraft is a Science Hunters project based at UWE Bristol, in collaboration with the University of Aberdeen, the University of Hull and Lancaster University and funded by a Royal Society of Chemistry Outreach Fund grant. The project was devised by Dr Laura Hobbs (UWE Bristol and Lancaster), Dr John Barrow (Aberdeen) and Professor Mark Lorch (Hull), and developed and delivered by them along with Sophie Bentley (UWE Bristol and Lancaster), Dr Jackie Hartley (Lancaster), Naziya Lokat (Lancaster), Jonathan Kim (UWE Bristol and Lancaster), Rebecca Rose (Lancaster), Dr Carly Stevens (Lancaster) and Jordan Bibby (NHS Lanarkshire). Science Hunters projects takes a child-led, play-based approach to learning and engagement, and have an inclusive Widening Participation ethos.
This blog post was originally published in Spanish
and we thank our former SCU colleague Dr Erik Stengler, for sharing the English
version with us here.
Just a few hours ago, one of our authors (Erik Stengler) instructed his first class through an “alternate mode of delivery”, with students attending from their homes. He is one of so many who have always been reluctant towards online teaching. At least with synchronous delivery it wasn’t that hard after all – recording classes for asynchronous delivery would have been a much bigger challenge for him. This is actually surprising, because Erik is someone who feels quite at home in TV studios and even presented his own TV show for children. To understand this, it is important to realise that even though shooting a TV show and recording a class may look similar externally, they are conceptually very different. In a TV studio everything is geared towards creating an audiovisual product whereas recording a class entails translating a product from a completely different context into the audiovisual language. For a TV show, it is part and parcel of the format that the audience will enjoy the product sitting at home on their sofas in front of their TV sets completely removed in time and space from what is recorded. For a recorded class this separation is an extraneous element that will require that the translation somehow makes up for the absence of the human contact and social interaction that is inherent to education. No wonder that the best educational TV shows look nothing like a classroom delivery broadcast or recording on camera.
Museums, in the unusual and unexpected current circumstances of
isolation and social distancing, are also choosing or rather being forced to
come up with online and virtual modes for visitation. Many have been doing this
for a long time, but having to close the doors has been the final spur for many
to join in the exploration of this option. Some voices have already raised
concerns about whether there will be such a leap in the quality of virtual
visits or collections that in-person visits will be perceived as superfluous
and ultimately visitor numbers will never recover after the COVID-19 crisis. If
the future is digital, will museums ultimately be replaced by digital
Simon reflects, perhaps this deluge of online museum offerings is more the
result of the need for a rapid response, to show that we are “doing something”
than the outcome of a reflective process about what is happening and how
museums should respond to the new challenges. This would not be a surprise,
since a lack of strategic planning is a recurring issue in a sector that is often
pushed to rush into executive action.
Here we wish to shed a ray of hope for museum professionals, pointing out that virtual museum visits will not replace in-person visits. The key lies in understanding that the museographic language is autonomous and independent of other communicative modes such as the audiovisual, and that it has its own assets and resources that other languages do not have. As explained in The Transformative Science Museum, these assets and resources include sharing a space with the exhibit and engaging in social interaction and conversations.
There is a generalized tendency to think that new technologies will replace existing ones, even though there are plenty of relevant examples to the contrary. In the 1960s, the popularization of photography led many to think that painting would soon disappear. In the 70s, the proliferation of TV sets was feared as the demise of radio. Powerful computers were seen in the 80s as a threat to games likes chess.
The Russian chess player Anatoli Kárpov is believed to have said that “Chess will not disappear with the advance of computers, just as athletics did not disappear with the introduction of cycling.”
Museums are singular spaces. Their mode of communication is based on
their own language: the museographic language. This language is characterized
by several endemic communicative resources, based on real and tangible objects
and experiences. These are presented, rather than represented – which makes for
an asset that is all the more relevant in the day and age of the virtual.
As mentioned, this is complemented seamlessly by the social experience that is
so inherent to a shared museum visit, with conversation as the main
common thread, within the context of many other modes of interpersonal
relationship that can even include physical contact. In all, only in a museum
is it possible to live an intellectual experience that engages visitors in this
particular way that cannot be replaced by other languages. Museums are a unique
and therefore necessary mode of communication.
Audiovisual technology has not always been introduced in museums in
a balanced way that is respectful of the singular nature of the museum experience.
Even before the arrival of infographics, virtual reality and augmented reality experiences,
this already happened with the introduction of audio guides. These devices require
individual use, and while they can certainly have interesting uses in a museum,
they can also remove all chances of interpersonal communication and
conversations within a visiting group. It was posited at some point that audio
guides could even substitute well prepared and enthusiastic museum educators.
Needless to say, museums can and should adopt new technologies, but they need
to keep in mind that museums already have their own technologies with potential
to be developed without having to borrow from other languages, such as the
audiovisual, unless it is done in a measured and well-thought-out manner, and
always as an auxiliary and not a core resource.
Often museums contradict themselves in this regard. Many museums and
exhibitions have fully embraced new Information and Communication Technologies,
in a manner that shows little knowledge of the characteristic features of the
museum experience, and reduce it to a very naïve caricature. Some exhibitions
are very difficult to tell apart from a Samsung showroom. We will not discuss
here the lack of social relevance of such expensive products – luckily their
heyday is already in the past and they are gradually being superseded.
for example, would never even dream of replacing their successful tanks full of
marine life by video recordings, no matter how technologically sophisticated
these views could get to be. We are not denying that a virtual visit to a museum
can complement a museum’s own communication mode, or bring it to new audiences,
but it will never be able to replace it. Otherwise we would have to think that
the wide availability of photographs and videos of all corners of the world
over the Internet could replace travel. Rather, the opposite has happened, as
they have sparked widespread interest in tourism.
Of course there is such a thing as a virtual museum. Just as
there are virtual cuisine and virtual sex. As said, such
approaches can complement a museum experience but, even though they are
valuable in their own way, they cannot naively claim to be offering the same
experience by replacing through new technologies precisely those aspects that
these new technologies are unable to offer.
So, while we are confined, what are we doing to respond to the
challenges that museums are going to face in the future? Why don’t we use this
valuable time forced upon us by COVID-19 to pro-actively reflect, though
telecommuting and videoconferencing, on how we will transform ourselves in
order to become agents of transformation and the cultural leaders that
contemporary museums are called to be in their communities? Or are we going to
just respond reactively to whatever comes next?
Erik Stengler†*, Guillermo Fernández*,
Javier Hidalgo*, Marta Soler*, Pere Viladot* and Sarah Callan†.
[i] Aquariums, together with zoos, were explicitly included in the
definition of museum at ICOM’s 11th General Assembly held in Copenhagen in
1974. Therefore, and independently of one’s personal views about these
organizations, it is accurate to fully consider aquariums and zoos part of the
To apply for the bursary, you must have applied for the MSc Science Communication by Friday 5th June 2020 and be wishing to start the course in September 2020. Only those who have been or who are in the process of being offered a conditional or unconditional full time place will be considered eligible. The bursary may only be used on the Science Communication courses offered at UWE Bristol.
MSc in Science Communication is taught at UWE Bristol’s Frenchay campus. If
however restrictions due to coronavirus are in place during part of the
programme, full teaching will be provided online so that your learning is not
To apply for the
bursary, please complete one of the following;
Write a short popular article that is no more than 300 words long on an area of science, health or the environment. The article should include a headline. Also provide brief details of the publication where the article would appear, outlining its audience, the types of article it publishes and why your article is a good fit with the publication – this should be no more than 200 words. The chosen publication should be a newspaper, magazine or website that covers science-related topics for non-experts.
Write an outline for a science communication activity (maximum 500 words) on an area of science, health or the environment. The outline should describe the planned activity, give an indication of content and details of the target audience.
Your work should be emailed to Andy Ridgway (details below) to be received by 5pm on Monday 15th June 2020. You will be informed if you have been successful in your application for a bursary by Friday 3rd July 2020. The successful applicant should inform us if they are subsequently successful in receiving funding from a different source or sponsor i.e. employers, local schemes, so that the bursary may be allocated to a different student.
Further information on UWE Bristol fees, studentship and bursary advice is also available here:
If you are not interested in applying
for a bursary, the deadline for applications to the programmes remains the 31st
July 2020. Please note – we are currently receiving a high number of
applications and would encourage you to apply as soon as your application is
Have you ever considered researching corporate misbehaviour?
I hadn’t either until October when, just after I had started
my MSc, a placement opportunity came through the Science Communication Unit and
landed in my email inbox. It was asking for applicants with attention to
detail, good writing ability, an enquiring mind, and an interest in public
health or social policy.
I was interested so I applied and that is how I ended up
walking, getting the train, and jumping on a bus to get to Bath and back on some
of the coldest and darkest days in January.
I spent a week with the Tobacco Control Research Group at the
University of Bath. The placement and training course supported the work of the
team of academics and journalists who produce the Tobacco Tactics website. This investigates and
publishes on the activities of international tobacco companies and their
We spent the first two days hearing from academic
members of the research group and guest speakers as well as getting acquainted
with the research topics. We participated in lectures on topics such as writing
for different audiences, investigative techniques and freedom of information
requests. By Wednesday we were ready for practical sessions. In groups we spent
three days working on different topics, researching and writing up our
findings. We worked hard!
Each day we also heard from PhD students. They presented
their research topics which included corporate influence on science; illicit
trade; and social media monitoring. These lunchtime talks were interesting and
I particularly enjoyed learning about digital methods such as collecting and
analysing Twitter data.
Working with students from undergraduate and postgraduate courses at
Bath, UWE Bristol and Gloucester universities was really valuable as we were
able to share our wide range of interests and experiences to learn from and
collaborate with each other during the placement.
Throughout the week I had many moments where I linked what I was
learning on placement to what I was learning in my MSc, to my previous studies,
and to experiences I have had in different job roles. This was rewarding and
motivating whilst I am studying and thinking about my future career plans.
Because of the industry the group researches, in order to undertake the
placement we had to sign a conflict of interest form and our conversations and
work were kept on a secure network which is required for this area of public
and traffic congestion are among the main causes of poor urban living and have sparked
rising concerns about the negative impact that transport has on people’s health
and wellbeing in urban areas. According to the European Environment Agency, air
pollution caused 400,000 premature European deaths in 2016. As several European cities in Europe embark on
bold action to improve local transport and promote the use of alternative and
clean modes of transport, citizens are now mobilising to have their voice heard
and to actively participate in local transport policy development.
WeCount (Citizens Observing UrbaN Transport), a new
Horizon 2020 funded project, aims to empower citizens in five European cities
to take a leading role in the production of the data, evidence and knowledge
that is generated around mobility in their own communities. Five cities: Madrid, Ljubljana,
Dublin, Cardiff and Leuven are coming together to mobilise 1,500 citizens throughout
the coming year (2020) by following participatory citizen science methods to co-create
road traffic counting sensors based on the popular Telraam experience in Flanders.
A number of low-cost, automated, road traffic counting sensors (Telraams) will be mounted on each participating household’s window facing a road, which will allow authorities to determine the number and speeds of cars, large vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians. Furthermore, it will generate scientific knowledge in the field of mobility and environmental pollution and encourage the development of co-designed, informed solutions to tackle a variety of road transport challenges.
intends to establish a multi-stakeholder engagement mechanism to gather data in
these five pilot cities. Data will then be used to formulate informed solutions
to tackle a variety of road transport challenges, thus improving quality of life
at the neighborhood level. WeCount aims to break down technological and
societal silos, by putting citizens at the heart of the innovation process. The
project is the perfect vehicle to not only generate data but also promote and
support citizen advocacy to work towards cleaner and healthier cities.
UWE is one
of seven knowledge partners involved in the WeCount project, a list which
includes SMEs, academic institutions and non-profit organisations. UWE is participating
alongside Transport & Mobility Leuven, Ideas for Change, University College
Dublin, University of Ljubljana, Polis and Mobiel 21.
WeCount operates under the Research and Innovation Actions funding scheme, as facilitated by Horizon 2020 and the ‘Science with and for Society’ programme. WeCount will run until November 2021 and has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme under Grant Agreement No 872743.
Details of the project were also featured in a recent UWE Bristol press release.
We spent the
morning with Isla Gladstone, a senior curator at Bristol Museum, learning about
the museum’s action plan and ambitions. In the morning, we were given a group
exercise to pick an audience and create a science communication led activity
based on the taxidermy animal we were given. The groups were given a kiwi bird
(Apteryx mantelli), a shrew (Soricidae), a couple of toads (Bufonidae),
and an Eurasian jay (Garrulus glandarius). Through this exercise we
found out that Eurasian jays are as sociable as dolphins and kiwi birds have
enormous eggs! Seriously, google it.
You often see big doors in museums saying ‘private’ and it leaves you wondering what sort of wonders could be behind those doors… Well believe you me, it’s everything you could have dreamed of. Think ‘Night in the Museum’ with Ben Stiller. We met Geology curator Deborah Hutchinson, who led us down into the basement via a public floor of the museum, but not before we were warned of the low oxygen density and potential to faint in such conditions. These air settings are under high control to manage the artefacts’ quality.
It was very exciting indeed, one step into the basement of wonders and I noticed my first gulp of air was tighter than usual. It felt like the air I was breathing couldn’t reach the bottom of my lungs unless I took a longer, deeper breath. This must be how people faint! Soon this feeling evaporated and we were left in awe of the countless, brilliant objects in the Geology stores. I say countless, but there is a margin of a million objects in there… Drawers and drawers and drawers of ‘Jurassic’ labels, skulls and bones of pre-existing dinosaurs strewn near and wide. So many incredible fossils, minerals and stories to be told including Bristol diamonds, which are in fact none other than quartz!
After our tour in the Geology store, we were led to the Natural History store. Immediately you were met with a cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) holding its prey just above your eye level. Led by Natural Sciences curator Rhian Rowson, we were guided through the narrow hallways, walking single file, listening intently to some of the stories behind the collection. There were a couple of house sparrows (Passer domesticus) pulled out of their drawer, one was darker than the other, and to our shock it was due to the coal in the air during the industrial revolution. Researchers can use the darker house sparrow as an indicator of the extent of air pollution during this time.
What really amazed and humbled me were the personal touches within both collections. The hand written labels, hand thrown plastic covers over the odd elephant skeleton in the room… it felt very homely. There wasn’t a need to present the spaces as squeaky clean galleries, which you see so often. I did however, walk backwards into a deer, which between me and the deer, I’m not sure who was more startled. There was a feeling of genuine character, care and comfort of stepping into these narrow hallways and oxygen thin walkways. For someone like myself, with a keen interest in geology and natural history, this trip was a massive privilege, and I’m very fortunate to take my camera along with me.
Chloe Russell, MSc Science Communication student, UWE Bristol
The number of people writing, tweeting, instagramming, blogging, podcasting, vlogging about all things science is unfathomably large. Then there’s the universities, the charities, the businesses and so on who are adding to the mix. It’s no wonder then that the online science communication terrain isn’t mapped. We know it’s out there, yet exactly who is doing what, where and how is something we only have snapshots of information about. Yet mapping this vast terrain is exactly what we’ve been trying to do within the Science Communication Unit as part of our work on the European Commission-funded RETHINK project .
The RETHINK project involves 10 institutions across Europe including VU Amsterdam and Ecsite, the European network of science centres. Together, we’re trying to explore how science is communicated online so we can see what’s working well and understand more about what’s going wrong when it’s not, such as the audiences that aren’t being reached. To start this process, we needed a better view of the online science communication terrain in terms of who is doing the communicating, the platforms they are using and the forms their communication takes.
Given the terrain’s scale, we decided to set some
boundaries to our exploration. Firstly, in conjunction with the other RETHINK project
partners, we decided to concentrate our mapping efforts on three topic areas –
climate change, artificial intelligence and healthy diets. These topics were
selected because they are important to all our lives. But they also represent
very different online habitats; with different individuals and organisations
doing the communicating and very diverse subject matter. It means we get a
richer insight into how varied the online science communication landscape is.
Secondly, we limited the number of each type of
communicator we would map to 10. So, for example, once we had found 10
universities communicating about climate change, we would stop. Otherwise the
mapping would have been an insurmountable task. After all, what we were really
aiming to do was to explore the different types of communicator as well as the
forms of communication they are involved with. We were mapping the extent of
the terrain – how far it reached and what was there – rather than trying to
measure the peak of each mountain; the number of specific types of organisation
or individual communicating about each topic.
To get an even better view of the terrain, the
mapping was carried out by RETHINK team members in seven countries across
Europe – Italy, The Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Sweden and Serbia as well as
the UK. Each country chose two of the three topics they were going to map. Again,
to make the exploration more manageable.
To make sure we could compare the online science
communication terrains in different countries, the exploration needed to be
carried out in exactly the same way in each country. So Elena Milani, a Research Fellow within the
Science Communication Unit, developed a ‘mapping protocol’ – a set of
instructions for researchers in each country to follow when they were exploring.
So what did we find? Well, across the seven
countries, 697 different individuals and organisations that communicate climate
change, artificial intelligence and healthy diets were identified. Digging into
the data in a little more detail provides some interesting insights, including:
Climate change has the widest range of individuals
and organisations communicating about it online of the three topics. In other
words, it has a particularly rich communication environment.
The online science communication landscape is
complex – there are large differences in the types of communicators, the
platforms used and content shared between science-related subjects.
With all three topics, many of the sources of
information are not traditional experts, such as scientists or health
practitioners. Nor are they traditional mediators of information, such as
journalists. There are lots of alternative sources of information, such as
non-professional communicators and support communities.
But this is just the start. Having a clearer view
of the landscape thanks to our mapping will help with the next stages of
RETHINK, such as understanding the connections formed by communicators with
There are around 5,000 former metal mines in England and Wales, and many hundreds of thousands globally. Many of these mines have a legacy of highly polluted wastes, which can pose a risk to water quality and human health. As metal supplies diminish and new sources of metals are needed, especially for use in smart technologies, the potential to extract metals from these mine wastes is being examined. However, they often support important habitats and species assemblages, or are important for their historical significance. For example, around 20% of former metal mines are associated with Sites of Special Scientific Interest, around 14% are protected by European designations including in the lead mining areas in the Pennines and North Wales, and the tin-copper mines of Cornwall. Around 15% of former metal mines in England are in a World Heritage Site including the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape (Sinnett, 2018).
Much of the research and policy concerned with the management of abandoned mine wastes is focussed on environmental protection, landscape quality and the need to balance this with the conservation of nature and, to a lesser extent, heritage. In recent years there have also be a number of studies examining the motivation and preferences of those visiting restored mineral extraction sites.
However, there has been very little research on how local residents value their mining heritage and their preferences for its long-term management. This is important as it is ultimately local people who are affected by both the positive and negative impacts of this legacy, as well as any changes to the status quo. It is also essential to ensure that local people are supportive of any plans for the management of the sites. Understanding their preferences and concerns can inform this process.
We undertook some research with residents of former mining areas to address this gap in our understanding. Specifically, we explored the following questions: how do those living in former metal mining landscapes value them in terms of aesthetic appearance, role in preserving cultural heritage, nature conservation and tourism? What are the preferred options for managing abandoned metal mines?
We used the Q Method to examine the preferences of those living in six areas of metal mining in England and Wales. Q Method allows participants to ‘sort’ a series of statements based on the degree to which the statement represents their perspective on a subject. We selected a set of statements from the academic literature, policy and articles in local press. They covered a range of opinions and options on the mining legacy and its management.
Our analysis revealed five perspectives:
Preservationists want to maintain the status quo, and recognise the value of the mining landscape for its industrial heritage and nature conservation. They want former mine sites to be left alone, and protected, primarily for their heritage value.
Environmentalists are more motivated by water quality and pollution mitigation. They feel that that mine wastes would benefit from vegetation establishment and recognise their contribution to nature conservation. They value the role of experts.
Industry supporters prioritise the local economy and are the most supportive of mineral extraction in general and the reworking of mine wastes, feeling that it would create jobs and bring in new people.
Nature enthusiasts prioritise vegetation establishment on mine sites. They recognise the contribution mine sites make, or could make, to nature conservation. They want to see the sites restored, feeling they should not be left as they are.
Landscape lovers are focussed on improving the aesthetic appearance of the mine wastes. They are most concerned with the impact of mines on the landscape, but are open to the idea of reworking the mines to aid the local economy.
There were also several areas of agreement:
All residents prioritised water quality to some degree, with environmentalists and landscape lovers in particular feeling very strongly that this should take precedence over heritage features and nature conservation.
They also felt that the preference of the people living locally should take be a priority in deciding the future of the post-mining landscape, with most disagreeing that the future management of mine waste should be expert-led.
In summary, we found that most residents view their mining heritage positively for the cultural and ecological benefits that it provides, but they are concerned about the adverse impact on water quality and the lack of vegetation on many sites. There may be some support for metal recovery from abandoned mines if it is combined with high quality restoration that mitigates water pollution and revegetates the sites, whilst preserving their cultural heritage. Residents must be part of the process – too many feel that landscape decisions are taken out of the hands of local communities and do not benefit them.
Sinnett, D. (2019) Going to waste? The potential impacts on nature conservation and cultural heritage from resource recovery on former mineral extraction sites in England and Wales. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 62(7), 1227-1248. Available from https://uwe-repository.worktribe.com/output/852458.