Creating a short science based multilingual film for a European audience

Posted on

I recently had the opportunity to produce a documentary about the concerning shortage of early career pollinator taxonomists in Europe. The film was made to complement a Science for Environment Policy (SfEP) report that I co-authored, about the  important role of pollinators in the survival of the global ecosystem, and highlighting the vital role of monitoring them, to understand the causes of their declining numbers1. As a former TV documentary producer, and now science communicator, it is always enjoyable to revisit my filmmaking skills. But, for anyone contemplating making a film – whether it’s the first — or the twentieth they have made — it is always a little daunting and exciting to figure out where to start, and who will be your charismatic interviewees that compel your viewers to watch the film to the end?

Focus

The first task, after deciding on the outline of content for the pollinators report, was to come up with a list of topics for our client that the film could focus on. Our client, the European Commission’s Environment Directorate-General, chose the decline in taxonomy — the classification of species — as a scientific discipline for the narrative focus of the film. Experts in this discipline are vital in monitoring pollinator populations in different habitats over time, to record the causes and effects of pollinator decline. This topic encompassed both professional and citizen science monitoring projects, as both are needed to understand the immense diversity of pollinators present in Europe, whilst collecting robust data over space and time to inform pollinator conservation measures.

On a budget

Budget constraints, coupled with a request from our client to feature scientists from across Europe set the parameters for the content of the film. Working within these constraints required careful consideration of how the film could be made — assessing content versus cost for each of the potential shoots we were planning.

For example, changing the logistics of a particular shoot, by asking an expert to travel to a more convenient location, saved a great deal of time and money. It is all too easy to become fixed on an approach when setting up a film, but sometimes, out of necessity and with flexibility, creative solutions can be found which end up working better.

To free up some additional budget I managed to negotiate a discounted rate with our camera hire company and due to the environmental nature of the films they part sponsored us to complete the project. Further savings were made when instead of hiring a sound operator to work alongside me on camera, I gave my colleague Michelle, a science writer on the report, on-the-job training on how to swing a boom. Michelle’s lesson, learned from one of our outdoor shoots, is to always wear long trousers when filming outdoors in a field to avoid biting insects! Similarly, I regretted my lack of hat on that shoot, as there was little shade. Preparation is key — always look at the weather forecast beforehand (and out of the window on the day) and bring all that you may need, including lots of water whatever the weather.

Painted Lady butterfly in a specimen pot for identification, before release, by a Citizen Science Volunteer of the CBMS.

Interviewees

Securing the right interviewees for our film meant finding people who could tell the story of pollinator monitoring in Europe, covering both citizen science involvement and the need for professional career taxonomists. A longlist of potential experts had been recommended to us by our client, and this made the process somewhat quicker. However, we still needed to speak to these individuals and ascertain what they had to say on the topic, and how comfortable they might be at articulating their viewpoints for a non-specialist audience.

Adam Vanbergen being interviewed for the documentary on a balcony at the headquarters of the Institute National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA) in Paris.

We were pleased to secure interviews with our scientific advisor for the written report, Adam Vanbergen, Director of Research, Agroecology, for the Institute National de la Recherche Agronomique, in Paris. In addition, we spoke to a pollinator expert based just outside Barcelona in Spain — Constanti Stefanescu, who manages a long-running citizen science butterfly monitoring programme. Constanti also helped us with another of the sequences on our wish list, filming a group of citizen scientists conducting a butterfly monitoring transect (a fixed-route walk on which butterflies are recorded). On this shoot we interviewed some of the dedicated citizen science volunteers, who, for a number of years, had been regularly monitoring butterfly populations near their homes across Spain. Their voices spoke of the joy of conducting butterfly transects, walking in the natural environment and contributing to a long-term scientific project.

The last two contributors we needed to secure for our film, were a late stage career bee taxonomist, and a new entrant scientist considering taxonomy.  I focused my research on locating a female bee expert, to give balance to the film as both the other experts were male. These enquiries led me to Professor Concepción Ornosa Gallego, and her PhD student Daniel Romero in Madrid. I knew from my initial conversation with Concepción, that she was perfect for the film and keen to be involved — she preferred speaking in Spanish, so we recorded her interview in her native language, with Daniel kindly translating.

This was the first time I’d conducted an interview in this way, and it certainly made things a bit tougher in the edit. However, it worked well on location, and Concepción spoke eloquently about the current barriers discouraging young people viewing taxonomy as a good career choice, and how these might be overcome. She also showed us how difficult it can be to identify one species from another — when it comes to the thousands of bee species that exist, the anatomical differences can be tiny. This is in contrast to butterfly species, which are much easier to identify and lend themselves well to citizen science monitoring programmes.

We had a number of locations open to us at the University of Madrid — Concepción’s office, the ‘type’ collection of pollinators housed at the university and the botanical gardens. This gave us a range of filming options on the day, an important insurance for inclement weather when a recce trip prior to filming isn’t possible and there is only a limited time period for the shoot to take place.

Concepción Ornosa Gallego examines bee specimens in her laboratory in Madrid, for a scene in the documentary – explaining the very small anatomical differences between some bee species.

Daniel’s interview gave the viewer the perspective of an early career scientist, who is currently choosing which path to take. Pollinator taxonomy was an option; however, he explained that the lack of jobs in this area, and difficulty in getting publications in this discipline in publications (which aid career development) put him off this choice. This is an issue he believes should be addressed to encourage more young people to enter this discipline. With many late career taxonomists set to retire, without more career entrants, we could be left with a dearth of expertise in identifying and monitoring pollinators, which are vital for the health of our ecosystems.

Having a balance of experts, early career scientists and volunteer citizen scientists, gives the viewer a range of relatable voices. It is important to reflect the diversity of the viewing public within your film as much as possible.

Finishing touches

The interviews and actuality footage were secured, but the film still needed something to add visual interest and colour, which, when you are discussing pollinators, should be the critters themselves, pollinating in all their wondrous forms. The film was made with the available light and a standard camera, which is great for filming interviews in brightly lit rooms, or in a sunny garden or field, but not so good for filming small pollinators on the wing. Luckily, there is a plethora of amazing Creative Commons footage available on a number of websites, shot by members of the public or budding natural-history camera operators.  This footage added the movement, colour and beauty of the pollinators to the narrative voices of the interviewees.

Butterfly identification chart, and data collection sheet for a field survey by the CBMS.

The editing and post production process are as important as all other aspects of making a film. I edited this film, but benefitted in doing so from the input of other members of the SfEP team, as well as several of the client’s team. These varied opinions help produce a good product.  However, it is always good to remember the mantra of professional editors ‘that the client is always right’. This doesn’t mean that you cannot offer your perspective to them, but ultimately, they know their end aims and audience best.

The written facts that were chosen to appear over some parts of the film, were an important aspect of the finished product, as was the subtitling. The latter was the very last thing that was added, and it was rewarding to see the final subtitled product delivered to the client. The client and contributors were pleased with how the film conveyed the message about the import of monitoring of pollinators, and have distributed it amongst their networks, and at conferences.

The film highlighted the need for understanding and classifying pollinators whose enormous economic and social importance is crucial for raising awareness about the cascading effects that will ensue from their absence. However, it is worth noting that the current lack of evidence for some groups of pollinators should not delay the urgent work of putting in place solutions we know will help: creating and preserving bigger, higher-quality and better-connected habitat for pollinator species.

You can watch the film below:

Nicky Shale, Science Writer and Communicator


1This report was written for the European Commission’s Science for Environment Policy environmental information service, jointly run by the Science Communication Unit (SCU) at UWE Bristol and Ecorys, a European research company.

How open are we as science communicators?

Posted on

Photo credit: Marten Newhall, Unsplash

Words: Andy Ridgway

When I started teaching science writing after spending years as a journalist, I wanted to share my experience, my way of doing things, in the classroom. But I quickly struck upon a problem. What did I actually do? How did I find and research stories? How did I choose interviewees? I had been doing all of these things for so long (and often at speed) that the process I followed had become automatic – not the stuff of conscious thought. It took a fair bit of reflection to unravel the processes that had become so hardwired so I could try to explain them in the classroom.

When we are conducting research as science communicators, a lot of our decisions come down to who and what we trust. What sources can we rely on for fact and who can we rely on for opinion? In reality, faced with the pressures of time, as communicators we typically rely on a limited range of sources – the likes of peer reviewed papers, the scientists directly involved with the research (or at least someone in their field) and possibly the odd press release. But how many of us give conscious thought in our working day to what we trust and why? How often are we open to ideas, perspectives and knowledge that come from outside our usual circle of trust?

It’s questions such as these that are at the heart of the latest report from the European Commission-funded RETHINK project. This report synthesised research we had already done to consider the ‘openness’ and ‘reflexivity’ of science communicators and also of citizens; those who read, watch or listen to what we create. How open are we to a wide range of information, ideas and perspectives? And how reflexive are we, consciously thinking about where we search for information, how that influences the information we find and then how choices we make influence what we write or create?

A guiding principle of RETHINK is that openness and reflexivity on the part of communicators, citizens, scientists and everyone else for that matter are a good thing – helping to create a more effective exchange of ideas and knowledge. On their own, all of these principles sound straightforward. Source information you can trust. Be open. Be reflexive. It’s just that when you put all those ideas together, things start to get complicated.

A survey of the working practices of science communicators we conducted earlier in RETHINK shows that academic journals, university press releases and personal contacts are consulted widely during research. After all, these are sources we can trust for the most part. But if this is what we always do as communicators, often without conscious thought (or reflexivity) it limits the opportunities for readers, viewers and listeners to be exposed to different information and perspectives.

So it is in the implementation of these principles that things get challenging. How prepared are we as communicators to step outside our research comfort zone and take information from sources, from people, we wouldn’t usually consult? When would we want to do this? Are there circumstances when it’s more appropriate than others? After all, openness on the part of science communicators doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll simply report information and opinions from anyone. There’s a widely circulated quote (that’s been attributed to several people) that may apply here: “Let us keep our minds open…but don’t keep your minds so open that your brains fall out!”

Our new RETHINK report also explores how open and reflexive citizens are when they are interpreting information about science. Specifically, it looked at their ‘sensemaking practices’ in relation to coronavirus – sensemaking being the process by which we develop an understanding of something complex. It showed that there is some evidence of openness, with people consulting a range of newspapers and websites to help them triangulate information and understand what’s happening. But in many instances, citizens’ sensemaking practices are understandably heavily influenced by their context – they speak with friends, family, find information from online social media groups they’re part of and have a limited range of online sources they trust. They are also unlikely to shift from pre-existing beliefs during this sensemaking process. In other words, some sensemaking is not particularly open, or particularly reflexive for that matter.

So what we can do about all this? How can we as science communicators become open and reflexive in what we do in a way that’s compatible with the need to source trustworthy information? And is there anything we can do to encourage others, those who watch, listen or read what we create, to be open and reflexive too? Let’s have an (open and reflexive) conversation about this – tweet us at @SciCommsUWE @RETHINKscicomm with your thoughts and ideas.

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

Posted on

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

Posted on

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

Posted on

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.    

Mutual Shaping in Swarm Robotics: User Studies in Fire and Rescue, Storage Organization, and Bridge Inspection

Posted on

Fire engine at the Bristol Robotics Lab after a focus group session with local firefighters

I remember this story as if it was yesterday. It was the summer of 2013. I was laying on my bed, listening to music. All of the sudden, I heard someone screaming louder than my music, and banging on the door of my flat. I quickly took off my headphones, dashed to the door, opened it, and found my neighbour shaking, with her face as pale as chalk. Without any word, she grabbed my arm and pulled me towards her flat. Then, I went into panic. Smoke was coming out of the door! As we entered the flat running, my neighbour quickly managed to explain that the heater above the wooden bathroom door had caught fire while she was giving a bath to the old lady she was caring for. The old lady needed rescuing. Luckily, we both could take the old lady out of the bathroom before the fire developed more. A fire brigade came in a matter of minutes. The bathroom was destroyed, but no-one was injured.

After that experience, I knew I wanted to do something useful for firefighters because I had experienced how extremely dangerous it is for them to enter a building covered in smoke to put out a fire. Did I become a firefighter? Not quite. I decided to do a PhD in swarm robotics at the Bristol Robotics Lab to design useful technology for fire brigades. Swarm robotics is the study of hundreds and thousands of robots that collaborate with each other to solve tasks without any leader, just like swarms of ants, bees, fish or even cells in our bodies. Imagine if firefighters could release a swarm of robots at the entrance of a building on fire to create a map of the hazards, source of fire and casualties, so that firefighters don’t waste time searching (which is one of the most dangerous parts of their profession). Swarm robotics could also be applied in other settings. How about if warehouses had a swarm of robots automatically organising the stock so that employees only have to ask the swarm for the products they want? Or what if a swarm of robots could spread all over a bridge to monitor cracks? In my opinion, robot swarms are almost ready to leave the lab and enter the real world. We just need to know the type of robot swarms that potential users need. So, along with co-authors Emma Milner, Julian Hird, Georgios Tzoumas, Paul Vardanega, Mahesh Sooriyabandara, Manuel Giuliani, Alan Winfield and Sabine Hauert, we did three studies where we spoke with 37 professionals from fire brigades, storage organisation and bridge inspection. The results have recently been published in the open access journal Frontiers in Robotics and AI (you can read the paper here).





Mutual shaping: a bidirectional relationship between the users and the technology developer

For the three studies, we followed the framework of mutual shaping. The long-term aim is to create a bidirectional relationship between the users and the technology developers so that we can incorporate societal choices at all stages of the research and development process, as opposed to more traditional methods where users are asked what they care about once the technology has already been designed. In our studies, we first had a discussion with participants to find out about their job, their challenges and their needs, without any introduction to swarm robotics. After listening to their explanation of the art of their profession, we introduced them to swarm robotics, and gave them examples where robot swarms could be useful for them. Finally, we had another discussion around how useful those examples were for them, and challenged them to think about any other scenarios where robot swarms could assist them.

We found very helpful take-home messages. The first one was that participants were open to the idea of using robot swarms in their jobs. That was somewhat surprising, as we were expecting them to focus more on the downsides of the technology, given how robot swarms are frequently portrayed in science fiction. The second point had to do with the particular tasks that participants felt robot swarms could/couldn’t do. This was an extraordinary insight because we identified their priorities, hence the next steps to advance in the swarm robotics research. For example, firefighters said they would highly benefit from robot swarms that could gather information for them very quickly. On the contrary, they wouldn’t like robot swarms extinguishing fires because of the tremendous amount of variables involved in fire extinguishing. That’s exactly the art of their profession – they know how to extinguish fires. In the study with the sector of storage organisation, a participant from a charity shop said that they wouldn’t like robots valuing the items they receive, but robot swarms could be useful for organising the stock more efficiently. Bridge inspectors would rather assess whether there’s damage by themselves, given the information about the bridge that a robot swarm sends them. Finally, most participants brought up concerns to tackle if we want to successfully deploy swarms in the real world. These mainly had to do with transparency, accountability, safety, reliability and usability. Some of the challenges for swarm robotics that were collectively identified in the studies are the following:

  • How can we really understand what’s happening within a robot swarm?
  • How can we make safe robot swarms for users?
  • How can we manufacture robot swarms to be used out of the box without expert training or difficult maintenance?


Bar chart of answers to one of the questions asked to fire brigades

Personally, what struck me the most in my study was that almost three quarters of the participants from fire brigades expressed that they would like to be included in the research and development process from the very beginning. So, engaging with them through mutual shaping was a good choice because it opened up the relationship that they apparently want to have. And that’s really inspiring! I hope our research opens up exciting paths to explore in the future. Paths that will take swarm robotics a step closer to making robot swarms useful for society.

Daniel Carrillo-Zapata, PhD in swarm robotics and self-organisation, Bristol Robotics Laboratory

New insight into the motivations of today’s science communicators

Posted on

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

Posted on

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.