A team of Science Communication Unit researchers was selected by the Royal Institution (Ri) to explore ways to continue modernising the Christmas Lectures, an iconic series that has run since 1825. Margarida Sardo, Hannah Little and Laura Fogg Rogers conducted research to explore strengths and opportunities for improving the series, created for children and televised annually for the past 50 years fronted by presenters including David Attenborough and Carl Sagan.
A centrepiece of the
national conversation about the place of science in our lives, the lectures
were started by scientist Michael Faraday in 1825 and are now designed to be
engaging and mind-expanding viewing for people of all ages but particularly
children. A series of three on a single topic, the lectures are filmed in
London in mid-December every year then broadcast on three consecutive days
during the Christmas period. In 2018, biological anthropologist, author and TV
presenter Alice Roberts and genetics expert Aoife McLysaght brought the
evolutionary story to life in a series called ‘Who Am I?’
with children attending the 2017 and 2018 events, a social media analysis of
the 2018 broadcasts and survey of science enthusiasts, researchers found the
lectures were cherished by audiences of all ages but format changes could help
broaden their appeal among young people, as well as older audiences. They
recommended exploring ways that the channel and time of the broadcasts
(currently BBC4 at 8pm) could be made more suitable for a younger audience,
including cutting the lectures down into short clips for social media to
reflect changing viewing habits.
The research team noted
that some adult viewers believed the lectures were so focused on a younger
audience that they lacked appeal for older viewers. To continue to attract a
significant adult audience, they recommended creating a companion lecture aimed
at older science fans.
Researchers also found
audience members enjoyed the live shows, particularly the engaging, interactive
and high-quality demonstrations. TV viewers valued the televised shows and many
remarked that watching with relatives had become a family tradition. But some
science enthusiasts suggested the Ri needed to re-evaluate its target audience
and questioned whether the needs of a live lecture and a TV programme were
being confused. Viewers were roundly supportive of female scientists presenting
the show, with particular praise reserved for the performance of Alice Roberts
and Aoife McLysaght in 2018.
The Christmas Lectures branding includes the prestigious Christmas
Lectures broadcast on BBC, as well as live shows, a Schools Conference, the Ri
Advent Calendar and “I’m a Scientist… get me out of here” – most of which were
covered by the evaluation.
May and June saw staff and students from the Science Communication Unit prepare for the Bristol and Bath Festival of Nature, run by the Bristol Natural History Consortium, of which UWE Bristol is a consortium member. For many years now, research and teaching from the Department of Applied Sciences and the Science Communication Unit have been an important part of UWE’s contribution to the Festival, alongside contributions from a variety of research projects from across the university. This year, the Department of Applied Sciences showcased research by Stephanie Sargeant and team (eDNA and eel conservation), Ruth Morse and team (genetics research on chemotherapy), and by Saliha Saad and team (oral microbiology research on oral malodour), with activities that were developed by MSc Science Communication students. An EU funded project on air pollution, ClairCity, also showcased work that had been produced by a Postgraduate Certificate student as part of the Science in Public Spacesmodule.
The activities on eDNA and genetics were developed by students of the MSc in Science communication Jake Campton and Sophie Smith and supported by postgraduate students as part of the public engagement element of their portfolio. The activity on oral malodour was supported by CRIB through the BoxEd project, led by Debbie Lewis. MSc in Science Communication student Jennie French ran the final vote of a photography competition on Nature in and around Bristol and Bath, entirely organised from her own initiative. Science Communication Unit staff from the Faculty of Health and Applied Sciences ran a stall for the Our City Our Health project, which included a board game which engaged people in weighing up the costs to health of our built environment, and a 3-metre sculpture of a diesel soot particle, created by local artist Luke Jerram entitled Inhale, that featured prominently outside UWE’s tent and attracted significant attention from visitors and press. Science Communication Unit staff from the Faculty of Engineering and Technology showcased the ClairCity project, which communicated about citizen-led air pollution reduction, and also allowed people to view real diesel soot particles through microscopes – thee million times smaller than the Our City Our Health sculpture outside.
Our presence at the Festival reached well beyond the space of the UWE tent. Many Science Communication MSc students of the current cohort were helping as volunteers for the Festival as a whole, or representing their workplace in the corresponding tents. Films made by many of the MSc students were being shown several times a day on the Big Screen presiding over Millennium Square, and Dr Hannah Little was helping at the stall of the British Science Association.
Good weather, a festive atmosphere and the enthusiasm and hard work of all involved made the event a success, with more than 15000 visitors, most of which (it felt like all of them, really) engaged with the activities of UWE Bristol’s tent. It will not be long before preparations for the 2019 edition of the Festival begin, providing a new opportunity for HAS to celebrate its commitment to research, teaching and public engagement at this fantastic event.
The Christmas Lectures are an internationally known landmark of the Science Communication landscape, and we refer to it in our teaching as one of the earliest examples of scientists engaging with the public with institutional backing. Physicist Michael Faraday initiated this series that has run at the Royal Institution of Great Britain (Ri) since 1825, without interruption except World War II. Well known science communicators like David Attenborough and Carl Sagan are among more recent speakers.
It therefore came as a great opportunity to tender for the Ri’s call for an evaluation project, and an honour to be selected to deliver it. A team formed by Margarida Sardo, Laura Fogg-Rogers, Hannah Little and Erik Stengler, supported by the expertise in the wider SCU, has undertaken a close collaboration with the Royal Institution to explore strengths and opportunities for improvement of what has now become a much wider project than the actual lectures delivered at the Ri headquarters around Christmas each year and broadcast for over 50 years, mainly by the BBC. The Christmas Lectures has grown into a project that also includes continued provision of materials and activities for schools, public events such as talks at the Big Bang Fair and a traveling show that reaches out beyond the UK, all of which is also brought into the dimension of social media via different platforms, including YouTube, where the recordings of the Christmas Lectures are actually made available to be enjoyed at any time.
The evaluation by the SCU team will cover all these dimensions of the project and also explore what would attract people who do not yet engage with the Christmas Lectures in one way or another. It will be a great experience to be able to be part of and contribute to the continued success of the Christmas Lectures in these years leading to their 200th anniversary.
If you have any views and suggestions about the Christmas Lectures, do not hesitate to contact us so we can include them in this exciting evaluation!
My name is Hannah Little. I’m a new lecturer at the Science Communication Unit. I will be teaching Science Communication at foundation, undergraduate and postgraduate levels, specially focussing on areas in digital communication.
Placement programmes in the North East of England. I have come to the Science Communication Unit after completing a PhD at the Artificial Intelligence Lab at the VUB in Belgium, and a PostDoc at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. My work throughout both my PhD and PostDoc was primarily on the evolution of linguistic structure. One method I have used in my research is cultural transmission experiments in the lab.
These experiments investigate how language (or any behaviour) is changed as a result of being passed from one mind to another in a process similar to the game “Telephone”. One person’s output becomes the input for a new person, whose output is fed to a new person and so on! This method is being used more and more to look at processes of cultural evolution, and I am interested in using these methods to investigate processes in science communication.
I see existing work in cultural evolution fitting into science communication in 3 main areas:
Using experiments to investigate how stories and information are culturally transmitted isn’t new. As far back as 1932, Bartlett’s book “Remembering” describes experiments that looked at how transmission of a memory from one person to another can affect what information persists, and what is forgotten through a failure in the transmission process. More recently, Mesoudi et al. (2006) used similar experiments to systematically investigate whether information is transmitted more faithfully when it is embedded in a narrative around social interactions compared to equivalent non-social information. I am keen to explore these findings in practical contexts in science communication, for instance looking at how well information persists from scientific article to press release to media story as a result of different types of content in a press release.
The internet is the home of the “meme” a culturally transmitted idea (this could be any idea, picture, video, gif or hashtag). New methods from big data analysis are being used by scholars interested in cultural evolution to explore the proliferation of memes, and this is even starting to happen in science communication too. Veltri & Atanasova (2015) used a database of over 60,000 tweets to investigate the main sources of information about climate change that were proliferated on twitter and the content of tweets that were most likely to be retweeted. They found that tweets and text with emotional content was shared more often. These findings fit with the findings from Mesoudi et al. (2006) above, demonstrating that multiple sources and methods can be used to accumulate evidence on what it is that allows scientific information to be a) transmitted in the first place, and b) transmitted faithfully.
Hands-on science activities
Another hot topic in cultural transmission is the role of innovation and creativity in the transmission of information resulting in an accumulation of information. Caldwell and Millen (2008) investigated this process using an experiment whereby participants were asked to build the tallest tower possible using just dried spaghetti and blue tack, or the paper aeroplane that flew the furthest. Participants were able to see the attempts of people who had gone before, giving them the option to copy a design that had already been tried, or innovate a new design. The study found that participants got better at building successful towers and aeroplanes later in transmission chains than earlier, indicating that successful engineering skills were being acquired just from the process of cultural transmission. This, of course, is a brilliant finding in its own right, but there is a huge amount of scope for using this paradigm to investigate what affects cumulative cultural evolution in the context of issues relevant to science communication. For example, does explicit learning or simple imitation affect rates of innovation and success? This question has previously been explored using cooking skills in Bietti et al. (2017) and paper aeroplanes in Caldwell & Millen (2009). You can also use these methods to investigate questions about whether the characteristics of the person transmitting the information plays a role in faithful transmission or innovation (e.g. their gender, age, perceived authority, etc.).
Together, I think these case studies of existing literature outline the scope of methods and insight available from the field of cultural evolution to questions in science communication, and I look forward to working with the unit at UWE to generate some new research in these areas!