Robin Ince is now renowned as “the science guy” of comedy. From The Infinite Monkey Cage on BBC Radio 4, to his huge cabaret-style shows with Professor Brian Cox and a whole host of scientists and comedians performing at venues as big as the Royal Albert Hall. With all this, he is possibly one of the biggest names in science communication in the UK and has recently written a book, The Importance of Being Interested, where he explains his long journey from being a child bored by science, to a comedian whose interest in science has grown to be career-defining.
The first time I saw Robin Ince was back in 2008 in a dark basement venue below a cinema in York where I regularly attended comedy gigs as an undergrad. At that point, his shows didn’t have the primary theme of science, but there was interesting bits of evolutionary theory peppered in to his set which I’d never heard in a comedy set before. I was a linguistics student myself, and a stand-up comedy nerd who had long ago decided, despite being quite good at it, that my love of science was very much secondary to my love for language. But something about Robin’s interest and enthusiasm got to me, and among his shows and a host of public engagement events around the 200th Anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, I started to wonder if I hadn’t made a terrible mistake in rejecting a future in science.
I distinctly remember at this time lamenting to my personal tutor in the linguistics department that I was struggling with feeling like I should have gone in to evolutionary biology. I remember her considering this before asking me if I knew evolutionary linguistics was, in fact, a thing. The study of how humans evolved to communicate using language. I didn’t, but as soon as I was aware I was hooked and ended up doing my master’s degree in language evolution and ultimately a PhD on the topic. In that moment, I found my “thing”, and I can’t imagine my life without it now. In many ways, I think I only made the choices I did because of Robin Ince raising evolutionary topics into my consciousness at a time when it wasn’t too late. In science communication, we often talk about the objective of raising the “science capital” of children to try and get people to feel like science is “for me” at an age where it can still affect their subject and career choices. I feel like Robin Ince pushed me into that space at the very last second when it could have still affected my career. And now, here I am, a lecturer in science communication who researches, among other things, science comedy.
Recently, I had the pleasure to interview Robin Ince to mark the publication of his new book. In the interview, we discuss in depth the role of science fiction in engagement with science, the role of comedy and cabaret in the communication of science, and attitudes towards offense in both science and comedy. You can listen here:
By Dr Hannah Little, Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at UWE Bristol.
This blog post is part of an exhibit for Engage Conference 2021.
“I’m a Scientist, get me out of here” is an online communication activity where school students interact with scientists. Classes of students ask scientists about their work and lives in a live, text-based, fast-paced chatroom, as well as on a question-answer platform which allows for more considered interactions.
Over the 10 years it has run, scientists have often reported that their communication skills have improved through participation in I’m a Scientist. However, this experiential training has never been formalised, and the scientists aren’t always aware of what they are learning. As such, in 2019 a short communication course was designed to run alongside the I’m a Scientist event.
This course comprised of resources, such as short videos and articles, and questions designed to help the scientists reflect on their learning from participation. They were also invited to participate in daily live text-based chats with a science communication expert to help them reflect on their learning, make connections and receive advice.
We evaluated the course using the responses scientists provided throughout the course to analyse their reflections and understanding. Data from 11 scientists, who gave their consent to have their responses analyzed and presented in this work, showed reflections around the themes of raising science capital, providing an inclusive environment for all students to ask questions and engage, and also an inclusive environment for the scientists participating too.
Scientists felt that the I’m a Scientist format worked to help the students lead the conversation to be about what interests them, and also to see the scientists as humans with lives and interests outside of science. This linked nicely to resources about science capital, as linking science to your interests or seeing scientists as sharing your interests can help students see that science could be for them (Archer et al., 2015):
“I like that we are not expected to tell the students about science and being scientists – sometimes it could seem like we are talking at them rather than them being able to find out what they really want to know. In this case, they are asking what they want to know, which probably isn’t what I would have talked to them about if I were to lead the conversation. That has been really eye-opening! “
“Often, in other outreach activities I have done previously, they would still emphasise your role as scientific expert, but not as human being with interests, hobbies, doubts and dreams.”
Scientists felt that the text-based, anonymous format worked to create an equal playing field between the scientists and students, and also among students, giving them the ability to all have their questions answered and preventing barriers for students who may be shy or anxious about asking something:
“Loud students don’t dominate our attention, and quieter, shier students can get their question across as equally as anyone else. Also, with anonymised names in the live chat, I don’t spot patterns of the same people talking to me all the time – the pseudonyms aren’t memorable.”
“I think the text-only format helps in various ways. From the student perspective, it means that participants who might be shy or anxious about speaking in public have an opportunity to ask a question without having to actually vocalise. Students can prepare in advance exactly what they want to write, and the anonymous nature of the interactions frees students to ask anything they like without fear of embarrassing themselves. It also gives students a chance to digest the scientists’ answers at their own pace, and go back over things if they want to. From my perspective, it means that all the questions “look the same”: I won’t end up devoting all my attention to the loudest or most persistent voices in the room.”
There was also evidence that the text-only format made the chats feel more inclusive for the scientists too:
“I think the anonymity of the live chats helps immensely. It allows students to ask whatever they’d like, be it science or not, whilst removing the fear of asking a silly question in front of their classmates or even to you directly. I think being behind a screen/giving text answers works well for the scientists too! Just having a profile photo and not video chat removes a lot of visual biases – I’d be rich if I had a pound for every time someone has told me I don’t ‘look’ like a scientist! But with just the profiles, you ARE a scientist, and everyone was asked questions equally.”
By Dr Hannah Little, Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at UWE Bristol.
Archer, L., Dawson, E., DeWitt, J., Seakins, A., & Wong, B. (2015). “Science capital”: A conceptual, methodological, and empirical argument for extending bourdieusian notions of capital beyond the arts. Journal of research in science teaching, 52(7), 922-948.
This blog post was originally included in Transforming Society published by Bristol University Press and Policy Press, on 12th November 2020, and is reproduced with their kind permission here.
Like many publishing projects this one started like any other. An exchange of emails, a flurry of ideas, and a conversation over tea in a university coffee shop, followed by a shake of hands. What’s changed since that initial conversation is that we are now experiencing a global pandemic. No more physical greetings or coffee shop meetings, instead conversations conducted by Zoom and significant ramifications which impact on our personal and professional lives. However, what hasn’t changed in that time period, and what’s perhaps come even more to the fore, is the role of science communication. In many senses this is an optimum, if exceptionally challenging and sensitive time, to launch a book series on Contemporary Issues in Science Communication, though science communication can still be a field which is relatively unknown for many working in academia.
Science Communication has an extensive global history, but its UK efforts particularly came to the fore post 1985, with the publication of a well-known report, the ‘Bodmer report’ on Public Understanding of Science. Since then science communication has emerged as a space for an eclectic range of disciplines to consider how science and research more broadly is communicated, and importantly engaged around. This means it can encompass disciplinary insights from scholars in a range of social sciences, including informal learning and education, communication and media studies, science and technology studies, psychology, the arts, history, philosophy and more. A recent study of published research in the field identified that research has increased over the last four decades and become more ‘pluralistic’, whilst those receiving training in science communication can range undergraduate and postgraduate students, to working scientists, as well as those who work at science museums and other public sites. Science communication has porous boundaries, is often reluctant to provide exclusive definitions (for example, Trench and Buchhi’s discussion of an emerging discipline), and thus can attract people from a wider range of interests, as well as practical and/or theoretical insights.
Returning to the coffee shop, during those first conversations about a potential book series there were a number of key topics discussed. This included the ways that ‘Fake’ news and digital marketing are changing the context for science journalism. How emerging political eras are altering the way we think about expertise and trust in policymaking, as well as the power of protest. How inclusivity is being considered in science communication from the perspectives of gender, class, disability, ethnicity and other ‘intersectional’ perspectives. As well as underexplored issues within science communication, such as the relationship between public health topics, medical settings and patient and public involvement.
Since then such topics have become all-encompassing in the context of COVID-19. Topics which are not only relevant for science communication scholars, but for academics working over a wide range of disciplines, for policymakers seeking an evidence base to inform decision making, to science museums and centres battling for their survival in a time of ‘lockdowns’, and members of the public encountering the latest data visualisations broadcast live into their homes. Of course, the main priority is not academic in this global context. People are losing their lives, their incomes, their social contact, and their loved ones, but many science communicators will have a desire to contribute their expertise at this time.
This means we are already seeing an emergence of academic science communication work in this area. Studies are examining a range of topics including fake news, media framing, disinformation, use of metaphors, governmental responses, public perceptions, as well as how particular communities are being more directly impacted. A useful special issue on COVID-19 covering such subjects has already been produced by the Journal of Science Communication (JCOM) and no doubt more publications are on the way. However, as the pandemic still impacts all around us, with different regions and countries continuing to adapt to rising rates, fluctuations in data, nudges and regulations around social behaviours and responsibilities, as well as the extended social, economic, moral and political implications of the first global pandemic in generations, there remains a space in the literature for manuscripts not only focussed on COVID-19 but a wide range of contemporary science communication issues.
Contemporary Issues in Science Communication seeks to offer such a space. Publications in this peer-reviewed book series will cover a range of topics relevant to contemporary science communication, including, but not limited to disciplinary insights, science communication mechanisms and techniques and inclusivity in science communication. Proposals can be focussed on specific science, health, environmental and other research subjects, provided the core theme is science communication or engagement related.
As COVID-19 continues to be a pressing matter in 2020, as well as responses to Black Lives Matters, and ongoing political elections, this may not be an easy time for authors to consider proposals in this area. Nevertheless, in providing a book series such as this it is hoped there will be opportunities for longitudinal considerations of the role of science communication within such societal issues, increasing not only the breadth and depth of accounts in science communication, but also opening up such spaces to a wider range of academics, disciplines and authors. Science communication has, after all, never been more public.
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
a junior assistant professor at Utrecht
University, which means I split my time 50/50 between teaching and PhD
research. The moment I knew I wanted to specialize in science communication was
when I was attending a lecture about an – at that time – recently published
study as part of my training in Ecology. I remember being upset by the fact
that no one outside the academic world had caught onto the study that the
researchers had spent six years on. So many more people could benefit from the new
That’s why I specialized in science communication
through a graduate program in Writing and Communication at the University of Amsterdam. It involved a year of
training in Communication Studies and Argumentation Theory as well as a six-month
internship. For my internship, I worked at the science department of a Dutch
national broadcasting agency (VPRO): I worked in communication,
was an editor for the website and assisted in the production of Labyrint, a weekly science
popularization program on national television.
finishing my training, I worked as a teacher both at the University of
Amsterdam, where I taught science communication and academic skills, and at
Utrecht University where I taught in interdisciplinary research skills and
academic writing. In my role as a teacher, I became interested in teaching practices
and wondered why science communication played such a small role in academic
programs. In the Dutch educational context, science communication training is
part of graduate training although it is mostly confined to dedicated science
communication programs or electorate courses. I especially noticed the lack of
structural training in science communication and a lack of attention being paid
to skills associated with communication in undergraduate training programs. As
such, I wanted to know how science communication training could be implemented
in the undergraduate program where I taught: Liberal Arts and Sciences at
Utrecht University. Liberal education students are trained in interdisciplinary
research skills and use insights from different disciplinary fields to study societal
issues. These are real-world problems that often need societal awareness to
come to a solution. Because most liberal education students pursue a career
that enables them to make an impact on society, it’s important for them to
learn how to communicate outside of their academic specialization.
my PhD project, I get to explore science communication for interdisciplinary
research settings. As my passion as a teacher is on teaching writing skills,
they are the focus of my project. I use insights from both Linguistics and
Educational Sciences to discover how writing skills in the genre of science
communication, or popularization, can best be taught in liberal education
settings. I use Liberal Arts and Sciences at Utrecht University as a case study.
I found out about the Science Communication Unit (SCU)
when I was applying for the
Julie Johnson Kidd Travel Research Fellowship. This grant allows teachers
in liberal education to spend time at another university. Although Utrecht
University has a highly regarded Linguistics department, it does not have a
research group dedicated to science communication research, which is why I felt
I could really benefit from input from the Science Communication Unit at UWE
Bristol. What attracted me to the SCU was the fact that the research group
combines insights from theory and practice, being known internationally as a
leader in academic research into science communication, as well as producing its
own science communication efforts. What made me especially enthusiastic about a
stay at the Science Communication Unit was the MSc Science
Communication that offers training to a new generation of science
In terms of my PhD, the literature told me that
explicit teaching of science communication skills would lead to better scores
and a higher self-perception of writing abilities. The next step was finding teaching
interventions that are effective in teaching these writing skills, and the Science
Communication programme was the perfect way for me to see teaching activities in
action. The module ‘Writing Science’ was of specific interest to me as it is
unique to have a course that focuses solely on writing skills in science communication.
As part of my sabbatical I could sit in on teaching in this course and observe
best practices in teaching. I was also able to ask students taking the module to
participate in my research by letting them write one-minute papers and reflect
on learning goals, the content of the classes and the results of the teaching
efforts. Furthermore, I let students fill in a questionnaire about
self-perception of their science communication skills and writing abilities.
This gave me insights into the self-perception of their writing skills as well
as their likes and dislikes in the way that the curriculum was built. I’ve
never seen a more enthusiastic group of students! They loved everything about
the programme and had no dislikes.
I was also able to interview Emma Weitkamp, Hannah Little and Andy Ridgway, staff who teach on the module, about their didactical frameworks, educational vision, how to build a science communication curriculum, and educational techniques. I got to sit in on teaching for undergraduate programmes at UWE Bristol and on masterclasses, continuing professional development aimed at those working in the field. What really stood out to me is that in all their teaching, the SCU team would actively make the connection between theory and practice, offering many examples of science communication efforts to their students, as well as enabling students to participate in real-world science communication themselves.
generally, my time in Bristol gave me insights into effective teaching
techniques for science communication within the context of a specialized
graduate programme. I will bring these insights with me to inform my further
research. The next step in my own project is implementing teaching
interventions in the undergraduate programme Liberal Arts and Sciences, and my
stay in Bristol gave me some great insights into how I might construct this
part of my research.
I felt like a research stay at the start of my second year of research was a great time for me to spend some time at SCU. This stay gave me some great insights into theory and practice and helped me bring more focus to my project. The entire team made me feel very welcome during my time at UWE, with academics Andy Ridgway, Andrew Glester, Clare Wilkinson and Kathy Fawcett, letting me sit-in on their teaching. Furthermore, it was great to spend time with fellow PhD students David Judge and Elena Milani, who became real friends and helped exploring Bristol. In short, I would highly encourage any PhD student thinking about spending time at UWE Bristol to say yes to the opportunity!
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.
You hear a lot of advice from people when you are thinking of setting up a podcast. People have all sorts of opinions about how long episodes should be, what you should talk about, how you should talk, how often you should release episodes. I’m not sure any of them are right. Think about the podcasts you listen to. Are they all the same length as each other? All the same format? All series or all regular? I doubt it.
I’m the host of The Cosmic Shed podcast which was recently named as one of the Guardian’s favourite podcasts of 2018. It’s recorded in the crumbling garden shed at the bottom of my garden, somewhere in suburban Bristol. It really is an awful shed but guests on the podcast include Tim Peake, Alice Roberts, Benedict Cumberbatch, Nichelle Nichols and Chris Hadfield. We discuss science fact, science fiction and everything in between. Occasionally we take the podcast on the road for live events, like our takeover of Bristol’s planetarium with Andy Weir, the author of The Martian.
Podcasts are what the hosts make them to be. If you’re
thinking of setting one up, think about what your favourite podcast are and why
you like them. The thing that the best all have in common is that the people
hosting and presenting them have a huge passion for their topics. That passion
is infectious and vital for the listener but it takes many forms. My favourite
podcasts are a mixture of scripted, well researched shows like Caliphate and
RadioLab and the more relaxed, informal formats like Spooktator and The Adam
The idea for The Cosmic Shed came to me while I was studying
for the MSc in Science Communication at UWE. I had recently moved to Bristol
and bought a house which needed a lot of work. A lot of work. Water came up through
the floor and down through the ceiling. The waste pipe from the toilet went out
onto the roof. That’s the end of that sentence but I would add that this part
of the roof did not leak. In the garden stood a shed. A truly awful, rotting
shed with more holes than the house and half the floor missing. “That looks
like a great place to record a podcast”, I thought.
Several years later, The Cosmic Shed podcast has over 100
episodes, won awards and, yet, the shed still looks awful from the outside.
There are a cohort of co-hosts for the Cosmic Shed. We have a nanoscientist Dr Maddy Nichols, an aerospace engineer Dr Steve Bullock, a film nerd (understatement) Timon Singh and more regular guest/hosts like Tushna Commisariat (Physics World) and Achintya Rao (CERN). We all have our own expertise and our own loves of science fiction.
We get a fair amount of correspondence from people who tell
us that we are like friends to them. They look forward to our episodes and feel
like they are sitting in the shed with us as they listen. If you think of your
favourite podcasts, I suspect you’ll find most of them have regular hosts who
you get to know and like. It’s one of the main reasons why people like
podcasts. Not that that is deliberate from our point of view. I believe that
it’s just a natural consequence of the way we record the podcast.
The Guardian newspaper described us as a “light-hearted, curious and nerdy listen” and I think that’s what you get if you put a group of friends in a terrible shed, watch a bit of science fiction and record the conversation.
Your podcast should be as long as you want it to be, as often as you want it to be and about what you want to it be about. That way, you’ll enjoy doing it as much as your listeners love listening to it.
If you are a podcaster or you are thinking of becoming one,
do feel free to get in touch. I’d be delighted to have a chat with you but
beware. The first question anyone asks me is how we get such brilliant guests.
I never answer it.
As 2018 draws to a close, it’s over 15 years since we launched our first postgraduate programme in Science Communication. Today, we’re delighted to be launching our latest offering, designed to meet the needs of students wherever they are based. As our MSc Science Communication and Postgraduate Certificate in Practical Science Communication grow in numbers year on year, we’ve become more and more conscious that science communication is a growing field, both in the UK and internationally, but not everyone who would like to develop their expertise is able to travel to Bristol to study with us.
Over the last three years we’ve provided two, entirely online, CPD courses in science communication, which have provided training to over 100 students around the globe. Drawing on the learning we’ve gained from delivering these courses, we are pleased to offer the next generation of science communication students the chance to study for a Postgraduate Diploma in Applied Science Communication, without ever visiting our campus here in Bristol.
The programme has been designed to provide students with an applied and practical introduction to the science communication field, alongside the opportunity to develop their understanding of science communication research and techniques. The programme is intended to appeal to students with interests in face-to-face science communication (such as festivals and museums), science communication in digital environments, as well as the written form. A final research skills and project module will also equip students with key skills in science communication research and evaluation techniques. Students will leave the programme with all of the skills necessary to both convey and communicate scientific concepts, and assess the impact of that communication. Thus, the programme will appeal to recent graduates and those already working in the field alike.
One unique aspect of this programme, for UWE Bristol, is its entirely online delivery format. This will allow students, wherever they are based, and alongside other commitments, to undertake a UK science communication qualification. Students will also be able to direct their learning towards topics and examples of relevance to them, in their home and working environments, as well as cultural contexts, and even though it’s online, we’ll be using the latest techniques to help them to network with our staff, as well as each other.
In developing this new programme we’ve worked with staff throughout our team, as well as having input and insights from our current postgraduate students and stakeholders who are working in the field. The stakeholders we spoke to, many of whom are already employing some of our past graduate students, commented on the contemporary relevance of the programme, the connection of assessments to real situations students will face in their employment contexts, and the opportunities for students to build portfolios and practice in a varied way.
We’re now recruiting students who would like to start this programme in January 2019, you can contact Jane.Wooster@uwe.ac.uk for further information and find out more on the programme here. We are also able to offer discounts to students who have previously studied an online CPD course with us.
Emma Weitkamp & Clare Wilkinson, Co-Directors of the Science Communication Unit
The early part of the summer of 2018 saw the UK facing a heatwave and a lack of rain affecting many parts of the country. In some areas dairy farmers hit by a lack of rain needed to supplement grass-fed cattle with silage (normally used in the winter months). Many UK residents however remained unaffected, and may have enjoyed the stretch of BBQ weather and the certainty of being able to leave the house in their shorts without a brolly or jacket to hand! There are those who find it hard to believe that the UK, which is perceived as a wet and rainy country, can be severely affected by drought and water scarcity.
The UK is reliant on rainfall to fill its reservoirs which provide water to homes and businesses across much of the country. Industries such as farming and horticulture as well as the environmental sector are effected by drought and water scarcity. Summer water shortage as a result of a lack of precipitation can also be accompanied by high temperatures – a heatwave – which affects many sectors including fire services and medical settings, as vulnerable people can be susceptible to dehydration or heatstroke. These phenomena are nothing new, with drought and water scarcity being evidenced in the UK for as long as records of precipitation and river flow have been kept – well into the early 1800s. Recent droughts in 1976 and 1990 are still alive in the memories of many. With climate change, extreme weather events are more likely in the future and, as such, drought and water scarcity awareness is important to encourage people to embrace water-saving behaviour changes, and understand that this is something that affects the UK.
‘About Drought’ is a Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) funded project designed to maximise the impact of UK research on drought and water scarcity, and to engage diverse stakeholders and publics with the outputs from the UK Droughts and Water Scarcity Programme. As part of the project, a series of films will be produced aiming to debunk some common misconceptions about drought and water scarcity. This first film in the series introduces the viewer to people with expert knowledge on drought and water scarcity in the UK and the effects it can have.
This time last year during our MSc Science Communication at UWE Bristol, we were buried under a mountain of coursework deadlines, research proposals and that creeping question of ‘what next’? We never thought that so soon after that joyous dissertation hand-in day we would be off on a sci-comm adventure to Hong Kong, to make a documentary and inspire 10,000 local school children to study science!
We teamed up with Anturus Education – a Welsh organisation that uses expedition, media and adventure to inspire kids to learn about the natural world. Our mission was to use film and public speaking to demonstrate that Hong Kong is far more than just an urban hotspot – it is in fact, a thriving wildlife hotspot with many nature-filled surprises!
Science communication is all about getting the public involved in scientific concepts and research findings — engaging them to take notice of the things that matter and spark curiosity.
Whilst we were there, we quickly became aware of the value of being creative in how we communicate science. Here are our thoughts on how filmmaking and different styles of presenting can reap meaningful rewards among your target audience.
Science Communication through filmmaking – Tay Aziz
As well as delivering 30 school shows across Hong Kong, the Anturus team also filmed and produced a fifteen-minute documentary and a few shorter one-minute clips for YouTube. These videos were disseminated to schools and the public through the Anturus website and provided useful resources that teachers could access after the team had left, helping the team achieve a legacy once the project was complete.
As a science communicator, film and video is an incredibly useful tool – it can provide a sense of escapism, a new way to visualise information with animations, or an immersive experience in interactive 3D. Film can provide a platform for scientists to share their work and promote themselves as experts in a field, and it also has the potential to reach vast audiences and can impact an audience’s emotions as well as their knowledge on a topic. I first became interested in using film to communicate science whilst taking part in the Science on Air and on Screen module, as part of the MSc in Science Communication; since then I’ve created documentaries on plastic pollution, drought research and most recently, filmed presenter-pieces in Hong Kong.
Storytelling is an integral part of film and science communication films are no different. How we perceive the world is heavily influenced by forms of entertainment media, such as sci-fi novels, fictional films and documentaries. These depictions of science encompass more than just facts, but they include other elements of science such as its methods and allow non-scientists to ‘see’ where science happens, who does it, and how it works. When choosing a problem or focus for a film, it makes sense to consider the issues and themes and anchor those ideas in contextual evidence to create emotional appeal and build interesting discourse. World-class natural history documentaries, such as Blue Planet II, have gathered popularity as they follow key principles to engage interest in their audience.
‘If something is unusual it will be interesting. Where it comes to be dangerous is when you introduce an element of it being strange without relating it to the central idea of the topic you are talking about without a solid theoretical structure present.’
Sir David Attenborough
Choosing a subject which an audience can relate to (living creatures), they showcase surprising beauty and hidden stories in the real world, and they have substance to reinforce that initial generic interest.
Top Tips from Tay for getting into Science Communication filmmaking:
Don’t underestimate the value of your academic qualifications. Science production companies are always looking for people who are highly qualified in an academic area and are good writers.
You don’t need to go to film school. A qualification like the MSc can teach you most of the basics, and there are millions of excellent (and free) tutorials on YouTube. Try searching ‘documentary filmmaking’.
Practice makes perfect. Make your own stuff, even if it’s a small project about something down the road from where you live.
All the gear…no idea. Don’t spend tonnes of money on expensive equipment that you don’t need. Learn with what you have first – Sophie created a 22-part vlog series using just her iPhone!
Keep it simple. Make sure you don’t cram huge amounts of information into a film – there should be a main idea or two, with a sequence of ideas to hold the viewer’s attention and lead them to the end.
Science Communication through Presenting – Sophie Pavelle
Science can be communicated in many different ways, but I have enjoyed communicating my adventures in the natural world using contemporary media and online platforms. Since my rather quirky trek around Cornwall for my MSc project, I’ve been surprised with how much I have enjoyed presenting as a route into science communication – especially as I’m not the most confident of people! By talking through a topic out loud – I find that I not only offer information to others, but I have learnt so much through the process of film production and presentation. The research that goes into a script, the hours spent modifying it before delivery, help you to think about an environment, a process, a species of wildlife, much more creatively. Your ultimate goal is to leave the audience with more knowledge of a subject or an enlightened view on an issue than before – and so by dissecting information and identifying the key points to present, in a way that is interesting and understandable, well, you end up learning a huge amount!
Pieces to camera
Our presenting experience during Hong Kong was two-fold: pieces to camera and live presentation across 30 schools – both completely different methods of communication and new experiences for me! The documentary sought to uncover the wilder parts of the city and reveal the complex relationship the locals have with its wildlife. My job was to research what wildlife was in store for us during our visit. Learning about the natural history of Chinese white dolphins, black kites, Rhesus and Long-tailed macaques, was a refreshing change from the garden birds and local kittiwake colony back home! Being part of a small, inter-dependent production crew was also a valuable opportunity; making a welcome change from being a one-woman filming team as I am for my online content. Learning from our trip leader Huw James about shot composition, different presenting angles and even things such as stance, breathing techniques, voice cadences and body language; offered invaluable on-location hints and tips as to how to boost your chances of gaining and maintaining the attention of your audience. If there’s one thing I remember from the MSc Science Communication, it’s that knowing your audience is EVERYTHING.
Live Science Shows
Following the first few days of filming in some impressive national parks such as Sai KunGreatand secondary schools. Here was our chance to now personally interact with our audience, to initiate that all-important dialogue that is integral to effective science communication. Our tour formed part of the Hong Kong Science Festival, coinciding with Science Week back in the UK. Organised by the Croucher Foundation which aims to promote science communication and teaching over Hong Kong, we had quite the schedule! 10 days. 30 different schools. 30 shows. Travelling in-between. I arrived having never done a live science show before – it was safe to say my last stage performance may well have been Villager Number 5 in the school nativity!! Many of the schools required translation into Cantonese – adding an extra hurdle to the learning curve.
Being a team of three co-presenters worked well; while two presenters steered the show, the other became the stage hand. It also meant that I could spend the first few shows nursing a lost voice and learning from Huw and Tay, both of whom are far more experienced with delivering science content on stage. The shows were largely based around ‘Our Wild World’, covering everything from deep-sea adaptations of the blobfish, how to be more ‘plastic-smart’, to exploring how volcanoes and glaciers interact. The Hong Kong students were a dream to present to – polite, attentive and practically bursting with enthusiasm to volunteer for on-stage activities and ask questions; it was an opportunity I relished as someone so fresh from education myself, to interact with such eager students and try and inspire them to further their curiosity in science and the natural world.
It was wonderful to see the children’s reactions to seeing photos and film of awesome nature – my favourite being their reaction to seeing clips from our documentary of the azure waters of the Geopark and its dramatic coastline, as many of them were not aware of its proximity to their home. We soon realised the apparent disconnect Hong Kong has with its natural land, particularly during one bizarre moment with a teacher, who was asking us for recommendations on which national park to visit!
Top Tips from Sophie for getting going with Presenting
Just go for it. Nothing is harder but more important than just getting over those first few hurdles of getting your content out there. Experiment with different styles – but just practise, practise, practise. Take every opportunity you can to speak publicly, grow in confidence and learn your style.
Do your research. As a science communicator its so important to do your research and be sure you’re conveying the correct facts to your audience. Keep your facts accurate – but keep them snappy and interesting.
Be creative. This industry is competitive. Try to think of stories or angles to present that are different and innovative – give your audience something remember and your cameraman/woman something fun to film.
Network. The MSc Science Communication has been amazing for meeting likeminded individuals who are passionate about the same ultimate goal. If you want to try out presenting, see if you can find someone who wants to practise their filming and plan some fun filming trips together.
Overall, as newbies into the science communication world, Hong Kong offered a vibrant, challenging and fascinating experience to develop technique and learn an invaluable amount about the various elements that form a documentary and a science show.
Tay Aziz is a passionate science communicator, physiologist and filmmaker. She is currently working as a researcher for the BBC’s Natural History Unit and is the curator of STEMinist, an online community to empower women and girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths.
Sophie is an adventurous zoologist with a passion for using expedition to learn about the natural world. Sophie regularly explores the UK and overseas, sharing fun stories about wildlife and conservation through social media, writing, public speaking and workshops.
Sophie’s next project will involve working alongside The Wildlife Trust’s, making some online content for their 30 Days Wild Campaign in June. She’ll also be running digital content workshops for the City Nature Challenge in Bristol and speaking at the Festival of Nature.