A note to researchers about science communication in the 21st century

The Oxford NERC Environmental Research Doctoral Training Partnership were recently tasked with organising the second annual Grand Challenges Seminar Series. There were 5 seminars in this series. All of these had to embody some sort of environmental research challenge facing society and all of these had to be done within a very tight budget. The 28 strong cohort suggested a plethora of subjects and eventually the top 5 were selected, meaning the cohort were divided into 5 teams tackling relatively large research questions. Our first two excellent seminars, ‘designing cities with nature in mind;’ and ‘Are We Alone? Discourse on extraterrestrial research,’ have come and gone. I have chosen to write this blog, about our third seminar, ‘science communication in the 21st century.’ This blog will cover topics discussed through the seminar including why science is important, how we collaborate and whether our communication of science has been a success story.

Sarah Whatmore, professor of environment and public policy at the University of Oxford’s department of Geography, chaired this discussion. Sarah began the discussion by asking, “is science important?” Dr. Grant Miller, Zooniverse communications lead, said with great certainty, “yes,” stating as an example, that we wouldn’t have the internet without astronomy, though few people make this connection, or other such seemingly disconnected links. Here, Jamie Clarke, the executive director of climate outreach, added that people need to relate to science in a way that is relevant to them, through their frames and lenses. Often, as Jamie noted in his introduction, we force people to absorb information, but this causes lots of people to lose interest as they simply cannot relate to it. So, we need to focus on how we engage with issues as a whole. It’s simply too difficult for many to understand how theoretical science can improve our internet connection, for example.

So, how do we engage with those who can’t engage or simply don’t want to engage? Clarke suggested that we really need to understand the audience, for example, polar bears are used as a reference marker for climate change, but can our audience relate to this? Perhaps an image of floodwater in an urban home just like their own may be more thought provoking, and relatable, to them. He suggested visiting ClimateVisuals to better capture what you need to say to an audience. He also felt that, despite not wanting to, one should consider whether you are the best author for the job, and whether you are using the best media outlets (and I would like to add, also in the best way).

science communication

If we don’t engage with the public, the future doesn’t look great. Miller suggests that we wouldn’t even exist without it. In the past, we had a lot of good amateur scientists. Recently, we have seen a rise again in well respected amateur scientists, who perhaps can’t or don’t want to pursue academia, but enjoy knowing about it and studying it, and this is simply fantastic. They’re helping academics complete research where there are limited resources. Importantly, if we didn’t engage with them, well, a) they wouldn’t know about the research in the first place, b) the project may not even exist. Dr. Alison Daley, University of Oxford Zoology lecturer, Oxford University Natural History Museum research fellow and junior research fellow at St. Edmund Hall, states that much palaeontology work would simply cease to exist without public engagement, but also that such relationships are often necessary for grant applications these days.

Patrick Regan, TUM-IAS Science Writer and Editor at Technical University of Munich (TUM), added to Daley’s comments suggesting that often the public engagement section in grant applications are an afterthought. Passionately, he declared that as a scientist, you owe it to the public to explain to them your research, given that they paid for it. This way, you can also develop trust and promote future projects. Such projects include that of University of Oxford’s Dr. Tom Hart’s Penguin Watch, run from Zooniverse.

But, how do scientists collaborate or engage with the public effectively? Clarke suggests that some people gravitate to understanding and digesting science, while others just don’t. We need to capture those that don’t. For example, climate change in the US is sadly a representation of political stance – how can we reverse this? Clarke suggests we need to work towards understanding why people may think climate change is not real in this instance – i.e. what are the underlying reasons behind the lack of belief in the study or science? And how can we anticipate this potential lack of belief before it happens? Daley additionally suggests that we need to communicate enough so that the public pick up on an idea and want to know more; we need to attempt to inspire by offering a flavour. Perhaps we can make it interactive by demonstrating with objects, for example. Or maybe, we can explain our science to the public using Youtube videos, or podcasts.

In this case, someone from the audience asked, what is the best way to assess whether you have successfully communicated your science? Miller suggested it was easy to assess Youtube views, but much harder to determine whether the message was absorbed. Perhaps you can use analytics to see how many times a single person has come back to your blog – Google Analytics may be useful here. Clarke agreed and stated that vanity matrices, for example, Facebook likes and youtube views, are superficial and don’t represent long term understanding in the public, for example, we see lots of likes of videos of flooding on Facebook during a flooding event, but 6 months later, people aren’t talking about it because it’s not affecting them – so how do we know if the scientific message really did get absorbed?

Essentially, we need to make an effort to capture the imagination of people using media and from there, perhaps this will stimulate people to read more, or interact further with initiatives such as Zooniverse. We should be careful not to simplify science too much, or over complicate it. Using citizen science is also an amazing way to involve, engage with, and potentially inspire, different generations of the public. While this talk focussed on ‘those’ people being public, I think that realistically, this is also inclusive of researchers, given that we are in an increasingly cross-disciplinary world; using social media outlets like Twitter is a great way to make networks and see glimpses of new research that may be relevant to you or your research which is potentially cross-disciplinary, and if we can communicate our science to someone in a different discipline, it is likely that the public will understand the message too – perhaps this is a skill that we need to get better at? The true challenge of science communication at the moment seems to be determining whether our message is really being understood in the ways that we want it to be across the long term.

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Seminars four and five of the Grand Challenges Seminar’s are left to run. You can find further information here.

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Image source: Boon (2014), What is this science communication you speak of? (Last visited 03.02.2016)

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