GeoLog

Education

EGU 2015 Communicate Your Science Video Competition – Deadline Extended!

Earlier this year we launched the Communicate Your Science Video Competition, a great opportunity to share research in the Earth, planetary and space sciences with the general public. What’s more, there’s a free registration to the 2016 General Assembly up for grabs!

What’s it about? Young scientists pre-registered for the EGU General Assembly are invited to take part in the EGU’s Communicate Your Science Video Competition.
The aim: to produce a video up-to-three-minutes long to share your research with the general public.
The prize: a free registration to the General Assembly in 2016.

Your video can include scenes of you out in the field and explaining an outcrop, or at the lab bench showing how to work out water chemistry; entries can also cartoons, animations (including stop motion), or music videos – you name it! As long as you’re explaining concepts in the Earth, planetary and space sciences in a language suitable for a general audience, you can be as creative as you like.

Need some inspiration? Why not take a look at last year’s finalists:

How to enter

Feeling inspired? We’ve extended the deadline for submissions to 12 March. To take part, send your video to Laura Roberts (roberts@egu.eu), together with proof of online pre-registration to EGU 2015. Check the EGU website for more information about the competition and pre-register for the conference on the EGU 2015 website.

GeoEd: A risky business

In this month’s GeoEd post, Sam Illingworth explores the pitfalls of being a scientist in the public eye. Following the recent acquittal of 6 geoscientists on manslaughter charges after ‘failing’ to predict the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake, is it time we thought about improving how risk is communicated to the wider public?

At the beginning of November of this year, six Italian scientists were acquitted of manslaughter; an appeals court in L’Aquila (a medieval Italian city on the edge of the Aterno river) overturning the 2012 guilty verdicts that were originally cast against the researchers.

In their initial trial, the scientists were convicted of multiple manslaughter charges, by failing to predict the devastating earthquake, which struck at 03:32 CEST on 6 April 2009, and which was responsible for the deaths of 309 people. It has taken the past two years to acquit these six scientists, and the initial ramifications of the convictions were far reaching, with other researchers from across the globe wondering if a precedent had now been set, regarding liability for the conveyance of information.

Aerial view of the city of L'Aquila east-centre (Photo Credit: Public Domain, via Wikipedia.org)

Aerial view of the city of L’Aquila east-centre (Photo Credit: Public Domain, via Wikipedia.org)

Sadly, scientists are far from unaccustomed with judicial proceedings, from Galileo vs. the Catholic Church, to more recent examples of scientists being sued by a gym regarding injury rate statistics, or NASA being sued for trespassing on MARS. However, the recent allegations against the L’Aquila six (actually there were seven experts in total; more on this later), calls into question the fundamental belief system of accountability. If a building surveyor were to tell you that the foundations of your house were sound, yet you were later to find evidence of subsidence you would expect compensation from the surveyor. So why not also from the scientists, after all are they not too experts in their own field?

Well, for one thing, finding evidence for subsidence is far more of a precise art than trying to predict earthquakes. On the one hand you are looking for something that already exists, and on the other you are searching for something that may or may not be. In addition to this, surveyors are usually protected by professional indemnity insurance.

Are scientists adequately protected (Photo Credit: Sandstein via Wikimedia Commons)

Are scientists adequately protected (Photo Credit: Sandstein via Wikimedia Commons)

However, in the case of scientists communicating risk, is not being able to accurately predict an earthquake or a volcanic eruption really professional negligence, or is it simply to be expected given the impossibility of fully accurate predictions?

What is potentially worrying to scientists is that the line between professional negligence and unforeseen circumstance would appear to be very blurred indeed. Although, in some instances the distinction is far more clear-cut, for example the behaviour of the seventh member of the panel of experts in the L’Aquila case, Bernardo De Bernardinis. The then deputy director of the Civil Protection agency had, prior to the earthquake, advised locals to “sit back and enjoy a nice glass of Montepulciano” wine. Bernandinis was not acquitted, although his prison sentence was cut, from six to two years.

Although many might view Bernandinis as being guilty of nothing more than pompous over confidence, it is important to remember that as scientists we still have a role to inform the public as to the seriousness of any potential dangers, even if we are not ultimately to be held accountable for our inability to predict them. In other words, failing to predict a natural hazard (or other such incident) should not be seen as professional negligence, but failing to adequately inform the general public of the consequences of any potential threats, probably should be.

Of course, communicating risk goes well beyond natural disasters, and is something that many of us do when we talk about the effects of both current and predicted climate change. In these situations, scientists also regularly put themselves in the firing line, although this time often with regards to the media and pressure groups with an anti-climate change agenda.

One of the most well known examples of this was when a Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) analyst made the following, frankly horrific statement, about Penn State University climate researcher Michael Mann:

“Mann could be said to be the Jerry Sandusky of climate science, except that instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science.”

Dr Michael Mann: fighting the fakers (Photo Credit: Reason4Reason via Wikimedia Commons)

Dr Michael Mann: fighting the fakers (Photo Credit: Reason4Reason via Wikimedia Commons)

Dr Mann has subsequently sued the CEI, but such legal proceedings are both incredibly expensive and time consuming, and often represent a completely alien world to many scientists who are simply just doing their job.

In the US, scientists working for government or federal labs are now offered free legal counsel and support by the organization Protecting Our Employees Who Protect Our Environment (PEER). In addition to this, some scientific professions are now requiring their researchers to have professional indemnity insurance, for example in the UK, legislation was recently introduced that requires all health care scientists to have a professional indemnity arrangement in place, as a condition of their registration with the health & care professions council.

According to Jeff Ruch, the director of PEER, threatening scientists for their science “is a bully strategy,” and “bullies don’t like to be pushed back at.” Whilst the work of PEER and their contemporaries is admirable, is this a position that scientists should ever be finding themselves in? And is there anything that they could be doing to avoid such potential pitfalls?

In some cases, these pitfalls could be avoided by a more careful consideration of how to communicate risk, by explaining to the general public that there are many uncertainties associated with the calculations and predictions that are being made. However, I think that this is something that many scientists are already reasonably adept at, and if scientists are guilty of anything it is sometimes of being overcautious with their predictions, or of waiting to comment until they are absolutely 99.9% sure (with the obligatory 0.1% margin of error).

Media and science communication training can help scientists prepare for how to deliver their research and advice in potentially alien and hostile arenas, but there will always be instances where people have a set agenda to follow at any cost.

There may well be a public perception that scientists failing to predict natural disasters, or underdetermining a certain problem, are like the proverbial bad workmen who blame their tools. However, in trying to communicate risk I think that it might well be a case of “don’t shoot the messenger,” even if it turns out that they have no message to convey.

By Sam Illingworth, Lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University

 

When Astronomy Gets Closer to Home: Why space weather outreach is important and how to give it impact

When the public think about natural hazards, space weather is not the first thing to come to mind. Yet, though uncommon, extreme space weather events can have an economic impact similar to that of large floods or earthquakes. Although there have been efforts across various sectors of society to communicate this topic, many people are still quite confused about it, having only a limited understanding of the relevance of space weather in their daily lives. As such, it is crucial to properly communicate this topic to a variety of audiences. This article explores why we should communicate space weather research, how it can be framed for different audiences and how researchers, science communicators, policy makers and the public can raise awareness of the topic.

Introduction

As you sit reading this article, the Sun is brimming with activity. The yellow disc in the sky may appear unimpressive but when looking in the extreme ultraviolet region of the spectrum, the Sun’s hot active regions glow bright (Figure 1). These are areas with an especially strong magnetic field — manifested in the form of dark patches or sunspots on the solar surface — that can be the source of explosive bursts of energy and solar material. Even though the Sun is some 150 million kilometres away, these solar storms can alter the near-Earth space environment, changing our space weather.

Of the solar storms that can hit the Earth, the most damaging are coronal mass ejections. These high-speed bursts of solar material — if powerful enough and directed towards our planet with the proper orientation of their magnetic field — can disturb the Earth’s magnetic field, creating a geomagnetic storm. This can impact power grids and pipelines, and affect communications and transportation systems. Coronal mass ejections and other solar storms such as solar flares — outbursts of radiation and high-energy particles — can also affect spacecraft and satellites and even be a radiation hazard for astronauts and air crews flying at high latitudes and altitudes.

Figure 1. The Sun in the extreme ultraviolet, imaged by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory on 04 December 2014. This wavelength highlights the outer atmosphere of the Sun (corona) and active solar regions, which appear bright in the image. Solar flares and coronal mass ejections would also be highlighted in this channel.

Figure 1. The Sun in the extreme ultraviolet, imaged by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory on 04 December 2014. This wavelength highlights the outer atmosphere of the Sun (corona) and active solar regions, which appear bright in the image. Solar flares and coronal mass ejections would also be highlighted in this channel. (Credit: Image courtesy of NASA/SDO and the AIA, EVE, and HMI science teams)

The importance of communicating space weather research

Space weather may be a concept unfamiliar to many, but, as with any natural hazard, it is important that the public know about it and understand the potential dangers. At its most extreme space weather can cause large-scale power blackouts and, thus, affect global supply chains including food and water supplies, damaging livelihoods and the economy in the process. Severe space weather occurs about once a century on average (Riley, 2012), but milder events can disrupt human activity once or twice per decade (POST Note, 2010). At a time when we are over-reliant on technology and our power grids are more connected than ever, meaning they are more vulnerable to space weather, telling people about this natural hazard becomes all the more crucial.
Space weather is an area of astronomy much closer to home than most, which can in itself act as a hook for audiences, whether children or policy makers. After all, most people have either seen or heard about the most visible and stunning space weather-related phenomenon, the aurora, which forms when particles from the Sun energise the atoms in the Earth’s atmosphere making it glow (Figures 2 and 3).

Communicating space weather is an opportunity to get others interested in space and science, and to inspire younger people to pursue a career in these areas. In more general terms researchers of space weather, as is the case with many areas of astronomy, have much to gain from communicating their research. Communicating space weather as a researcher can help to improve a CV, hone presentation and writing skills and bring a new perspective to research. Expanding the audience for this research beyond the astronomy community can further lead to interdisciplinary collaborations and an increase in citations for relevant research papers.

In addition, communicating space weather research with the public is a way of justifying the taxpayers’ money that funds most solar–terrestrial research. Engaging the public with this often-forgotten subject area could increase public support for it and inform policy, ensuring that legislation relating to space weather is based on sound science.

Green aurora over Abisko in Sweden.

Figure 2. Green aurora over Abisko in Sweden. (Credit: Carme Bosch, distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Defining your audience

As with more general astronomy or science outreach, before communicating space weather it is important to define an audience. Will this be a talk at a school or an article for a popular astronomy magazine? Is the aim to brief engineers who work on infrastructure protection or to give evidence to a parliamentary committee? The message needs to be targeted to the public that the communicator is reaching out to.

Communicating with young people or a general audience

When communicating with school children, focussing on the Sun and the fascinating aspects of solar–terrestrial science is a way to get the audience excited rather than scared about space weather. For both younger crowds and the wider public, the use of images, videos, animations and other visuals helps to captivate the audience’s attention and can go a long way towards explaining tricky topics.

A further aid to make the public relate better to space weather is to show them what the Sun looks like at that moment and what the current space weather conditions are. For this, NASA and ESA’s Solar & Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) page and the US Space Weather Prediction Center website are great resources.

To help familiarise the audience with complex concepts, it is often useful to use everyday analogies and examples — like using a peppercorn and a football to give an idea of the relative sizes of the Earth and Sun. In addition, as with other topics, it is important for the communicator to speak or write clearly and avoid technical terms when reaching out to a general audience.

Bright aurora over Alaska

Figure 3. Bright aurora over Alaska. (Credit: Taro Nakai, distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Communicating with technical audiences and policy makers

The language can be more technical when communicating with engineers or policy makers, but should still be free of discipline-specific jargon. Engineers are likely interested in finding out about the properties of solar storms and how spacecraft can be made more resilient, or how the effects of geomagnetic storms could be mitigated to avoid excessive damage to technological infrastructure. Policy makers want the facts given in a balanced, clear and objective way, and are interested in space weather aspects with policy relevance, such as monitoring, resilience and funding.
Real-world examples and avoiding scaremongering

A crucial aspect is to strike a balance between informing about the dangers of space weather and avoiding scaremongering. The communicator should give concrete examples about past events that have affected human activity. Typical examples include the famous 1859 Carrington event, which affected telegraph systems and caused aurorae as far south as Cuba (Bell, 2008); the Quebec 1989 geomagnetic storm that caused a power blackout affecting several million people and temporarily paralysed the Montreal metro and international airport (POST Note, 2010); or the Halloween storms of 2003 over northern Europe that damaged satellites, caused a blackout in Sweden, and forced air companies to reroute trans-polar flights (POST Note, 2010).
These events illustrate that space weather is something that the public and policy makers need to be aware of because it can affect their daily lives. But it’s also important to explain that geomagnetic storms, particularly severe ones that could cause trillions of euros in damage, are not very common (Workshop report, 2008). It is important to raise awareness of space weather and educate the public on the best ways to prepare for and mitigate space weather without getting people needlessly worried about its impact. Always finish on a positive note when doing space weather outreach.

Getting involved as a science communicator, scientist or member of the public

For those convinced about the importance of engaging the public with space weather, and confident about delivering a targeted and informative message, there are many opportunities to get involved in space weather outreach. If you are an astronomy communicator, and thus likely to already be writing popular science articles or giving presentations about various aspects of astronomy, why not choose space weather as your next topic? As a researcher, there are science cafes available to bring space weather to the public, you could blog about your work, give talks at local schools, or — if you are preparing a new and exciting paper on the topic — you can reach out to journalists through the press office at your institution.

Experienced scientists have an additional responsibility to communicate with policy makers. They can reach this audience by providing input to a policy briefing, such as those written by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) in the UK, or by contributing to a governmental report through their research council. Scientists can also apply to serve as science advisers to their local politician or to a governmental body, or join science policy groups in their country to raise the importance of space weather in the political agenda.

Finally, if you are a member of the public who knows little about space weather, but is interested in finding out more, you can help researchers and communicators in this area by taking part in public consultations, such as the Space Weather Public Dialogue underway (at the time of writing) in the UK, which is open to people from all countries. The aim of this project is to help UK research councils and entities find out more about how to best communicate space weather and its impacts and to evaluate the public’s level of preparedness.

If you want to communicate space weather, or help others do it more effectively, there are plenty of opportunities out there to get involved. Be enthusiastic and pro-active, and encourage others to raise public awareness about what happens on the Sun and in our local space environment.

# # #

Acknowledgements
This article is based on a presentation given at a session of the European Geosciences Union 2014 General Assembly in Vienna on 2 May 2014. The session, titled ‘Raising and Maintaining Awareness of our Local Space Weather: Education and public outreach’, was convened by Athanasios Papaioannou and Jean Lilensten. I am grateful to Athanasios for inviting me to speak at the European Geosciences Union conference, for encouraging me to write this article, and for the useful comments that improved the initial draft of this text.

References
Bell, T. E & Phillips, T. 2008, A Super Solar Flare: http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2008/06may_carringtonflare/
POST Note 361, 2010, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology: http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/POST-PN-361.pdf
Riley, P. 2012, Space Weather, 10, 2: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2011SW000734/abstract
Workshop report, 2008, Severe space weather events—understanding societal and economic impacts (The National Academies Press: New York): http://www.nap.edu/catalog/12507/severe-space-weather-events–understanding-societal-and-economic-impacts

by Bárbara Ferreira, EGU Media and Communications Manager

CAP_coverThis article was originally published on the December 2014 issue of the Communicating Astronomy with the Public (CAP) Journal. Head over to the CAP website to download it in PDF format, or read the full issue.

Connecting Earth scientists and school students – Apply to take part in I’m a Geoscientist!

What and when

Imagine a talent show where contestants get voted off depending on their skills in their area of choice. Then imagine that this talent show is populated by scientists with school students voting them off based on the scientist’s ability to communicate their research well. This is the basis of a recent EGU educational initiative that launched earlier in 2014, and that will return in 2015.

The EGU are continuing their collaboration with Gallomanor, the UK company in charge of I’m a Scientist (Get me out of here) and I’m an Engineer (Get me out of here), to run the European-wide sister project I’m a Geoscientist. The event provides school students with the opportunity to meet and interact with real (geo)scientists!I'm a geoscientist

The event takes the form of an online chat forum using an innovative online platform. School students log on and post questions to the scientists taking part, querying them on everything (with moderation) from their research to their favourite music. The scientists then log on and answer those questions. Based on their answers (e.g. on how well they’ve explained a particular piece of science), students get to vote out scientists until there is one left – the best scientific communicator – who wins €500 for a new public-engagement project of their choice.

The primary objective of the event is to change students’ attitudes to the geosciences and make them feel it’s something they can relate to and discuss in a rapidly changing world. Students have fun, but also get beyond stereotypes, learn about how science relates to real life, develop their thinking and discussion skills and make connections with real scientists. Giving students some real power (deciding where the prize money goes) also makes the event more real for them. The student who interacts the most with scientists and asks the most insightful questions will also win a €20 gift voucher.

I'm a geoscientistIIThe next I’m a Geoscientist event is taking place on 9–20 March 2015. If you’d like to apply as a teacher (giving your classes the opportunity to interact with geoscientists) or as a researcher, see the details below. The deadline for all applications is 26 January 2015, and GIFT teachers and EGU members are eligible to apply.

 

Teachers

To apply to take part in the event, go to http://imageoscientist.eu/teachers/ and fill in the simple online form for teachers. Applications are open to all teachers who have taken part in a GIFT event (at any time). Successful teachers will be notified shortly after the deadline for applications, and the event will take place over two weeks on 9–20 March 2015. You will need to use some class time before the event to prepare your students, but we have flexible lesson plans already prepared to help you keep the class time used to a minimum.

To take part you need to be able to devote at least 2 hours (it doesn’t matter when, and the maximum you will need is 5 hours) for those two weeks to ready your students for interacting with the scientists and take part in some online discussion – and of course you will have to have reliable internet access. The entire event will be conducted in English, so you and your class will also need a basic understanding of and ability to write questions to scientists in English. Why not team up with your school’s English department and use the event as a language learning exercise as well? If you choose to do this, make sure that the teacher who has been involved with GIFT in the past is the one who formally registers.

 

Scientists

For scientists, this is a unique opportunity to get involved with some public engagement from the comfort of your own home or lab computer, in your own time. You can build up your skills in talking about your research to varied audiences, tick the box for public engagement in your funding proposals, gain an understanding of how the public relate to research and, importantly, help inspire the next generation about the geosciences.

The potential of winning the €500 prize for further public engagement is also attractive. A public engagement activity could involve: buying equipment to allow a research oceanography vessel to communicate with school students during expeditions, funding an open day for communities living in a disaster area to find out about natural hazards research and get advice, giving the money to a school in Uganda to pay for science kits and a projector to watch science films on or buying a quadcopter to film inside the rim of a volcano and help school children understand their local natural environment. To find out more about the experience of participating as a scientist read the interview with 2014 winner Anna Rabitti.

To apply to take part in the event go to http://imageoscientist.eu/geoscientists/ and fill in the simple online form for scientists. Applications are open to all EGU members (if you are not a member you can register on the EGU website) from across Europe. Once applications close, we will ask the registered school classes to judge the scientist applications and chose the final 5 scientists who will get to take part in the final event. Successful scientists will be notified a couple of weeks after the deadline for applications.

To take part you need to be able to devote around an hour a day (it doesn’t matter when, but if you can devote more time that is always better) for those two weeks to answer the questions posed by the students – and of course you will have to have reliable internet access. The entire event will be conducted in English, so you will also need to be able to confidently understand and communicate in English.

If you have any other questions about the event, please contact Bárbara Ferreira at EGU (media@egu.eu, +49-89-2180-6703) or Gallomanor’s Angela Manasor (angela@gallomanor.com, and +44-1225-326892).

This blog post is based on materials by Jane Robb, former EGU Educational Fellow

 

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