GeoLog

science communication

I’m a Geoscientist – Get me out of here! Apply to take part in our 2014 launch event!

Imagine a talent show where contestants get voted off dependant 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 the EGU’s new educational initiative to launch in June 2014.

The EGU have entered into a collaboration with Gallomanor, a UK company that runs the events I’m a Scientist (Get me out of here) and I’m an Engineer (Get me out of here). The EGU are now funding a European-wide sister project called I’m a Geoscientist (Get me out of here) where we provide school students with the opportunity to meet and interact with real scientists!

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The event takes the form of an online chat forum using an innovative online platform designed especially for the purpose of this event. School students log on and post questions to the scientists taking part, ranging from questions about their research to their favourite music. The scientists then log on and answer those questions. Based on their answers, 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.

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To apply to take part in the event just go to http://imageoscientist.eu 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) and close on the 17th March 2014. Successful teachers will be notified by the 24th March and the event will take place over two weeks from the 16th to 27th June. You will need to use some class time before the event to prepare your students, but we have flexible lesson plans already prepared and the minimum class time you need is 1 hour.

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.

If you have any other questions about the event email Jane Robb at robb@egu.eu or info@egu.eu.

By Jane Robb, EGU Educational Fellow

GeoTalk: Simon Redfern on science communication

This week in GeoTalk, we’re talking to Simon Redfern, renowned scientist and science communicator and the man behind An Atom’s-Eye View of the Planet.

What made you first step into science communication?

That’s a difficult question for me to answer, since it is not a step that I have consciously recognised myself making. I suppose that I see science as having at least two sides. One is discovery… posing the correct questions, working out the methods to answer them, and (hopefully) reaching some sort of answer on the basis of your data. But the other side of science forms as big a part of the enterprise. Discovery is worthless without communication. So, as scientists, we labour over how to best present our results and conclusions, typically first through communicating to peers – talks and seminars at conferences, listening to colleagues’ feedback, and then by publishing papers, again with feedback and testing. For those of us working in universities, the next stage of communication is often through teaching, promulgating our science through lectures, review articles, textbooks or (increasingly) blogs. My efforts at more general communication grew out of this.

I help teach a first year undergraduate Earth sciences course, which assumes no prior knowledge. Part of our teaching programme uses small group tutorials, and last year I became aware that a lot of geo-news was going on, in the form of exciting new discoveries in the leading papers, or topics of societal concern, that fed directly into the more mainstream core material of the first year course. At the same time, I had started contributing occasional short pieces to a Facebook group called “The Earth Story” – a repository of geological tidbits with more than half a million followers. I started extending my Earth Story contributions into a blog, www.geopoem.com that helped illustrate some of the things that our first year undergraduates were covering, in an attempt to interest just the seven students in my tutorial groups. Others started reading them and seemed to be enjoying them. I was encouraged by the positive comments.

Meet Simon! (Credit: Simon Redfern)

Meet Simon! (Credit: Simon Redfern)

Things happened by chance, rather than design, as seems to be the pattern for most of my life! Two or three weeks in a row the Departmental Administrator sent out a general email pointing out the opportunities to take part in the British Science Association’s Media Fellowships. I assumed that, because the emails were going out and the closing date was approaching, they must be short of applicants (it turns out that this is far from the case!). I looked at who had been Media Fellows in the past and saw that some old codgers like me had done it, as well as the younger bloggers and aspiring science communicators who I had assumed would be most interested. In fact, the scheme exists to try and bring journalists and scientists together, by working side by side, to inform both science and the news media, rather than to act as a sort of internship programme. Anyway, at the very last moment I threw my hat into the ring and waited to see what fate would bring.

It turned out that I was offered the fellowship with BBC over the summer, which has been a fantastic experience.

You’re currently participating in the British Science Association’s Media Fellowship with the BBC, what’s been the biggest highlight?

Wow, another hard question. There have been so many. One of the most nerve wracking moments was in my very first week, when I was working with the BBC Science Radio folk on a couple of productions, one going out on the BBC World Service and one on UK domestic BBC Radio 4. The latter was a show called “Material World”, and I was involved in the very last edition of it. It went out live each Thursday at 16:30, and being involved in live radio, even as a minor researcher for only part of the programme was fascinating. The topic of “my” bit of the show was communicating scientific uncertainty and my contribution amounted to telephoning potential guest interviewees and getting them to agree to sitting in front of a microphone. When faced with attempting to write a script for how I believed the discussion would proceed, I had to rely on the answers that they had given during my phone conversations with them earlier in the week. Needless to say, I hadn’t been paying such careful attention at that point, because I hadn’t realised the importance of the phone calls. I waited on tenterhooks during their part of the programme, terrified that the interviewees would go wildly off message and sink the whole discussion. But they were closer to the topic than me, and did an excellent job of discussing a difficult concept. The presenter, Gareth Mitchell, was fantastic, and it was a highlight watching him guide the show so professionally and calmly, winding it up at 16:59:59.7 in perfect style.

Inside the BBC –  a hive of activity!

Inside the BBC – a hive of activity!

I spent three weeks working with Science Radio and three weeks working with the Science and Environment page of BBC News Online. Seeing your words transformed from hastily scribbled reports of the latest research papers, into slick pieces on the BBC News Site was great fun every time. I ended up covering topics as diverse as dark matter, neutron stars, 4 billion year old resurrected proteins, bears in Yellowstone and new remedies to fight MRSA or anthrax. Sometimes I had the luxury of writing about something I actually knew a little bit about, which included a fun story about how sand dunes were engulfing the star wars set in Tunisia. Seeing my story on Dune vs. Star Wars hit the most read item of the science pages for four days in a row was only surpassed by seeing it appear as the most read article across the whole BBC news site overall, beating a story about Jay-Z changing his name into second place!

Have you had to deal with any sticky situations on the job – if so, how did you keep your cool?

The only sticky situations I had to deal with were of my own making. We shall ignore the instance of me spilling a cup of coffee down my front as I made my way to my very first day in the office (what is it that they say about first appearances?). My temporary colleagues at the BBC were so professional and expert in all that they did, it was a pleasure to spend time with them, and I really enjoyed every moment I spent at New Broadcasting House. But my worst moment was when I went off to the Royal Society Summer Exhibition, a festival of science held at the Royal Society’s splendid accommodation in the centre of London. The summer exhibition is a chance for a few selected research projects to showcase their science to the general public. I took a BBC Marantz sound recorder, microphone and headset and conducted some interviews for potential use on the radio in the coming week. Only when I returned to the office did I discover that the flashing red light on the Marantz means that it is on “standby”, not “record”, and all my fantastically crafted questions and the even more splendid responses had failed to make it to memory. Bother. But, they say that we learn by making mistakes. I certainly know how a Marantz works now.

Simon interviewing Dr Julia Percival about a project to knit perovskite. Find out more about the “Perovskite Project” on An Atom's-Eye View of the Planet.

Simon interviewing Dr Julia Percival about a project to knit perovskite. Find out more about the Perovskite Project on An Atom’s-Eye View of the Planet.

How do you balance science writing with a hectic academic schedule?

Well, so much of what we do is via the internet these days, during my media fellowship I was able to keep most of my research work ticking over while doing a daily commute to London. Actually, I found some advantage in working in the centre of London, arranging a few lunch meetings with London-based colleagues and ex-students to catch up on their work and make contact again. My research students in Cambridge certainly saw less of me than is probably ideal, but I did pop into the Department in the evening on my way home from the train station a few times during the BBC placement, just to keep that going. And I took a week off at the middle of the BBC stint to go and do some experiments at the BESSY-II synchrotron in Berlin, where I was working on some X-ray microscopy of carbonate shells using a spectroscopic method called PEEM. So, I had a sort of academic sabbatical from my journalistic work, with one week of science amid my six weeks of media fellowship. Actually, it was great to be working at the synchrotron for a week, and to remind myself of the fun of seeing data accumulate in an exciting experiment.

The rest of the time, the science writing clearly comes lower down the list than my other priorities – research and teaching are my main responsibilities, alongside a little bit of science management, which is difficult to escape from. But I try and combine the science writing when I can, so my Earth Story stories still help me think about how to liven up my tutorials and teaching for my first year students, and writing blog posts remains a fun hobby that helps me keep abreast of what’s going on in terms of current events and ideas in the bits of science I enjoy most. I recommend it!

Sometimes it is possible to combine the writing and academic schedule in other ways. I had a go at blogging, and reporting for the BBC, at the Goldschmidt meeting this summer. It turned out to be much more difficult than I had suspected it would be. Keeping on top of making use of the meeting for my own scientific interests, and reporting on it for the general audience was a tall order. Both activities can consume all of your time, and keeping a balance is a priority.

One indication of the difficulties is probably my delay in getting around to answering these questions. It is now over a month since I was asked to respond! Simply a reflection of the difficulties in making time for everything.

Do you have any tips for budding science writers? 

Just write. The more you write, the easier it becomes. Maybe start a blog on something that you really care about. But I have found it also useful to have a purpose. For me this was, initially, the teaching, then more general self-interested “learning” aspects, and also the “publicising” side of getting my own research interests in front of a wider general audience. A lot of people love reading about science. Science news gets good responses in many outlets. But it is helpful to know your audience. And here’s a practical tip – if you use Microsoft Word there is a little-known tool that analyses your prose and works out what reading age it corresponds to. Most news media aim for output at around reading age 12, I reckon. That will, in any case, give you an idea of how to simplify your language; if you feel you need to.

If you want stuff published, then pitch it as an idea (an abstract of what you are aiming to cover/say) in a brief email – most journalists do not have time to read long messages! I would suggest that if you want to give science writing for a general audience a go you find your local news site/community radio station/research news bulletin and try and get them to bite. And if an opportunity like the British Science Association Media Fellowships comes up in front of you… go for it!

Feeling inspired? Have a read: https://blogs.egu.eu/atomsi/

GeoTalk: Will Morgan on podcasts and polluting the internet

This week in GeoTalk, we’re talking to Will Morgan, atmospheric scientist, podcaster and the blogger behind Polluting the Internet

You recently joined the EGU blog network, but you’ve been writing for a while now. What got you blogging?

I guess the ultimate reason is that I enjoy talking about science! I’ve been involved with a number of science communication activities for a few years and blogging is a very popular medium that I wanted to try out. I’ve read scientific blogs since my undergraduate days but the number and range of sites has exploded in recent years. I felt that I would be able to contribute to this and cover aspects that don’t always get as much attention. Aerosol particles might be tiny but they can have big impacts and we have a lot to learn about how they affect our climate and our health.

Will Morgan

Will Morgan. (Credit: Will Morgan)

There’s a wealth of great research out there, how do you choose what to write about?

Mainly through a combination of Twitter, RSS feeds for journals in my field and whatever I happen to be doing that week. Twitter is great for getting ideas, whether that is a new study that has been getting attention in the media or just some spectacular satellite images that routinely appear in your timeline. Scientific conferences are also really helpful for getting ideas as you can cover something “new” that emerges while you are there.

In addition to your science blogging activities, you also run a podcast, together with a host of atmospheric scientists. How did you get started?

As with many ideas in science, the podcast started out with a discussion in a pub. A couple of friends in the atmospheric science group at Manchester thought “wouldn’t it be fun to do an atmospheric science podcast”. They talked to a few of us in the research group and we started getting together to record some episodes and it has continued from there.

You do a lot of podcasting and blogging at conferences and other scientific events, what would you say are the biggest benefits to the public or wider scientific community?

I think it helps to give people an idea of how the process of science actually works – most of the time people see scientists as a talking head on the TV or a few quotes in an article. I’ve found covering conferences a lot of fun as they are often very vibrant affairs with lots of ideas whirling around between groups of passionate people, which maybe isn’t the picture that is usually painted of scientists! I/we have also covered how we go about making measurements in the field, which communicates the challenges of actually doing science and the dedication that is required to do things well. People seem to enjoy listening or reading to these things also, so catering to that audience is really important.

Do you have any tips for people pondering podcasting?

The main tip is to just get on with it and not worry if it doesn’t sound perfect. Most modern mobile phones have the capability to record audio so you can give it a try and put it online (there several free services, such as Podbean for podcasting online). It isn’t going to have the audio quality of a BBC Radio 4 broadcast but that is secondary to the actual content. From there you can develop where you want to go with the podcast and if funds and/or facilities allow, you can get access to better recording equipment or even a studio. Also, the more you do it, the better you get. My only other tip is to not spend too long listening to recordings of your own voice when editing (ideally edit content that you weren’t involved with) as you’ll quickly develop a complex – it was a bit of a shock when I realised that the booming Brian Blessed-esque voice was my own!

Want to know more about what Will’s been up to? Have a read: https://blogs.egu.eu/hazeblog/

Geoengineering and (un)making the world we want to live in

Geoengineering and its policy implications were hot topics at this year’s Science in Public conference. The subject raised questions such as how is geoengineering portrayed in the media and what does this mean for the acceptance of geoengineering technologies?  Dr Rusi Jaspal and Professor Brigitte Nerlich discuss their research into media representations of geoengineering and how these shape the hopes and fears of the public…

Geoengineering promises to alter global climate patterns and thereby avoid the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change. Implementing various types of climate engineering options is a huge, but still mainly speculative, technological problem. It throws up immense political, governance, social and ethical problems. However, we should not forget that it is also a linguistic problem. As I. A. Richard said in his Philosophy of Rhetoric, a “command of metaphor plays a role in the control of the world that we make for ourselves to live in” (see p. 155). This means that we make the world we live in by the language we speak in it, especially through the use of metaphors. Metaphors make us see one thing in terms of another and then act in specific ways according to this new way of seeing. What does this mean for geoengineering? What language is emerging in the context of geoengineering? How might people respond to such language?

To explore these questions, we undertook two studies as part of a larger project considering climate change as a complex social issue. In the first study, we examined a small body of articles published in trade magazines between 1980 and 2010, with the majority being published between 2006 and 2009. In a second follow-up study we analysed a small sample of articles published in UK national newspapers between 1 January 2010 and 15 July 2013. Overall, the coverage of geoengineering lags far behind coverage of other geoscientific developments, such as carbon capture and storage and fracking, for example.

The findings of our first study indicate that those trying to promote geoengineering use a series of powerful metaphors circling around one master-argument, namely that if emissions continue to rise we face global catastrophe and geoengineering might be the only option left to avert it. The three main conceptual metaphors supporting this master-argument were:

  1. The planet is a machine (car, heating system, computer), which manifested itself in scientists’ and journalists’ claims that geoengineering can ‘fix’ the planet, that it can be used to manipulate the planet’s thermostat and so on;
  2. The planet is a body, which manifested itself in people talking about building a sunshade for the planet or applying suncream, sunblock or sunscreen to it; and
  3. The planet is a patient, which manifested itself in talk of applying medical treatment to the planet of curing the planet’s addiction to carbon and so on.
Honeywell's iconic thermostat, also called "The Round". (Credit: Flickr user midnightcomm)

Honeywell’s iconic thermostat, also called The Round. (Credit: Flickr user midnightcomm)

Just after we had carried out the first study, the SPICE project (which aimed to assess the feasibility of injecting particles into the atmosphere in order to manage solar radiation) was launched and attracted some media attention, especially after it was cancelled. We imagined that the language used to talk about geoengineering might change after this event. When we looked at the UK press coverage, we found a pronounced difference between right- and left-leaning newspapers. The Times and The Daily Telegraph (right-leaning) still displayed some of the optimism we had found in the trade magazines (and the scientists who were quoted in them), while The Guardian and The Independent (left leaning) focused more on potential threats posed by geoengineering. The Times and The Telegraph saw geoengineering as a last option in the war against climate change, as a palliative and a silver bullet (linking back to the conceptual metaphors used in the trade press). They also, and more importantly, began to normalise geoengineering, either by comparing it to sci-fi but pointing out that it was becoming a reality, by linking it back to successful experiments in cloud seeding, or by comparing geoengineering to everyday activities we take for granted, such as stepping into our cars.

The technology that would have been used in the SPICE experiment. (Credit: Hugh Hunt)

The technology that would have been used in the SPICE experiment. (Credit: Hugh Hunt)

By contrast The Guardian and The Independent focused on the threats posed by geoengineering and argued that it distracts from climate mitigation (what others have called the moral hazard argument) and by pointing to many uncertainties, both scientific and social. Some articles also framed the technology as ‘fascist’. This contrasts strongly with the normalising discourse emerging within the more right-leaning press.

Readers of press articles about geoengineering are confronted with a wide range of linguistic and metaphorical arguments and framings. These need to be thought through in terms of the world they might want to live in or be forced to live in terms of individuals and communities. This is not easy, as this technology is highly speculative, would be a global enterprise and would have very uncertain and unpredictable local impacts. As a means of understanding how people might respond to complex social and linguistic constructions of geoengineering, we have drawn upon Identity Process Theory. This social psychological theory argues that we need to maintain appropriate levels of particular ‘identity principles’ in order to construct a positive identity:

  • Continuity – thread connecting past, present and future and, at a group level, survival;
  • Self-efficacy – control and competence over one’s life and future;
  • Self-esteema positive self-conception;
  • Distinctivenessdifferentiation from relevant others.

It is likely that metaphors which construct geoengineering as a danger to the human species could threaten people’s sense of continuity, while those that normalise geoengineering could in fact safeguard our sense of continuity over time by denying that anything would change. Metaphors that depict geoengineering as the only means of regaining control of the planet’s climate could bolster people’s sense of self-efficacy. The notion that we are supporting a technology that could benefit our planet may help us to derive a positive self-conception, enhancing feelings of self-esteem.

We are more likely to endorse or embrace phenomena that provide us with high levels of these principles and to avoid or deny things that jeopardise our feelings of continuity, self-efficacy and so on. Thus, the metaphors which make us view geoengineering in terms of either threats or benefits to these principles are clearly important in shaping our perceptions and, ultimately, our future engagement with geoengineering at both individual and group levels. This is no trivial matter. As the sociolinguist Suzanne Romaine said: “It matters which metaphors we choose to live by. If we choose unwisely or fail to understand their implications, we will die by them.”

By Dr Rusi Jaspal & Professor Brigitte Nerlich

References

Jaspal, R. & Nerlich, B. (2013). Media representations of geoengineering: Constructing hopes and fears. Paper presented at the Science in Public Conference, University of Nottingham, UK, 23 July 2013.

Nerlich, B. & Jaspal, R. (2012). Metaphors we die by? Geoengineering, metaphors and the argument from catastrophe. Metaphor and Symbol, 27(2), 131-47.

Dr Rusi Jaspal is Lecturer in Psychology and Convenor of the Self and Identity Research Group at De Montfort University, Leicester. E-mail: rusi.jaspal@cantab.net

Professor Brigitte Nerlich is Professor of Language, Science and Society and Director of the Leverhulme Program: Making Science Public at the University of Nottingham. E-mail: Brigitte.nerlich@nottingham.ac.uk