Geology for Global Development

Communication

Interview: Jeannie Scott on Sharing Your Research

Jeannie Scott did her PhD at the University of Oxford on the Santiago volcano in Guatemala. She made some interesting findings, and has spent time translating her research into a format that is accessible to people with no scientific background. She also explains what her research findings mean for the people that live and work close to the volcano. Jeannie has produced both a poster and a booklet that are freely available to the public online.
You can download the booklet at http://vhub.org/resources/2268

The Santiago volcano erupting in February 2009. Taken by Jeannie Scott

We caught up with Jeannie to chat about her work:

Hi Jeannie. Thanks for agreeing to talk to GfGD about your efforts to share your research with the public. To start off, could you tell us a bit about the research you did for your PhD – what were the key findings?

My PhD project focused on the rocks erupted by Santiaguito volcano (Guatemala). Because there had been very little previous research, I started by classifying the rocks and identifying the minerals present. Once I got past those basics, the key findings were that magma evolves in a storage zone in the mid- to lower crust, that magma rigidifies just before it emerges onto the surface, and that erupting lava has been getting gradually less evolved over Santiaguito’s lifetime.

How could this work contribute to future disaster risk reduction?

The results can be used to tailor monitoring efforts to suit this particular volcano – for instance, to allow for the deep magma storage zone and long magma ascent path. I also hope that the work will raise awareness of Santiaguito, in the scientific community and beyond. More research is needed if we want to understand this volcano, but support from outside academia – political, financial, and technical support – is also needed to help the volcano observers properly monitor Santiaguito, and to help the local community to increase their resilience to volcanic hazards.

You have made a great attempt to communicate your research outside of academic journals. Who are your target audience?

My target audience is anyone with an interest in Santiaguito. When I began writing, I wanted it to be something that the volcano observers and civil defence workers could use to inform and educate people; it had to be easy for non-scientists to read, explain the science for those who would be interested, and make the importance of volcano monitoring and community disaster preparedness clear to every reader. As the booklet took shape, I realised that scientists would probably be interested in it too, because it’s easier to read and more complete than my research papers. I did the poster version for people who might want a shorter, more visual format with less science. 

How are you making sure that this work is seen by the right people?

Making sure the right people see this work hasn’t been straightforward. I’ve used emailing lists where possible, and I did persuade a couple of influential Twitter users to post a link to the booklet, but I have had to email a lot of people and organizations directly, which has taken time and effort. I am a bit worried that I’ve forgotten someone important! I’m sure some of my emails just got deleted, but I know that other people have been passing the links on to their colleagues and friends or even posting them on other websites, so I didn’t have to do all the work myself.

Did you face any difficulties when translating your thesis into simple language?

I have to translate things into simple language so that I can understand them myself, so writing this booklet was easier for me than writing complex research papers! The hardest thing was leaving out things that were fascinating to me, but wouldn’t have interested anyone else. I did have to delete a lot.

What advice would you give to other geoscientists hoping to communicate their research findings to a wider audience?

My advice is for other geoscientists is do what you can – it isn’t easy, but it is worth it. In my case, my funding covered my research and writing my papers and thesis, but not writing this booklet (or poster). I had to take an administrative job, and wrote the booklet in my spare time. But my research is in the public domain now in a way that never would have happened through scientific journals alone. And I have the satisfaction of knowing that my research is going to be really useful to a lot of different people and organizations; that was always my main reason for doing the research in the first place.

And finally, what next for you?

The response I’ve had to the booklet and poster has been incredibly positive, and it has convinced me that it’s really important to make science available to the non-scientists who really need it (and to anyone else who’s interested). So, I plan to spend the next few months producing some more examples of accessible science, with the help and permission of the original researchers, and looking at what formats work best for non-scientists, e.g. booklet, factsheet, poster, etc. I also want to investigate how self-edited, self-published work can retain it’s integrity, and what can be done to make it easier for geoscientists to make their research accessible to all.

I plan to do more geological research in the future, and I will be putting together some funding applications over the next year or so. I like the idea of creating research opportunities for myself because I have rather specific ideas about the projects I want to do!

It’s great to see good science communication in action. Thanks for talking to us!

International Day for Disaster Reduction: A Challenge to Geoscientists

Today is the start of Earth Science Week, Global Handwashing Day and the UN’s International Day for Rural Women. Tomorrow is World Food Day, and Wednesday is the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. You could write a blog on any one of these, and the role good geoscience can play! Saturday, as some of you may have noticed, was the International Day for Disaster Reduction, and is the ‘topic’ I’ll be focusing on in this post. This year the key theme was about stepping up for women and girls, a key force for resilience. The UN website stated that… “Women and girls are empowered to fully contribute to sustainable development through disaster risk reduction, particularly in the areas of environmental and natural resource management; governance; and urban and land use planning and social and economic planning – the key drivers of disaster risk”.

Rural Women in Tanzania
(c) Geology for Global Development 2012

As geoscientists our training has a focus on improving the science of natural and environmental hazards, the understanding of the physical mechanisms by which hazards occur and the ways they impact upon the natural environment and physical infrastructure. The appropriate use of good geoscience information is essential for effective disaster risk reduction (DRR). Improved geoscience and understanding of natural processes and their interaction with society is also extremely important. When I was in China I saw a number of incidences where poor engineering and poor understanding of geology was evident. Measures that were meant to increase the resilience of the local population were actually having the opposite effect and exacerbating the problem. Disaster risk reduction must be more than a detailed understanding and appropriate use of geology and engineering.

Many in our discipline would agree, and argue that improving the education of local communities about natural hazards and how to respond to them is also crucial. ‘Education, education, education’ one past prime minister famously stated – and we can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking the same with disaster risk reduction. Education about hazards, and what to do, is another vital part of the jigsaw. However we must be careful to understand and take into account complexities. As Dr Kate Crowley (CAFOD) pointed out in her recent article in the Metro Newspaper – women can have a much greater vulnerability due to their lack of overall education, being unable to read information about what to do during an emergency. Education programmes must take into account issues such as how information is communicated between different family members, how and whether that information is acted upon, and the ways in which communication takes place.

Other factors are vital to reducing vulnerability and building resilience. Community participation in both risk reduction programmes and emergency response plans, and bringing local knowledge and participation into hazard assessments. Also, as I am doing a PhD contributing to the development of a more holistic disaster risk management methodology, I’d argue that the way we compartmentalise different hazards and areas of vulnerability can contribute to the underestimation of risk. There are many places you can read more about the various factors that are required for effective DRR. The UNISDR website is a good starting place.

At Geology for Global Development, a key thing we want to emphasise to young geoscientists who want to pursue a career or undertake research that relates to this field is that DRR is a complex jigsaw, with many pieces. Our work is one important piece, but it sits alongside other important factors, disciplines and a variety of practitioners (see the image below, taken from a number of recent talks I’ve given). The development of a range of skills, such as the ability to communicate your research to non-scientists, listen to local communities, and facilitate participatory workshops will significantly strengthen the work you do. We’d also encourage you to read beyond the science in order to better understand the differences in vulnerability both within and between communities. An understanding of differences in vulnerability, for example, between urban and rural populations, or between men and women, can help in focusing the manner and way in which we communicate our knowledge. I’m not suggesting that every geologist needs to become a social scientist, but I am suggesting that for our work to be more effective we need to better understand the context in which it can be used, better understand the reasons for individual and societal vulnerability (not just physical vulnerability, which as scientists we are often more comfortable with) and better communicate with the multiple stakeholders who are involved in DRR.

Last year at the EGU, a session was run on natural hazards and communication between academics, policy makers and practitioners. This year there will be a number of similar sessions including one on the role and responsibility of geoscientists with regards to natural hazards, why natural hazard assessment and mitigation sometimes fail (and how to improve them), and resilience and vulnerability assessments in natural hazards and risk analysis. Abstract submission is open – so if you have something to contribute to these (or the other) sessions – why not consider submitting and joining in what I hope will be helpful and productive conversations.