Geology for Global Development

Communication

#GfGDcomp: Communicating Research Through Twitter and Blogs

GfGD encourages geoscientists to communicate science to the wider community, and we hope to help young geoscientists develop the necessary communication skills to do this. The use of social media, such as twitter, facebook and blogs, makes it a lot easier to reach out to a diverse range of people living in many different countries.

We asked you ‘what are the benefits of communicating your research through Twitter or blogs’, and you responded, through (what else?!) Twitter and Facebook.

Our winning entry comes from Rebecca Sellers:

 “It [Twitter] helps to keep it concise, open to the public in a friendly approachable setting and reaches a whole new audience”

 

Well done to Rebecca, she will be presented with a map of global groundwater resources.

 

We’ve also selected a further three responses that are highly commended:

Shanon Lianne Nicholson: “The use of social media allows ones research, theories and evidence to expand and be explored by the wider community – engaging others in topical, educational conversation, whilst being a quick, efficient and approachable way to communicate.”

Laura Roberts: “Twitter: friendly, fast, accessible, job opportunities, networking, profile raising, broad range of sci available, informative”

Hazel Gibson: “Instant publication, immediate feedback and accessible to everyone, especially those who may not engage with trad formats”

Thank you for all of your responses, we’ve received some really excellent and thoughtful contributions. The competition is now closed, but feel free to continue adding ideas using the comments box at the bottom of the article or the hashtag #GfGDcomp.

Some Comments on Recent Earthquakes in Iran

In this article, Joel Gill and Faith Taylor write about the importance of reducing individual and community vulnerability in Iran. This post is written in response to the recent earthquakes in April 2013, and an article posted in the Guardian in 2010. In addition to their GfGD responsibilities, Joel and Faith are undertaking PhD research at King’s College London – investigating specific aspects of natural hazards and their impacts on society, and leading a summer school on Natural Hazards and Society in July 2013.  

Topography of Iran (Source and Licensing: Wikipedia)

In the space of eight days, two lethal earthquakes have struck Iran. On the 9th April, a M6.4 earthquake struck 89 km south-east of Bandar Bushehr, with at least 37 fatalities and 850 casualties. Eight days later, on the 16th April, a M7.8 earthquake struck 83 km east of Khash (close to the border with Pakistan), with the number of fatalities and casualties in Iran currently unclear. The latter of these earthquakes was felt across the Middle East, and had a significant impact on neighbouring Pakistan, with at least 35 fatalities and 150 casualties.

These two earthquakes are a tragedy for all those living in the region, but they are not surprising. Iran is a seismically active area, with a long history of earthquakes across the country. Perhaps the most memorable of the 21st Century was the 26th December 2003 M6.6 earthquake in Bam. This devastating event, striking a densely populated area of poor construction at 5.30am local time, killed from 26000­ to 40000 people (Berberian, 2005). In 1990, a M7.3 earthquake killed at least 40000 people, in 1978 a M7.4 earthquake killed approximately 20000 people, and in 1962 a M7.0 earthquake killed more than 12000 (Berberian, 2005).

Disasters such as those outlined above are a result of the interaction between the dynamic nature of the Earth, and vulnerability of individuals, communities and society. Vulnerability has been defined by the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) as being “the characteristics and circumstances of a community, system or asset that make it susceptible to the damaging effects of a hazard”.  You may have heard the phrase before that ‘earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do.’ Poorly constructed buildings clearly do kill people, inadequate materials and design, corruption, and poor town planning can have serious, often lethal, consequences. But there is more to individual and community vulnerability than just building quality. Vulnerability can be increased by many aspects often linked with severe poverty, including poor access to education and poor education itself, gender inequality, weak governance, or racial discrimination.

The recent earthquakes in Iran, and those over the past decades, are a result of this interaction between a dynamic Earth and the vulnerability of individuals and communities. They are categorically not a result of women ‘wearing revealing clothes or behaving promiscuously’ as suggested by a senior Iranian cleric in 2010. It was with great sadness and anger that we read this article in the Guardian recently (published 2010). It has been said that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ and this is a tragic example of those with power and influence behaving not just in an irresponsible manner, but also a dangerous one. In the same Guardian article, an Iranian Government Minister was also reported to have said that ‘prayers and pleas for forgiveness were the best formulae to repel earthquakes.

Such statements are deeply concerning. Understanding disasters as punishment from a higher being is a belief many have held throughout human time (and indeed, the term “act of God” is still commonly used by many people). What is of particular concern with the statements outlined above, however, is the suggestion that efforts to reduce disaster risk through good geoscience education, preparedness and fighting poverty and inequality are futile – as the destruction is society’s price to pay for behaving immorally. As already established, Iran is a seismically active area, with the potential for large earthquakes and destructive disasters (Jackson, 2006, notes the possibility of large earthquakes in Tehran for example). It is therefore essential that we do all we can to promote effective and sustainable efforts to reduce vulnerability.

It is worth noting that there are many organisations, driven by religious conviction, that have a hugely positive role in disaster risk reduction. GfGD have worked closely with, for example, the overseas development charity CAFOD (the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development), to set up student placements that are open to people of all beliefs and none. Organisations, both with a religious ethos (CAFOD, Christian Aid, World Vision, Tearfund, Islamic Relief Agency) and without a religious ethos (Oxfam, Save the Children) all work together as part of the Disasters Emergency Committee in order to bring life-saving support after and during major disasters. This work has offered hope to individuals in the toughest of circumstances.

But these organisations (from our understanding) follow a philosophy, very different from that expressed by the cleric or Minister in Iran. It is a philosophy that is not unique to religions such as Christianity or Islam, but shared by many working in disaster risk reduction. This philosophy is that in the same way as vulnerability (a dynamic process) can be increased by factors such as corruption, inequality and poor education, vulnerability can also be reduced through tackling these injustices. For some people it is their moral responsibility, some people feel a professional responsibility and others a responsibility through a shared sense of humanity.

This example from Iran highlights our responsibility as privileged scientists from developed nations in a number of ways. Firstly, through promoting good science informing education and mitigation, through increased equality (including, but not limited to, gender, racial, age, disability) and improved access to basic services (clean water and good sanitation, education, health-care) vulnerability can be reduced, and the impact of hazardous processes such as earthquakes can be reduced. But secondly, we must look inwards to consider how our communication skills, knowledge of and sensitivity to “place” (being both a social and environmental construct) can help us to build trust and ensure wide uptake of good disaster risk reduction strategies.

This must be (and in many cases is) the response of those wishing to outwork their religious convictions in the context of disaster risk reduction. As a final thought, and challenge to us, we should also recognise that in many societies exposed to risk, citizens may place greater trust in religious leaders or other local social networks rather than somewhat distant scientists or (possibly corrupt) governments. This could be seen as being a great obstacle to those working on disaster risk reduction, but it could also be an opportunity. Through working with open-minded clerics, churches and other organisations that have community trust – we can together take forward genuine disaster risk reduction activities.

Joel Gill and Faith Taylor

Interview: Jonathan Amos, BBC Science Correspondent

Jonathan Amos has been working as a science specialist for the BBC since 1994, and has won major awards for his online science reporting. He attended the European Geosciences Union General Assembly 2013 to write about the latest geoscience research and we saw some really popular stories emerging as a result of his reporting. 

We spoke to Jonathan about science communication.

Jonathan Amos, BBC Science Correspondent, chats to GfGD about communication

c

Should scientists leave science communication to the communication experts?

“No, absolutely not. Scientists do need to get out there and communicate their work to the general public.

“You can’t expect scientists to do all of the research and all of the communication, it’s asking a lot of them, but they are the best people to explain the work they do, if they can. They can use communicators to help them get a message across.

“In the UK a lot of grant application come with the proviso that people get out there and talk about their work, which I think is absolutely right. At the end of the day we are all being funded by tax payers.

But don’t you think that bad science communication can do more harm than good?

“It can go wrong, there’s no question of that. There are people here (at EGU 2013) who are poor at communicating, even to people within their own field. I’ve seen posters that are a complete mass of calculations, and you think, there is no way that work will have impact. The same rules apply to anybody that gets up and speaks in front of people.”

 

When you are sitting in talks at a conference, what makes you think ‘this could make a good story’?

“I look for a narrative. It could be a fact, a picture or a quote. Something that you can build a narrative around. It’s got to be obvious.

So if the scientist makes it easier to turn their research into a story, you’re more likely to write about it.

“Yes, essentially.”


Do you get most of your stories from press conferences? Is this the best way for journalists to find out about the latest research?

“It’s a mix. The organising body will talk to the different session convenors and ask ‘what’s interesting, new or topical’ and they will make suggestions. It may be new results, or an area that’s hot.

You do see the same topics again and again, and other fields are overlooked.

“Rockets and dinosaurs are what kids like when they grow up, it stays with them and it gets them into science. Different things come into vogue. Stem cells were very new in the late ’90s – all scientists wanted to write about them. The topic has now lost some of that freshness. Climate is another one, it was very hot in the 2000’s, but that has now gone over the crest of the rise, despite being a hugely important subject.  Particle physics is hot at the minute, and physicists are riding the crest of the wave, but the water will thin out for them and we’ll move onto the next topic.

So you have to be adaptable as a journalist.

“Yes”

c

What level of understanding of scientific principles and statistics do you think somebody needs to be a good science correspondent?

“When I didn’t have any qualifications, I thought that this would be a bar to me being a science correspondent. Having gone and got some qualifications, I now have a slightly different view. Just because you’ve done a PhD on the hind leg of a locust, that doesn’t mean you can write about particle physics. Some of the very best science correspondents I know have an arts background. It’s not about what you know but the questions you ask. Remember that the people you are writing for have even less knowledge than you do about particular subjects. It doesn’t matter how well you understand the topic if you can’t explain it to people.

“In my twenties I had virtually no science education, and I then went right up to degree level. Through this process I discovered that past first year degree level, you already have enough knowledge. It’s best to be broad rather than deep. You have to write about a locust one day, and the higgs boson the next.

“Although having a science background can be an advantage as you are able to join the dots between certain facts and put things into context. You can see why some things are more important than others.

Do you ever get it wrong? Do you publish a story and then realise you misunderstood the science?

“Everyone makes mistakes, the trick is to make as few as possible.

“A press release will be viewed by many people multiple times, but in a news room it all happens too quickly for that. After you get the first reports, the information evolves. The public often misunderstand how information is processed. They think that when an article appears that that information has come down on a tablet of stone. It doesn’t work like that.”

 

And finally, if the BBC were looking to recruit a new science correspondent, what would you look for in an application?

“I administer an internship, and what I want to see is a passion for communicating. There are some people whose lives are on rails, you can see that this is what they’ve always wanted to do and they’ve pursued it and not let anything get in the way.  Those are the people that really impress me. They also have to be able to write, clearly. Some people are natural communicators, but some also have a passion to do it, and those are the people you are after.

“Every university is its own publishing house now. They used to post out press releases to journalists 10-15 years ago and now you can find them all online. Bloggers are just journalists without the qualifications that some of us journalists have.

“In the science community there are some very, very good communicators, and those sciences where those people exist should make more of them.”

c

At Geology for Global Development we encourage geoscientists to develop the skills needed to communicate their research to the public, and particularly to relevant charities and non-governmental organisations. We believe that if you are going to learn something new and exciting about a particular volcano, for example, then it is important that the people living near that volcano can benefit from your findings. 

We are grateful to Jonathan Amos for his insight into the world of science journalism, and hope that it will benefit our readers; both those aspiring towards a career in science communication and academics that want to improve their ability to communicate their own research.

GfGD at #EGU2013: Day four

Our fourth day at EGU 2013, and not running low on energy (although pretty high on caffeine!). With the panel discussion on the use of blogs and social media in scientific research, our interview with the BBC science correspondent about science communication, and our #gfgdcomp question competition: communication is most definitely the theme of the day.

Joel Gill, GfGD Director, gave a talk today about the value of student placements in a popular session on Geoethics. His talk received a positive reception, and we hope it will encourage people to think about hosting student placements if they are able to. If you missed it, you can read about what Joel had to say on the blog tomorrow.

Joel delivered a talk on the value of student placements

c

We also interviewed Jonathan Amos, the BBC’s science correspondent. Look out for this on the blog in the near future.

c

Here are a few highlights from the sessions and press conferences we joined in with today:

Alternative Earthquake Prediction Methods

To effectively predict earthquakes we need to find a robust and accurate signal that forewarns of a tremor hours or even days in advance. In 2011 a report from the international commission on earthquake forecasting for civil protection concluded that no such method exists.

Enthusiastic workers in the past proposed prediction methods that were victims of sensationalist reporting, and were later discredited. People began to lose faith in this research field. The field decamped into people who believed the research, despite its uncertainties, and would passionately defend it, and those that dismissed it outright. As a result there has been little funding or progress in the last few decades. But the science of earthquake prediction is now having a resurgence; there are people that believe it could be a real possibility. The potential benefits if this research is sucessful are too good to ignore.

Heated discussion during the EGU press conference on new methods for earthquake prediction

“The science of earthquake prediction became like a religion”

– Max Wyss.

Red wood ants live on top of active fault zones, and are capable of detecting carbon dioxide gradients and electromagnetic fields. Gabriele Berberich, a researcher at the University of Duisburg-Essen, spent three year monitoring their behaviour, and noticed that the ants couldn’t get to sleep the night before an earthquake. Could it be that ants have learned to fear earthquakes and are able to detect them?

“Antcams” monitor the nest day and night, and Gabriele collected over 45 thousand hours of video. Rather than sit through the longest, most repetitive movie of all time, the group developed an auto-image analysis system. They found that ants have a similar daily routine to humans: they are busy during the day and rest at night. The night before an earthquake, all of the ants apart from the queen were active and some even left the nest – something that they normally avoid because they are more vulnerable to predators in the dark.


Red wood ants can’t sleep the night before an earthquake

This study looks promising, but in order to predict an earthquake, you need to use more than one method. If you have a fever you know that you are ill, but are you suffering with hepatitis? TB? or just the flu? Avoiding false alarms is easier when you consider all of the symptoms. Other new methods for earthquake prediction include monitoring changes in GPS height and electrical signals.

Earthquake prediction is the holy grail of seismic research. It attracts a lot of attention, some good and some bad. It also attracts a lot of publications, again, some bad and some good. But if we can find a reliable method for earthquake prediction the consequences would be phenomenal.

c

Blogs and Social Media in Scientific Research

A discussion panel led by James King, Jon Tennant, Dave Petley and Laura Roberts this afternoon looked at the use of blogs and social media in scientific research.

Dave Petley uses blogging to communicate his landslide research with the public, but has found that engaging with the wider community has resulted in contributions from some unlikely sources, that have in turn helped push his research forward. Blogging helps to raise your profile, and in Dave’s case, led to a doubling in his citation rate.

His advice is to be professional, explain concepts carefully, and don’t duck key issues, but don’t get drawn into unwinable discussions either.

Laura Roberts was a reluctant twitter convert, but now has hundreds of followers and is a well-known twitter name. She has found that being on twitter has opened up new opportunities that she wouldn’t have come across otherwise, such as being on the panel of an EGU discussion forum today!

James King uses social media for disseminating results and wider communication. Sharing your research and ideas in an accessible place, such as a blog, helps engage people and inspire discussion. The blogosphere is like a giant online conference. You get the chance to talk about your work with a wide range of people.

Jon Tenant spends a lot of time blogging and tweeting, but recognises that we have to be careful about adding even more commitments to our long lists. Blogging isn’t for everyone.

“It is great to make science more open so that people have an idea of what we actually do on a day to day basis, and regular blogging can also improve your writing skills and your ability to extract information from scientific articles.”

[See Jon Tenant’s blog post on this session for much more info]

c

GfGD Competition : #GfGDcomp

We are running a GfGD competition! The competition closes on Monday morning, and the winner will be announced on Tuesday.

Simply respond to our question of the day with a simple sentence by commenting on facebook, replying on Twitter (@Geo_dev, using hashtag #GfGDcomp), or leaving a comment at the bottom of the blog. We will collate your answers and the best will be rewarded with a prize! We look forward to hearing your ideas.

What are the benefits of communicating your research through Twitter or blogs?