Science, Society and Schnitzel

From the 24th-18th April, Vienna once again became the temporary home for 14,496 scientists from all over the world, as they gathered for the European Geosciences Union General Assembly, 2017. The week packed in 4,849 oral presentations, 11,312 posters (never before have poster tubes been such a demanded fashion accessory – save maybe for the fabric posters that became fashion themselves), 1,238 PICO presentations (think speed-dating-style consumption of new research), 88 short-courses, 322 organised side sessions, and what one can only guestimate to have been around a gazillion cups of coffee. For a cappuccino-drinking graph-lover, it was heaven.

The EGU’s Annual Conference showcases cutting-edge research from Earth, planetary and space science, and is the perfect opportunity to meet the people who write the papers you cite. The range of disciplines present is proof of how much we already know about our planet and the laws that govern it; the number of conversations being had across disciplines is evidence that that we still have so much to learn. I was at the EGU to update my scientific knowledge around climate change (by trying to grasp as much as I could of what was flying over my head), and to listen to scientists’ concerns and strategies for engaging with policy-makers and the general public. The ‘March for Science’ had happened the weekend before the conference, with many of the conference attendees participating, so my research area of policy advocacy was something that appeared in several sessions across the week.

A lot of the sessions that I attended were about the communication of science and engaging in the policy-making process, particularly in a context where science seems to be ignored. Interestingly, there were a few key themes that repeatedly appeared in sessions discussions:

Trust in Science
People still trust science to provide reliable results that we can base decisions on (although may sometimes feel like some people don’t). It is important, therefore, for scientists to maintain transparency. Being seen to advocate a specific policy can generate distrust. Both Sarah Connors from the IPCC and Luca Montanarella from the EU Joint Research Council emphasised the importance of being trusted to provide all policy options, not just what policy a scientist thinks is best as policy-makers have other concerns to factor into their decision making. However, some politicians may be selective in the science that they use, requiring scientists to speak up when their science is being misused (although quite how the scientific community embark upon this is controversial). Therefore, one of the key factors of being trusted is being honest about what you do not know and to be transparent about the scientific process and how conclusions are made. Heike Langenberg, editor of Nature Geoscience, said that whilst peer review can create trust and seek to make things transparent, it is mostly something that exists between other scientists – the ‘transparency’ achieved here does not translate into something that the public can readily identify as being transparent. We therefore need to be vigilant about over-reach, and how the media portray science to the public.

Nutshell: Be transparent about what it you are doing and why, and speak up when science is being misused in order to maintain trust.

Building relationships
Part of effective communication must be understanding your audience, and what it is they need. Having a relationship and engaging in dialogue with others is therefore essential for gaining this understanding. This dialogue is not just ‘educating’ the public, but being willing to be educated yourself about what concerns people have and the language that they use to describe the observations they have. Iain Stewart even suggested that we might want to consider using the public’s language around risk, rather than imposing our scientifically constructed risk-language in order to facilitate better communication and understanding. Ultimately, you can’t beat narratives with facts, scientists need to create narratives too, and that can only come from engaging in a dialogue with the audience.

Nutshell: Co-creating narratives with audiences can help engage them and facilitate mutual understanding.

Get involved
It’s as simple as that really. Check what policy-makers are looking into by signing up to receive consultation alerts (such as here for the UK Government). If you think your research (or that of a colleague) is relevant to an issue being discussed, you can submit it to the respective committee. There are lots of opportunities to engage (which will increase through building relationships with others who are involved in policy-making), including writing to your local MP or working with business and NGOs (see below).

Aside from policy, also get out there and engage with the public. Be it in schools, churches, mosques, temples, museums, libraries – there is lots going on and people love talking to a ‘real’ scientist. However, this all takes time and energy and money. Funders seem to be increasingly interested in measuring ‘impact’ and are willing to support some aspect of this, but it can be hard to justify the cost of engaging in outreach activities. This was something that many scientists felt frustrated about as outreach was something that they could see the importance of doing, but lacked the resource to do properly. Most scientists that expressed this said that they did a lot of their outreach work in their own time, and based on what funds they could scrape out of projects.

Nutshell: There are lots of opportunities for scientists to feed into policy-making and to engage with the public, but scientists need better support in freeing them up to do so.

Form of communication
So much of research is applicable to policy, but getting the research noticed by policy makers can be difficult. The ways in which research is presented to policy makers can really make a difference. The policy makers on the various panels suggested that presentation and timing were key. Graphs, maps, or any other form of diagram should not try to show more than three things – three colours are more than enough, and preferably red, yellow and green. The boundaries for these colour schemes have usually already been agreed by different regulatory bodies, so find them out.
Getting the timing right about when and how research is presented can also influence how useful it is for policy-makers. Knowing how to frame the important aspects of your research for policy-makers, and when that information will be particularly useful for them requires researchers to be in conversation with policy-makers.

Nutshell: Keep it simple, and know when would be best to show how your research can contribute.

Businesses and NGOs
Policy advice doesn’t just involve government. Of course, researchers need to be aware of how they should associate with certain businesses and NGOs, but often these organisations can be in a good position to help inform and test run policies and procedures. Businesses and NGOs can also act as a bridge between the research community and government as they can help translate the research into scenarios that are directly applicable to policy. There are also lots of areas that government does not cover, so when it comes to innovation and striving to create new methods, businesses and NGO’s are often keen to crack on.

Nutshell: Government policy is just one area where change can occur, businesses and NGO’s are often more willing and able to work at the cutting edge of innovative ideas.

Creative Communication
Science is an art, so to use art forms to communicate your science makes perfect sense. If science is a creative process too, then scientists are creatives. Sam Illingworth’s poetry workshop was a brilliant example of how we can talk about science with a different language, and translate our scientific creativity into another art form. No longer restricted to a technocratic methodological lab report, research findings gained rhythm and rhyme, and created a space for researchers to express the frustrations and joys experienced in their work. Whilst geologists are unlikely to be the next Shelley or Shakespeare (not much rhymes with potassium feldspar…) collaborations between researchers and artists are providing some truly beautiful public outreach projects and create potential new methods of data analysis.

(rhyming)Nutshell: There’s nothing more boring than a standard graph, whereas sniffing a meteorite is quite a laugh.

To embrace different forms of communication, I tweeted a watercolour-summary of the week at the EGU including quartz crystals, poster tubes, sausages and the never ending series of escalators.

For more information on the EGU, go here, or you can watch a few of the key sessions on their youtube channel here.