Daniela Haase Liggett and Libby Liggins organised an APECS panel discussion in conjunction with the Annual Antarctic conference from 1-3 July 2009 in Auckland, New Zealand. This event was a full success with more than 60 conference participants registered.
At the Antarctica New Zealand Annual Conference this year, the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS*) ran a workshop with the theme ‘Taking your research further: communicating science to the wider public’. The most recent International Polar Year (IPY) had just come to a close and ‘sustaining the gains of the IPY’ was the recognised theme of this year’s Annual Antarctic Conference. Antarctic scientists can work towards sustaining these gains and producing high-impact research by communicating their research activities and results more widely. This is an opportune time, firstly, to convey messages to the general public on the global importance of the Antarctic environment, and secondly, to increase public awareness of the role New Zealand has to play in the international scientific community and Antarctic governance.
The workshop aimed to get more Antarctic scientists interested and actively involved in education and outreach activities following the close of the IPY. Four panellists with experience in science communication were invited to speak, followed by an open discussion amongst panellists and participants. We had over 60 registered participants attend this workshop, including school teachers, early career scientists and journalists, university professors and government scientists. The workshop was kindly supported by Antarctica New Zealand and received sponsorship from The Royal Society of New Zealand. Thank you particularly to Shulamit Gordon, our four panellists and all the participants for bringing it to life!
This document provides a summary of the workshop, including the presentations from each of the panellists and the discussion that followed. A full workshop recording is also available from Libby upon request. For further information on APECS and further activities they are involved in, please contact Daniela or visit the APECS website (www.apecs.is).
Department of Geography & Gateway Antarctica
University of Canterbury
Private Bag 4800, Christchurch 8020
Sir Peter Blake Trust Antarctic Youth Ambassador 2008/09
The workshop panellists’ presentations
Bette Flagler is a freelance science journalist and editor based in Palmerston North who spent twelve years working as a scientist in human in-vitro fertilization before turning to full-time writing.
Bette was excited to see so many researchers and scientists interested in science communication at the workshop. Her job is about science and writing about it, editing it and helping organizations to communicate their science. Bette initially studied animal science at university and wanted to be to a vet. However, she found she didn’t like veterinary work much, but liked animals and science, and so started working in a lab that was at the forefront of embryo-development/human fertility. During her time in this field as a scientist, Bette found the science communication and writing part came easily to her. She found she was always the one talking to the patients explaining the complex nature of IVF - although it didn’t really occur to her that she had skills in science communication. After a ‘break’ from her life as a scientist whilst sailing (that eventually brought her to New Zealand), she announced she was a writer and found it be acceptable to those around her. Bette believes that ‘You should write what you know’. For this reason, she initially found herself writing about sailing and pubs, but then decided to write about science, and particularly the commercialisation of science and biotechnology. Through having a little bit of knowledge in the area herself, Bette became a conduit between those who were interested and those who knew.
Bette visited Antarctica with Antarctica New Zealand and produced a variety of publications. She doesn’t claim to know all the answers for Antarctic scientists who want to communicate their science, but she does know a little about Antarctic science and can offer what she knows from a media point of view. Bette firmly believes that the people ‘out there’ care about what Antarctic scientists do; they are interested in Antarctica, they’re interested in the Southern Ocean, they want to know who goes there, what it is like and what you do. ‘You’re not trying to sell something that nobody wants to know’, said Bette.
Bette mentioned it may seem like we have forgotten about the climate and the environment for a while with other issues (particularly the recession) taking up the media, but still insists ‘if you cannot sell a story about Antarctica then you are doing something very, very wrong’. Bette has had no trouble in her experience getting editors, journalists and producers interested in the place.
It is a challenging time for media at the moment with budgets being slashed and specialist journalists being reduced in number. Bette said scientists have to accept that they will be talking increasingly to journalists who have no background in science at all. Bette admits she is more media focused than the rest of the invited panel, and urges that communicating science isn’t just about communicating it to the media; there are a lot of other ways to get the message out there - every time you are talking to people you are communicating your science, it’s not just about getting the big stories.
Bette lives in Palmerston North where there is a ‘Science café’ every month (like a number of other towns/cities in New Zealand, for example, see http://sci.waikato.ac.nz/cafescientifique/). Here, people get together and a scientist or someone involved in science talks about their topic. This creates a great discussion forum for people from all sectors of society. Bette suggests this is a great forum to get started talking about your science, particularly if you are nervous. It is a crowd that comes together because they care and they want to hear.
The ‘Science Communicators’ Association of New Zealand’ (www.scanz.co.nz) is going to have a conference in Auckland later this year. Bette suggests coming along if you are truly interested in communicating your science as it will have a workshop structure part to it also.
Bette think sit is important you identify who the audience is you wish to reach; what is the message you want them to receive and what is your story? Bette reminded us ‘sadly, communicating to them is not about you, it’s about them... it’s about who they are, and what they want to hear, or read, or what they are capable, in some cases, of hearing or reading’. You need to figure out who they are, so that you can tailor your message to reach them. In doing this, Bette reassured us we would not be bastardizing our research, ‘the big message might be the same, but you need to structure it differently according to your audience’.
Bette feels the art of story telling is a big skill you need to develop to communicate your science effectively. She reminded us that before we had TV, Wikipedia or cell phones, we had story telling even before we had written language. We need to learn to tell our science as a story. ‘You have to engage the audience in the story and let them know what it is that is important to you’. Telling your science in a story helps the audience understand and engage with that story and therefore the topic. Bette said ‘part of that is making science real and not so abstract, and part of that is making some kind of human connection, both with the person you are speaking to and the bigger audience that they will be reaching out to’. Bette admits that sometimes it is hard to know what is interesting about ourselves and what isn’t, so she recommends we try out ‘our stories’ on the general public (i.e. friends, siblings, hairdresser etc.). If they ask you questions and want to know more, that means you’ve engaged them.
If we are serious about communicating our science through the media, Bette recommends learning how the media operates. ‘You learn to write for scientific journals through reading lots of them, you learnt what editors like, you have peers saying you need to do this… the same goes for communicating for a different kind of audience’ said Bette. It takes practice and experience. Bette said to approach communication as a two way street. She compared it to building a relationship: the other person will only be interested if you are also interested in them.
Lastly, Bette reiterated that as budgets have been slashed for the media, we are lucky that we have something to offer, ‘there are lots of cool things you do that people would be really interested in’, we just have to make the ‘stories’ available to the media and them.
Founder of ‘Information Matters’ and former secondary school science teacher
Donald Reid is a Director of Information Matters, a company which 'portrays and presents the sciences', whose background includes three decades as a secondary teacher and who has been to Antarctica as a LEARNZ teacher.
Donald comes from a secondary school teaching background and feels that although there have been many technological advances during his teaching career, the teaching of science hasn’t kept up. Donald is frustrated that when you go into to a science classroom in New Zealand you are still seeing very basic lessons. For this reason, he feels education and particularly science education is in trouble.
Donald illustrated that as a result of our teaching, students don’t see science as interesting. In a science class of 15-year olds, two thirds of that class will not take science the next year. Of those remaining, half will not do science in year thirteen. Donald feels this is partially because they don’t have to, but also due to the way in which science is viewed in society.
Donald comments that ‘science is hard, and many students see it as hard’, especially with regard to the discipline and the knowledge that they have to have. The students are making decisions based on NCEA. This system benefits those who get many credits, and credits are harder to get in science. Donald believes ‘it is in the classrooms of New Zealand that most science communication occurs’. This provides the students with a snapshot of how society perceives science and provides the knowledge that they then go into society with.
Donald brought our attention back to the exciting examples in Antarctic science talked about earlier in the day during the Latitudinal Gradient Project (www.lgp.aq) workshop, and asked why these examples are not in the classroom. ‘These teachers and adolescents want those examples; they want to hear from the scientists’ he said. Donald reminded us ‘(students) want to know about you, what you do, how you got there and the logistics of how you actually go about your work… because you are the travellers, you are the people compared to most, who actually get to go to another planet, because that’s what Antarctica is; it’s a place that you can’t buy a ticket to.’
Donald helped build a laboratory at Vanda Station, Antarctica, in 1984/85. Three years later he also visited Cape Hallet, where he helped remove buildings. During his teaching career, Donald found ‘it was the examples of Antarctic research and the stories that actually hooked them in’. He is ‘Mr Antarctica’ to his former students.
Donald got involved with the LEARNZ (www.learnz.org.nz) programme after 2003. He described LEARNZ as a programme that takes the dynamics of the world outside the classroom, and delivers them into the classroom. This programme was already tremendously popular in primary schools, but Donald’s role was to take it to the secondary school level. Donald has since formed ‘Information Matters’ (www.informationmatters.co.nz). He describes what he does as portraying science, extracting what is important, not just the data. He finds this work interesting because of the things he gets to see and do and the people he gets to interact with.
When communicating information you have to know your audience, and Donald advised us that we should have guidance (i.e. from colleagues or someone from the educational sector). We need to know who the audience is, what knowledge they already carry and what they want to know – we shouldn’t have to go in cold.
In 2006, Donald delivered the ANDRILL (www.andrill.org) story back to New Zealand. This science communication project was highly successful due to the characters involved; the stories flowed easily and the students were hooked in. Its success was also due to the fact that Donald narrowed the story of ANDRILL and climate down into just three very simple themes; density, plate tectonics and the maintenance of the Earth’s temperature. He urges us to also narrow our focus when communicating.
Dr. Martin Riddle
Australian Antarctic Division (www.aad.gov.au)
Dr Martin Riddle is a marine biologist with the Australian Antarctic Division, who was the Voyage Leader and Chief Scientist on board of the Aurora Australis in the CAML project.
Martin admitted from personal experience, that it was not school teachers who inspired him to be a scientist. He urged us, the scientists, that it is our responsibility to inspire the next generations of scientists.
Martin describes himself as a marine biologist from Chipping Sodbury (around 100 miles from the ocean, on farming land). He remembers two things from school: long boring science lessons and a visit from Gerald Durrell’s field assistant who was a former student of Chipping Sodbury Grammar School. The lesson he learnt from that was that people from Chipping Sodbury could do anything, and they could go anywhere.
Martin was told by his school careers’ adviser that he should be a vet, but he was inspired by Jacques Cousteau films and wanted to be a marine scientist - so he did. He would now like to go back to his old school and tell the kids, they can do whatever they want. Martin feels as scientists working in an exciting place, we have a responsibility to do that, and we have a responsibility to communicate. He says, there are many ways in which we can communicate, but the most important thing we can do is inspire the next generation.
Martin worked on the Great Barrier Reef for eight years. He has always worked within government funded science organisations, and therefore, feels he has missed out on crucial skills that can be gained as a junior lecturer within the university system (where they are forced to form and deliver a lecture series). Martin feels this sort of ‘apprenticeship’ makes scientists from the university system better communicators. For this reason, he recommends that government scientists should offer to lecture at universities in order to gain these skills.
Martin reiterated that the Antarctic is an easy story to sell. However, he admits that whilst on the continent scientists are often very busy and don’t have time to capture the information and imagery required to communicate the science. Therefore, he said many national science programmes send media down to the ice. He said as scientists working down there, we should get in touch with the people running those programmes and sell our science to them.
Martin warned that working with the media can be a two edged sword. ‘They will invest in making you look good if they wish to, they can also make you look foolish, they have the editing rights, and they can make you appear to say anything, so you do actually need to be cautious if there is a microphone around or a camera pointing at you’. He said this was particularly important for government scientists, ‘you need to be frank with the media concerning what you can talk about, and what you can’t say, and you need to have that discussion before they point the camera at you’. Martin said if there are points we think worth getting across, but we can’t say those because of our position, let the media know that and maybe suggest somebody else that might be free to make the point.
Martin feels there are lots of ways to communicate our science, ‘talking at a BBQ is a great way to hone your arguments’. But, he cautions us to choose our words carefully to avoid the wrong kind of exposure. Lastly, Martin reminded us ‘communication is our core business as scientists, it doesn’t matter how good the work we are doing is if we don’t communicate it’.
Dr. Dean Peterson
Marsden Fund and ex-Science Manager for Antarctica New Zealand
Dr Dean Peterson is a science manager, who has worked for NASA and Antarctica NZ for the passed 13 years and who is now leading the management of the Marsden Fund.
Dean worked as a scientist for seven years at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. There, Dean communicated his science a little bit with the general public, but most of it was about communicating to other scientists and being an ‘expert’.
He then ran a programme with NASA for three years. He found himself talking a lot about big funding issues with scientists and research institutions, but also with international partners where language was often a barrier. He found slowing down and making your information to the point was important in these cases. Dean also had the role of informing political advisors about what was happening.
Dean then moved onto Antarctica New Zealand (www.antarcticanz.govt.nz), where he worked as the Antarctic science manager for ten years. Here, he dealt with the same parties of people and all those different areas of communication as before, but also found he had a lot more to do with the general public. He now works on the Marsden Fund (www.marsden.rsnz.org), where he essentially works with those same groups again.
Dean believes, there are scientists, and there are advocates, and that we need to separate the two. For example, with the issue of climate change, Dean said ‘you have to be careful not to be an advocate; you need to stick to the science as a scientist’.
Dean made the point that ‘humans like to learn’. He feels you don’t always have to talk about something exciting, people just like to have a learning experience, and you can provide them with this by breaking down your facts. He commented that people don’t believe what you say until you break it down into a learning experience they can follow.
Dean made the following important points:
• Children learn faster than adults: don’t underestimate kids, and don’t underestimate your audience.
• One incorrect fact will kill you: be careful of what you say and make it correct.
• Everything important takes at least three tries: you just have to keep making the same point over and over to get it across.
• Be ready to compromise: Dean said ‘we all have our own way we’d like things to happen, but the reality is just because you want it to happen, it doesn’t mean it will actually happen that way’.
• Uncertainty creates uncertainty: as a scientist the most important thing we can do is reduce that uncertainty, but the mention of any ‘uncertainty’ confuses the public - they are used to a world of ‘guarantees’ - it loses the scientist credibility. Uncertainty is often a very confusing point for the public and politicians.
• Communicating a message is a lot easier if you believe in it
A workshop participant 1 commented ‘The point was made that scientists are not always the best communicators - so does this mean that maybe we should be connecting with trusted media journalists/science communicators and communicating through them? Are we trying to do too many things as a scientist?’
Bette remarked that she does appreciate the building of relationships with scientists, as it allows her access to information. However, she feels communication still needs to be of consideration to scientists, because even though the scientist may not be communicating to the end audience, they still need to communicate with the journalist/communicator and ensure that they know and understand why their work is important. Therefore, you still need to have those same skills in communication.
Martin felt we all have a responsibility to communicate to our peers, but that we also have the responsibility to get our message out there, regardless of what form it takes. He agreed, that a way to leverage your efforts is to talk to the professionals, but also warned that they can act as a filter. This maybe to your detriment or benefit. Martin cited an example where a media person took one of his statements completely out of context to suit the media person’s ‘theme’ (which that the Australian Antarctic programme was under funded). In a budget that came out about six weeks after the media person’s programme was televised, the Australian Antarctic programme had received an extra $35 million dollars in their budget. This was partly credited to the media person’s report. Overall, the consequence was beneficial, but it could have been really bad for Martin professionally. He advised building relationships with the media based on trust.
Donald agreed that if your science is touching on something controversial, or if there are serious implications of your work, you have to ensure you have a good working relationship between the scientists and the people doing the communicating. Donald thought looking for a communicator who is scientifically literate is key.
A workshop participant 2 commented that they had just run a science communication project. She is a researcher; she got in contact with a photographer from the university’s School of Biological Sciences and two school teachers whom were employed by Canterbury University for outreach purposes. As a group they received funding and then got together with LEARNZ. She found the project took a huge amount of her time, more than she had anticipated – therefore we should be aware of this. Also, she raised the issue of science communicators continually coming back to you, both to check things and asking for more. She felt you need those communicators (in this case they were teachers) to make your science understandable to somebody else, and as a scientist you do not have time to do this yourself, so there needs to be this collaboration, but we should be aware that it can require a huge amount of your time.
In response, Martin said ‘if you are talking about something you know well and believe in, it is less work to talk to the professionals and have that conveyed, than to prepare a talk for a conference for example, particularly when you think about the scope of the audience and the numbers you will be reaching through a professional’. His advice was to ‘restrict yourself to talking about those things you know well, those things you believe in, those things you can speak off the cuff with authority on’. Then the payback in terms of effort, in his experience, has been far greater than the huge effort involved in putting together a paper for a conference.
Donald felt more and more research projects should have an outreach component. He thought within these projects, scientists need to make some time dedicated to outreach, rather than fitting in the outreach component. This time dedicated to outreach should be used to work with the communicator and the communicator has to constrain themselves to using that portion of the scientists time.
Workshop participant 2 felt they did this in the project, but that this still doesn’t take away from the fact that it does take a lot of time. This is turn means less time to dedicate to lecturing and writing papers – where there is a huge emphasis for an early career scientist.
Dean agreed with Donald’s point that research projects should have an outreach component. He feels New Zealand isn’t very good at funding research projects that incorporate outreach and that it is something that needs to be changed about the whole funding regime. The problem Dean has with convincing the politicians that we need more funding for science is that there is often not an economic benefit to the science. He finds it difficult to show how science creates wealth. However, Dean feels that by showing that science is important in other ways to New Zealand, the money for both science and science outreach will come.
Bette commented that as scientists, all these ‘extra’ things, such as communication, are actually a part of our job. She made the point that Donald and she are both self-employed and won’t be getting paid for presenting at the workshop, but she is here, because it is important to do this from her professional point of view. ‘It is a part of what I do as a professional person in a career that I chose… as a scientist it is part of your responsibility to communicate’.
Workshop participant 2 made the point that in New Zealand we have the Performance Based Research Funding system. This means there is a lot of importance placed on having high numbers of high quality publications. This can be hard as an early career scientist – ‘do I spend lots of time on science communication or do I write a paper?’ She wants to do science communication, but feels this should be rewarded in some way within the funding system.
Daniela agreed this is a topic worth discussing, ‘how we can trim down the time we spend on outreach, but still have effective outreach’
In relation to an earlier comment that said maybe scientists should leave the communication and advocacy role up to communicators, workshop participant 3 cautions that we need to be careful and mindful of who steps into the advocacy role. They may not be a scientist nor have a science background, yet are representing the ‘science’. They said, ‘if we don’t get our message across, it might be someone else, and we might not like what they have to say’
Libby asked the question, ‘as scientists who work with Antarctica New Zealand, do we not already have relationships with science communicators that we can now utilize, or at least make the early career scientists aware of? For example journalists like Bette, or other people scientists have worked with?’ She wanted to know whether LEARNZ would be interested in doing more work with Antarctic scientists for example.
Donald had a suggestion for how scientists could get involved in an already established project. He mentioned an IPY project he is involved in, which is the Polar Resource Book. ‘It uses practical activities aimed at school children to get them interested in polar science and polar issues’ he said. The resource kook has four chapters: 1) introduction to the polar regions, 2) practical work for students, 3) tips for scientists, 4) what people have done in terms of outreach during the IPY. They are looking for more information for the fourth chapter.
When Bette went down to the ice as part of the media programme, she recalled it would have been fantastic if the scientists had contacted her in advance and come to her. She thinks it would be beneficial to if the links between scientists and the media involved in the programme were made easier, and if the scientists were more forthcoming.
Martin commented that the Australian Antarctic Division links media people with particular science projects. The Census of Antarctic Marine Life voyage had a dedicated outreach officer who was involved in the planning of the voyage, the entire voyage and communication throughout (website, interview, and document) as well as being employed to talk at schools for a full year following the voyage. Martin feel this worked very well and was very cost effective.
Libby commented that Antarctica New Zealand sends down a media scholar every year, at least one. She urged people to approach that person if they have a story to tell; maybe even before the season so that they know your story and they know what the can be done there. This year’s media scholar was Naomi Arnold.
Donald mentioned a group called the Antarctic Hub (www.antarctichub.org). This group is made up of people interested in Antarctic education and they work to help disseminate information (there was a poster on the Antarctic Hub displayed during the conference).
Workshop participant 4 asked ‘what responsibility do government/other non-university organizations have to provide their scientists with outreach opportunities?’ She felt there were not enough available to her. She wondered whether there are there any movements to improve this.
Dean mentioned Science Media Centre (www.sciencemediacentre.co.nz) is trying to support that. Dean meets with Peter Griffin every month and shares what interesting science is being supported by the Marsden fund. He does it because he wants to get the name of the Marsden fund out there. He imagines all other organizations are much the same, they want exposure. Therefore, he was not sure why this is not more of a focus for other organizations, as he firmly believes the more we get science out there, the more funding we will have.
Bette remarked that Crown Research Institutes work in a different model to universities. They have different freedom. However, they all have a communications office; Bette recommends going to the communications office and telling them you want to talk about your science (being careful to say you realise there are intellectual property issues and commercial sensitivity to consider) and asking them ‘can you help me find ways to communicate my science?’. She says ‘a scientist at a CRI does not have 100% freedom to say what he, or she, pleases, but if you can work within the structure of the communications team at the CRI it would be a good start and they should have some channels for you as well’.
Donald said he bets that CRIs are interested in communicating, because they are worried where they will be getting there skilled staff from in future and they are concerned at the poor level of debate on topics. ‘Public perception of issues are often quite different from the fact, and being a big business in New Zealand you are thought of as the bad guy according to the culture that we have’.
In Martin’s experience as a government scientist, ‘the political willingness to allow government employees to speak the media comes in ebbs and flows according to who is in power’. Martin encouraged scientists to work through your media people because they know the constraints that your organization has to work within. Overtime, as the trust between you builds, they will give you more freedom. He thought ‘how willing they are to let you talk will be based on trust and how well you perform and deliver’.
Dean agreed it does not seem right to make communication even harder for the individual scientist, who feels a responsibility to communicate. ‘When the organization structure doesn’t facilitate it, there needs to be pressure and a stronger onus put on the organization, particularly the CEOs to help the scientists communicate’.