Today I am at Day Two of the British Science Association’s Science Communication 2014 conference, which is taking place at the University of Surrey, Guildford. These notes have been taken live so my usual disclaimers apply and comments, questions and corrections are, as ever, very much welcomed.
Have things changed? Public engagement with adult audiences in the last 12 years – Panel chaired by Steve Cross, UCL
Steve Cross: I am head of public engagement at UCL and run lots of events, Bright Club, etc… And often I hear people saying that “the way that public engagement reaches adults have completely changed over the last ten years due to “. But other people say “no, we’ve massively shifted formats but it’s the same old people coming along!”. So I wanted, in this panel, to see which of those perspectives are true!
Public Attitudes to Science 2014: How things have changed! – Professor Sir Robert Worcester
Sir Robert starts by telling us he’s an empiricist, then asking us if we’ve been polled before… And now asking us how much, if any, has trust in scientists to tell the truth fallen over the past two decades? I tried this trick at the environment agency, they all thought a decline in trust but, in fact scientists are increasingly trusted. Doctors, teachers, scientists and judges are most trusted.
Benefits of science have gone up in public opinion. And trust is scientists of all types has gone up (with those in universities most trusted, those working for private companies least trusted in these groups).
Now these are from the BIS public attitude to science survey. The uk public are as interested and enthusiastic now as they ever have been in the last 25 years. Increasingly seen as important to the economy and public.
Amy Sanders – Wellcome Trust
Some of what I have noticed over the last 12 years, particularly around adults. Science media centre was set up. BBC year of science. Millennium science centres were set up. And public engagement is now part of what scientists are expected to do as part of their work. I think that now, science has become part of adults leisure activities.
Science is now regularly part of arts . A recent turner prize nominee
Science is now in comedy, in QI, in Robin Ince or Bill Baileys work. Science is now part of television – documentary, drama. Those are often in medical areas. And more common in feature films… Gravity, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. There is science stuff at festivals – latitude, bestival. And part of some of mainstream cookery culture too.
What does that mean? You could say it is all similar people. It is true that much of these audiences are middle class people. But many are not science background people, or people who would see themselves as interested in science. And we have things like Museum Lates and Gorilla Science particularly working there…. But when you look at demographics we do have an issue. Those are people already engaged in culture generally: the urban, the white, the middle class. So how do we reach out beyond to those without the budget or interest in these things…
Jonathan Sanderson, Storycog
I’m here to chew bubblegum and make arm waving arguements… And I’m all out of bubblegum!
I’m not sure I really believe in the science communication sector. We work a huge range of different models, at huge range of skills development, work with huge range of audiences, and many aren’t represented here… Draw a circle round things and we have a pretty messy field here…
So how I think things have changed… Something that has changed and should have. I think science communication is led by scientists… We think of science as exciting and uniquely challenging. We tend to think of science as the hard part. But we don’t recognise communication as the hard part and perhaps we should. We have an issue with scale. We do small scale, and we do massive scale…
The thing that changed that shouldn’t have… I don’t think we are as ambitious as we should be. We have talked about embedding science in culture, comparing science to the arts world. The more I think about it I don’t think it’s a big enough objective. It feels too small. I want something like… I want individuals in society to make decisions based on the relevant science in their everyday lives throughout their lives…
So good examples. I’d say is TED, Maker Faire and Maker movement, and Minecraft. All hit at one point but influence other parts of life. But none of those came form science communication and particularly not academia. I think we’ve had our arses kicked by the technologists!
Emily Dawson – Kings College London
We were asked to talk about whether any change over last 12 years. I’m going to argue that “no, not really”. For me 12 years ago I’d done a science degree and was doing messy public arts jobs. 10 years ago I was making independent science documentaries… And more recently I started researching science communication more. It felt like an exciting, innovative, and fun profession… But it was starting to be problematic, frustrating. Was annoyed by embedded elitism, overwhelming evangelism, and lack of development.
I think attitude in the uk to science are pretty positive, grounded in culture of science having positive impacts. There’s an arguement by some in science and technology circles that terminology changes actually obscure lack of change in science communication and public engagement. I have been particularly focused on social inclusion and exclusion in my research.
So looking at data on science museum, festivals etc… We see little change in publics. The most advantaged in society access and consume these resources. These are the same people who do everything else as well. Exclusion is really deeply embedded, that create non publics for science, that exclude more than one type of culture. Across the broad field changes in the viewer, visitor, participant profile are very few. So we have to really step up and address that inclusion challenge.
Q: the problem of bringing in broader audiences is a concern for all of us… But how do we make that change?
Emily: many practitioners are keen to do this in their work. But a lot of institutions I work with have seen outreach teams the first to go in budget cuts. The will is there but it is not reflected in practice. Bernadette Lynch talks about inclusion as a peripheral value. HRD to reach also suggests that the effort can fail, the challenge too big.
Jonathan: we tend to be conveying a bit of science… Science first not audience first. Huge structural problem. Need to be audience first.
Comment: I think we are right to identify this problem, hard to get around. One trend I’ve seen over last 12 years, and it’s good and bad, is the move to embed science communications in university research. It has stabilised funding structures… But it absolutely also embeds the in group/out group thing Emily was talking about. However much we say it isn’t widening participation or marketing activity it is tinged with that, inevitably… So that move matters and that issue of the culturally engaged and the culturally not engaged matters
Amy: there are people who are good at reaching those demographics, but not necessarily from science communication background. W are keen to find those communities, those people who are good at reaching those people. Of course as a funder, funding that activity will take away funding from elsewhere… The other quick point is when people engage with disadvantaged groups it tends to be at smaller scale – often requires longer term engagement and relationships – so how do we make that visibke in these surveys and evaluations…
Robert: there are about 12000 pages of print out… W need a really in depth look at these demographics. Clear identification of the audience. One of my colleagues really showed that the population has changed, a key driver for attitudinal change. Younger people more comfortable with technology, less religious too. So that’s positive, maybe you need to relax a bit. If you change attitudes of opinion leaders, it will trickle down – there is good evidence for that… And I wanted to respond to Emily’s counter evidence comments… Veered into “opinion of one”. Wellcome trust did a survey of their scientists. A large percentage polled said they engage beyond their peer group. Bigger group willing to do it but want training to do that. And the remaining group not interested… Focused on their academic work only.
Emily: there are a couple of issues. In mapping who does and does not participate in science… It’s poorly mapped so empirical evidence is tough. I draw on evidence of science museums, science festivals, that cultural data… So not science busking, science journalism. But that evidence does show this cultural elite… I do have strong opinions… But there is resewrch there too.
Robert: evidence in all studies that there has always been more interested by those more likely to engage in science or arts, more than football matches.
Comment: there are many people with qualifications or backgrounds that are science related but not working in that area… Knowledgeable, interested… So how do ewe identify that audience. We talked a lot about those not interested in science. But what about non scientists, non researchers who are keen and knowledgable.
Jonathan: much the same as audience development in the arts issues. And I think universities basically not the right people for this… Need other organisations… I think we have science centres… We need to look at the regional arts centre movement for cues here, they are ahead of us.
Amy: I feel ex scientists or those with knowledge are already well catered for. It’s the people who see “science” or are daunted by going into a science venue of university or science festival that we have to focus on. We don’t stop doing the other stuff, we have to just work much harder for those groups. I don’t think people turn away from science, there are cultural and social barriers to be overcome.
Comment: I work for the forestry commission. We do science in non university contexts. There seem to be two sectors missing here: government science and industry science. This is science central to everyday life. Add yet we don’t get involved in science communication activities. And we are the least used as Bob showed. People are not stupid… They see this as real science but not represented in largely cultural events that we are all taking part in. So as well as hard to reach… We need to think about what science and whose science we are communicating and representing here…
Amy: this is a personal observation… I did lots of dialogue stuff for a few years… We had a real emphasis on how to engage the public in big policy issues… Many claims made… And it didn’t inform policy.. And then people stopped attempting to do that. It’s much harder to do that stuff. Good work with science wise but we still have issues of care data etc. on the one hand public outcry good, but also a blocker to resewrch. Can’t help but think that public debate and engagement would have helped here… Much more to do here… And demographics matter too.
Comment: the peoe doing the science need to actually be engaged… My scientists don’t get involved. Transport scientists don’t get involved…
Comment: how many here in the room read or subscribe to science communication and public engagement journals and information?
[show of hands show very few]
Emily: I’m an academic and quite into reading about Sci comm. practitioners often don’t see it as relevant though. As part of Wellcome Review we asked people if they had heard of journals, key figures etc. and low recognition. Problematic for sharing and exchanging knowledge…
Steve: people on twitter mentioned Collective Memory as better than science journals [better show of hands]
Comment: one of the things about sciencewise Is that we only work with demographically diverse audiences… But we have trouble scaling that. Digital is part of the solution but not the only one… And we want ways to do that. Thinking about Wellcomes new food programme for instance.
Comment: I was wondering… One thing in the poll is that people engaging with science communication also engage with art galleries, and that there are more of them, than those who go to football matches. Can we learn anything from them?
Robert: I think Jonathan’s comment on arts outreach is important. I’d recommend reading the public attitudes to science data. Much of which is counter intuitive.
Steve: I hugely recommend digging into that data!
How did science get funny? – simon Watt (science communicator), Helen Arney (festival of the spoken nerd, freelance), Steve Cross (UCL), Jon Milton (Science Museum)
There is a trend at the moment for science to be really sexy and much of that is about comedy I think, including things like Big Bang Theory, xkcd, not just Sci comms activity…
Jon Milton – Pub Science
Pub science is the Science Museums resident comedy group who perform, and perform around the country. We started off in 2004 when comedian Rufus Hound worked in the Science Museum sis an explainer. He was also a stand up comedian… And ran out of material so wanted to beef up his material by using some of his material from kids science shows in his set at night. Very successful, people wanted more… So put in a proposal to do that at the museum. And at the same time the Dana centre had just been built, and that seems like a good place to do it. So people who wanted to perform for adult audience stepped up and they went well…
They were a risk though and there were mistakes. At first we didn’t quite get the pitch right between comedy and science. The rather of comedy can not always work with explaining the science…. But eventually we got a style, a flow, got a little bit better and a little bit funnier… And started doing slightly better shows… So that’s how it all kicked off!
But we were looking for those not already interested in science… We wanted people with no interest or just a little curiosity in science but felt maybe alienated by serious debate or lecture… Wanted it to be fun. I don’t have a science background so we pitched it so that if I could grasp the ideas, we’d be ok!
So we don’t do stand up, we do a conventional science show but with more of an adult twist… And all about adult participation. The humour is about the demonstrations and how people participate.
And we have now branched out into teenagers… Doing the same adult shows but for teenagers.
I am a freelance performer, comedian, songstress, nerd, stand up… Call me what you like as long as I’m getting paid! And currently about 80% of what I do are sciencey.
So in April we did a tour with Festival of the Spoken Nerd. And we have just done a pilot for Radio 4 Comedy and I also present You Have Been Warned on Discovery Channel. I started out doing a physics degree… Did that because you can’t do science as a hobby can you? I graduated and wanted to do music stuff… Started working at BBC working on Proms and music. And then I started doing comedy. That was purely as a creative outlet for myself. I chose comedy because of the instant gratification… It is the most instantly gratifying art form that you can find…
You just book yourself into a gig, set up my own comedy night so I could book myself in… For my first four years… My first two edinburgh fringe shows I didn’t do a single thing about science… And I was not doing it for self selecting science audience. The point I realised that I was doing science comedy without meaning to was when Robin Ince invited me to perform at a show he was doing and wanted me to do a song about science… I didn’t know I had one… But actually my comedy was coming out from a scientists eye, of someone analysing world around them… That allowed me to combine those two sides of science and comedy and music.
So my money is earned through fees, through ticket sales, I have to be commercially minded… Sometimes I do funded work but most of my work has to make money. I’m not saying what I do is worthy. I am fine with that. I do it because I love science, instant gratification and performing for people!
Simon watt – ugly animal preservation society
When the LHC went live it was the first time I saw a science experiment on the front page of every paper! It’s increasingly in popular culture and in comedy increasingly. I was doing popular science lectures and unknowingly emulating stand ups who use more lecture form e.g. Robert Newman. And friends encouraged me to do stand up… It turned out just to be about writing a few more jokes (not that many!).
Comedy is a real endorphin kick… And it’s a kind of thought experiment too. I set up the ugly animal preservation society because I think we frame the questions wrongly…. The position we are in is so scary we need to get into popular culture, getting online, and getting onto YouTube. Just for reference the blobfish is the ugliest animal. So we get comedians to advocate for ugly animals…
As a biologist we don’t have the same community feel… Watch Big Bang Theory nudge it’s funny because they are not biologists… Biologists do socially acceptable stuff. But comedy is great fun to do… Scary… Yes I have had my only gig where I had to stop the show in fear of vomit… But it is also a place that forces you to improvise… You always find you have more jokes at the end…
Comedy is great, you can swear, you can be passionate! It’s about extremes and expressing your views in that way. And as education seems to be becoming exclusively for the rich I think comedy is a brilliant way to keep science free…
Reginald D Hunter says the most important thing about comedy is to be interesting. And everyone in this room is interesting!
Steve Cross – Bright Club, Science Cafe, Science Show Off
So a quick history lesson… In 2009 I got my job as head of public engagement at UCL and my steering group said that they were great at engaging young people…and 40-50 year olds… And wanted that demographic gap filled. And it has to be something researchers can do themselves… I chatted with people who run successful adult events and the outcome was bright club…
So we did a pilot gig… Richard herring compared, a band headlined… And now we think there are 17 bright clubs in the uk (and some shows have happened in Australia). Bright clubs are very different… Researchers from all fields take part, that matters… And all local researchers. Each has it’s own vibe.
Bright club in London has done 70 gigs now… It’s huge now. But people have asked me if they could take part in bright club – scientists and science communicators outside of academia… So I set up (for fun) Science Show Off. And we’ve done this in museums, our regular home is the basement of a pub. And there is a science show off in Bristol – because I have a trustee meeting there every few months! It’s a science literate crowd. It challenges science communication… Fake famelab is one way we do that for instance… So it’s my outlet valve!
Q: I’ve heard some comedians say there are two types of comedy… The facile type…and comedy with meaning… Do you try to be meaningful when writing your comedy?
Helen: no. One of the first rules of comedy… Firstly write about what you know and are passionate about. That applies to creating anything really… So you want it to mean something… But if you work the circuit there are people who do a bullet proof twenty minute set… But not what they want maybe… To fun their edinburgh show. But I found when I was doing circuit I kind of did the opposite! And that may explain why I’m no longer on the circuit….
Simon: I am sending out a message… Often just messing around… But everything in science communication and in comedy is story telling… Meaning can make a better story.
Steve: no. If there’s any meaning it’s that there is no meaning… I subvert narrative.
Comment: wanted to pick up on comment about satire… Science has been subverted in some ways… Satire is a powerful way to puncture power structures. Science has it’s own pomposity that also need to be pricked… But my experience is that most science comedy reinforces rather than pricks that.
Jon: we didn’t want our shows to be a lecture… We didn’t want shows talking down to the audience. We try to be ourselves as much as possible… The idea is to communicate to a non scientist level… We thought about that beforehand… Didn’t want classical lecture and listening quietly sort of format…
Simon: much of conservation movement is anti human and anti data… Conservation has more public ownership though… Did an interview at BBC and was on with WWF and Colin Butfield… Colin and I agreed… It was rubbish television…. We all want the same thing from a different angle… The goal is the same. Proper comedians, not science comedian, are saviours here…
Steve: science show off has no funding. Profits go to charity. So I can say whatever I want to whoever I want. And you (questionner) did a set taking down the Royal Society… And I’ve done that stuff… We tend to be quite safe… But comedy gives us license to take risks… I want to see satire of science, satire of science communication and policy. One issue is our work tends to be funded by someone… An issue…
Helen: satire is one comedy colour in your palate… But satire relies on a certain amount of knowledge of that field… So satire that is too specific is the most off putting thing. My last edinburgh was too much like that. Some loved it, some hated it. If I hear a political satire on radio four I switch it off because I don’t follow politics, I don’t get it even though I see that they are jokes. Something we discovered doing this pilot was that setting us up as unemployed scientists… A satire of scientific process fundamentally… But you don’t need to know science to get it.
Q: do you find that a lot of your audiences are already scientists… Particularly as shows get popular… I’ve found that issue that it’s the same people at these types of shows…
Steve: it is a real danger. Bright club is relatively scientist free… But it is a challenge… If you build a science comedy audience you don’t crack the comedy audience which we all want to do.
Simon: we have slightly bigger female audience… Online audience doesn’t count as much… Can’t count properly but it’s big! But my issue is that the fee is low £50-£100 fee per gig so hard to pay others… But it’s also becoming a rights of passage… And performers take their audience with them…
Helen: commercially it shouldn’t matter. But I do care… But have no funding to poll audience… But we do get a sense on twitter… Good and bad… Very qualitative evidence… But we sell fast because folk bring their friends… Often parents and children when the children are between sixteen and thirty. A cross over cultural audience… Harrogate theatre was classic though… York maths society booked a bus! But the rest just see stuff at their local venue. And you can tell that when you talk to them. We chose those sorts of venues…
Jon: we’ve done lots of audience research… Usually about a third of science background folk. That’s pretty good. Definitely non science based audience out there…
Q: have you seen any science events go negatively? How do you address that?
Steve: some universities scared of this. At least one university refused as scared of reputation. Thing with comedy is that it’s very polarising… Especially if you are being challenging about science…
Helen: some people have accused me… Been unhappy with geek songstress. Who hate the word nerd… It’s comedy, it’s tongue in cheek.. S frustrating… Someone asked why aren’t these shows to kids, why do shows for adults… They have missed the point…. Science as a hobby hard… Other hobbies easy… But actually you can do science as a hobby increasingly! Science as entertainment is fine now. You wouldn’t question the qualifications of someone in a gallery or at a gig…
Q: I do children’s science programmes on TV – entertainment commissioned. I wonder how many would be able to do science stand up as a gig… We should use comedy in engaging people… But where do we go to hone our craft… And what tips do you have…
Steve: two things… I train researchers and trainers through bright club. Science show off is a safe place to try stuff…. In terms of tips… Take it seriously… Go in prepared.. You have to think it through and write it… When you are experienced maybe you can… But write, practice… Rad Logan Murray’s book.
Simon: it is about storytelling. Do practice, do it… We are at a risk of comedy winning…. Having been to open mic nights for science… If you try not to be funny they can be scary… So how can you do scratch performance for science…
Helen: Greg Foot has been tweeting about this…
Steve: science show off started as that… People now seem to bring polished stuff but we want half formed stuff… Want it as a scratch pad…
Jon: most of our show is conventional science demonstrations… Tend to get the audience in quite a lot… Tend to structure demos to give enough rope to hang themselves… That’s easy to do! Talking to people is easy! Design silliness into the demo… Be horrible really…!
Helen: training… Eg bright club. I was chatting at Ada LoveLove day (come!) with the usability expert for MailChimp who went on a crime writing course to learn that! Totally different field… But get the science show write… Comedy is one of many tools… A show doesn’t have to be funny all the time!
Q: briefly… We talked about reaching new audiences… I have used comedy as a way to bring in people with a totally different audience… How do you feel about your show being used as engagement? Subversive engagement…
Helen: it’s great! Exciting for audiences to do that… Great for people know they can be curious… And being in a room with others who find that geeky thing funny… No matter their background.
Q: what feedback have you had from non scientists in your audiences?
Steve: “I thought this would be shit and it’s not!”
Helen: on our tour our driver refused to see our show till almost the end and was like “oh my god it’s just like three idiots making fun of each other on stage about things they love that the other two don’t understand”. If you are all part of a thing… You sweep people along!
Jon: after an edinburgh show a lady aid her husband was a physicist, had been married to for thirty years, and after our general relativity demonstration, said she finally understood something!
Q: I run bright club in London and to develop our audience we have taken our show out to other venues – museums, national trust properties etc. can use these tools to reach those audiences. Love to do more with that .
Q: do you find in your advertising… Does that affect your audience… ?
Simon: message is important for us
Steve: bright club was always about comedy audiences and listings like that. Always branded as that. Science show off
Q: range of performers… Often you see early career researchers or scientists but how do you get Senior people., people who aren’t self selecting to come forward…
Steve: as a team we can get people to do that within a university… As a freelancer that is so much harder…
Q: what is the single most surprising reaction to a joke
Helen: simon said that you always have more jokes after a big but for me I find you always have fewer jokes after each gig. My first year as a comedian I gigged almost every night, 250 gigs, that is the start of the process… Try it out, fix it, develop it… My mum and I had a great chat 18 months into stand up… I said you can’t really hear people laughing… Critical feedback from peers, form yourself, and from that audience… You need to work out what it was you did… You have to learn how to use that tool… Feedback loop is brilliant.
Steve: not only do you get surprises in your material… You love something that bombs… You throw something in nudge it’s a hit… The audience really creates your comedy persona… What’s on stage is a different version of you.
Helen: self awareness is so important… And how you can then play with that!
Discussing contentious issues in social media
Taking some straw polls…
Bella: we are going to talk about discussing contentious issues in social media… What’s is done well, done less well etc.
Slle lain, director of campaigns at sense about science
The campaign team is the first line to deal with questions and comments on campaigning issues. We are a not for profit addressing misinformation, about championing research. We want people to be skeptical, demand evidence, to question science. And we want scientists to engage, to answer those tough questions, to talk about stuff. The approach is always people led, expert fed. We start with public discussion and questions, then get scientists to respond to those.
So social media has been a boon for us… A place for people to moan, complain, to ask questions. This became particularly clear in 2012 when scientists at Rothmanstan research who had been working in the lab on a pest repelling wheat but anti GM protestors were threatening to come and destroy the research. So they came to us and we worked with them to try and engage with these people. They had written a great comprehensive open letter so we helped them make that into a video, share it on apace book, and we set up a petition on our site. We had thousands of people showing support… But also to ask questions… So environmentalists want to know answers to the as move questions for instance. Mostly not scientists… In one day a butcher, a baker, an air traffic controller… And that response, often from not GM fans but curious people, really helped the scientists who had just seen negative comments. And they started getting questions on their resewrch, on it’s funding, and on the broader GM issues. The scientists answered those questions… We shared the questions and answers on our site but also on the relevant channels. And some had useful follow up. Some who seemed really anti everything actually had genuine questions and wanted answers. They were pleased to have answers. Cutting through that social media debate shifted it from anti to an ongoing conversation and invitation to ask questions of plant scientists.
There are great plant sciences researchers and outreach but we found people had two problems. Firstly if you read about something in a paper it’s hard to know how to follow up, what does it mean for you? And also it’s not feasible for scientist set to answer every individual question. So social media enables questions but also enables researchers to respond to far wider audiences… Scud with the public led, expert fed approach, is not traditionally how organisations do social media. Letting scientists talk about the projects themselves isn’t always the approach taken. And those direct, and often unexpected questions take time to answer but are valuable to answer.
Patrick Rogan, nuclear physics, university of Surray
I’m not sure what to make of the audience… Journalists? Scientists? My every day life is as an academic undertaking research and teaching. For many years I ran an MSc on radiation detection. I was going about my normal everyday academic life when two things happened… Poisoning of Alexander ? In London in 2006. And then Fukushima. And in both cases I was called upon by a number of media outlets, initially for basics of radiation and radioactivity. And I wanted to get across the message that government funds that research. I don’t work for industry… Did some TV and newspapers. Big difference between 2006 and 2011 quite different in terms of social media. One thing I did was a sort of phone in by Mumsnet – really good framework to try and explain, and put nuclear into context. There is a negative though…
Nuclear power is a contentious issue… If you put stuff on social media then people can use you as a target… Nice comments and back patting is fine… But threatening emails in the middle of the night are scary. Bit of learning curve… I have a very smart daughter who says that those emails are all caps, middle of the night, probably not scary… So we do need to remember there is a silent majority who do find that social media engagement valuable. If you google me on YouTube there is a video of me “cocking up Fukushima analysis”. The comments are harsh. If you just focus on the negative stuff you’ll go mad… So you have to see both the good and the bad comments. And deal with those inevitable bad comments as they arise…
Tom Holden, campaigns manager at understanding animal research
Tom deals with a lot of fire fighting on contentious research. Tom was a student at Oxford when they were really under fire for animal testing and Tom was one of the students who set up a pro science movement explaining animal science, then worked in US on pro science animal science work. Now heads up out campaigns manager.
So first a bad example. July 2012 and newspapers pick up the news that Cardiff university had been “sewing kittens eyes shut”. Huge press coverage, all picked it up. Social media exploded when Ricky Gervais tweeted on it – he has strong ties to uk anti vivisection group. Two areas where you saw this… daily mirror poll “is scientific testing on kittens ok?”… Initially almost even… Then an evolutionary science group got on the poll and shifted to 60-something “yes”. The truth of the experiment was that six kittens had, under anaesthetic, had one eye sewn shut because they are a rare species to understand an infection causing childhood blindness.
But… There was A massive petition. And initially the university did not put anyone on the news, were not fire fighting on social media. Which is why I set up the #arnonsense hashtag to highlight and correct misinformation…
So… How would you have dealt with the suggestion at Cardiff?
And with that the chatty part of the session….
Me: what I would have done
Comment: you have to show mutual respect to critics, to understand it’s contentious, understand thoughts… But provide more information… Puts some on Blackfoot by being respectful
Slle: agree with that…. The rudest people don’t think anyone is listening or reading. When someone responds they are surprised. Just responding and saying no, you are wrong can be extremely powerful…
Comment: a risk too… If the critic has fewer followers than you you might highlight the critic
Tom: I think that’s true… So not framing the answer too much, focusing on what’s important, set the context.
Comment: we have repeate comments about animal resewrch on to cial media. We have taken the approach to be much more direct to people. Not that we meet legal requirements but to highlight why animal research has been valuable. Being clear about what the testing taking place is. What the outcomes are. So there is a balance. Reduce impact of ranty comments.
Tom: I always think CRUK are a great example on social media around this. Have a blog post on animal testing they always point to… And at this point their supporters often stand up for them. But if you get continual ranters you sometimes need to stop that dialogue… Maybe by asking them to phone to discuss. They never do.
Comment: I think if they have few followers you don’t engage…
Paddy: what about anonymous comments. Do you respond?
Comment: I think it’s about the viewpoints, are they valid? Are they a common view? Not about number of followers…
Paddy: teaching analogy… Do you let a noisy kid take all of teachers time?
Slle: I agree with the idea of viewpoints being the criteria.
Comment: I used to work in pharma. One journalists made a comment… We decided not to pounce too harshly and stepped away… Killed issue dead…
Bella: when you have damage limitation like that… Do you take comments down or leave them?
Commented don’t try to censor information. Leave them there…
Tom: one risk you have. Air India used to transport animals for research and no longer do after concerted PETA campaign… We saw thousands of comments on twitter at scale that went wild… Do you wait until it is a disaster or do you take action. The one thing about Facebook is that when you block someone’s post on your page they don’t know… Appears to them and their friends but not to everyone else… Blocking people is less subtle but sometimes called for it.
Comment: I’ve come across situations when people have ignored commenters with small following… But by ignoring them that makes the organisation look bad. Interaction expected
Me: about etiquette of space. Twitter is an interactive space…
Paddy: but when you google you those comments come up and that concerns me…
Comment: we talked about twitter and Facebook… We largely have control over those things… But what about a blog and Reddit. In my experience Reddit is a hotbed of mutters!
Paddy: in a previous life we used to get letters… I did something on Richard and Judy about electro sensors and I got five or six really nasty letters… But now that information is out there more permanently and prominently
Tom: web pages and blog posts look more serious and legitimate. Much more static. But social media and especially Reddit is that they direct traffic to you… You can ride out a wave… It spikes but it’s transient… For Reddit I would post a comment and be transparent in role and motivations… So at least that voice was there. But you can’t game Reddit! Other than that… Out up better things. Put up your counterpoints… And skeptics will help promote that… Reddit is democratic like that.
Paddy: sure but it’s human to focus on negative…
Slle: but that’s the problem… The wrong response is there too…
Comment: I am a pr person in astronomy. Much less contentious! I wanted to say that I don’t think you can reply to every single negative comment. Social media has a lot of crazy people on there… You ignore them. But when a contentious issue you have to track that, track interest with influence… But what you did, the YouTube video, is a great way to do that. Your followers will defend you. The best thing you can do is have a reasoned article as a scientist. A good article for say the guardian with good feedback has much more weight than YouTube comments. Can’t have a conversation with angry people!
Tom: within your comment is the most important part. Give your supporters the ammunition to stand up for you.
Comment: I wondered whether you had any thoughts on live twitter feeds at events. Francis crick institute did that recently and went a bit wrong when got overrun by sixth formers. We wanted to protect reputation but also the people taking part in those events…
Tom: off the top of my head is to have a system where any tweets with the hashtag are retweeted by you…so only retweet the good
Me: coveritlive also works well.
Comment: I am at Oxford, again dealing with the animal rights issue. We have few resources, can’t reply to everyone. So we had fergus Walsh write a news piece. Supporters have helped. But always negative comments
Slle: other people are important. Have to rely on other layers in society.
Comment: there is still a (small) protest every Thursday
Comment: it is so useful to have organisations focused on animal research and contentious issues, Understanding Animal Science work so we can use your resources – both your organisation and CRUK
Q: how useful is it to have a third party in the debate… If not just rothemsteads voice…
Slle: it was rothemsteads voice, and their scientists… We shared our networks and amplify their message. E knew more people and had more experience… Would it have gone differently? Well they answered all the questions… They used their own and our channels… Have since then worked with lots of groups with
In industry. Advise is always to answer questions. We run some live twitter Q&A sessions for instance. Recently did one on plastics packaging… Enduring topics… Worked with someone from industry and an independent toxicologist. That was on our website. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken to groups to say “you know where your audience are, answer their questions there.” People want to hear from your scientists. They are the best people to answer.
Q: do you ever use contentious issues to make your own point? Communicate your own research?
Paddy: I am a fundamental researcher… A contentious issue like a nuclear meltdown in a reactor can focus attention on the benefit of having knowledgable people in the uk. It’s not what I would choose, but that has been helpful for explaining the importance of that work. But I would never choose for that sort of thing to happen. Usually we are asked for zero stories – my cat ate a smoke detector type things – but Fukushima was a huge event…. An opportunity to educate through that sustained press interest. Positive in that way.
Comment: a devils advocate point. Even as scientists we have to remember science hasn’t finished… Some mistakes are made… We have to be careful not to characterise people as nutters and framers. My well read intelligent mother posts cringeworthy things on the web… We have to be open to people…
Paddy: I’ll respond to anyone who outs their name on it… Most scientists are willing to interact. And shock horror we occasionally get things wrong! But these very passionately polarised comments for opposite perspective and when those are personal and threatening don’t deserve responses…
Comment: I guess your biggest reputational risk is when you are caught with trousers down… How much value is there in tracking and horizon scanning?
Tom: certainly you can be prepared. There are recurrent issues. Cardiff wasn’t predictable but every year the government print stats on animal testing so our blog is always prepped ready to be the first. Fs you know your enemies… Track those key critics blogs first so you knowl what to expect
Slle: the biggest risk is the scientist voice being absent from the debate.
Comment: is the fact that open access isn’t everywhere a contributing factor?
Slle: I don’t know… I know in lifetime of sense about science and science media centre that we’ve seen a lot more contentious issues being nipped in the bud, responded to… The biggest impact is scientists being willing to speak out I think.
Bella: I haven’t seen open access making a big difference. Many on social media aren’t interested in the research papers. What really counts is scientists going out and engaging…
Comment: in terms of being prepared. Definitely. And you want your scientists getting out three to respond. Scientists not always ready to do that so media training important – for contentious issues, for criticism, for hard questions… We have documents to prepare and anticipate crisis so that scientists is prepared.
Tom: knowing who deals with these things is important. I worked with marc on to process. Sometimes you need a ten minute turnaround and chain of command can be slow…
Comment: going back to traditional role of comms… If you do a good job 90% of what you do is invisible. But in terms of the type of people who comment… Not branding all as ranters and so on. And also I averts and extra ergs… Social media has democratising effect. Massive trade off. Important that with that you will get those poorly informed getting engaged. But mostly you can ignore or deal with them. Most online communities are very self regulating.
Comment: similar point… Much focus on damage limitation. But many of these issues are huge opportunities. Our point of view isn’t the only one. Someone mentioned DDT as a disaster but I work on malaria where is had real value… Some issues we only think damage limitation, some issues this is useful experience.
Citizen Science – Mike Sharples (Open University), Addy Pope (EDINA), Nicola Osborne (EDINA, University of Edinburgh, COBWEB), Barry Evans (COBWEB) Eloy Villasclaras-Fernandez (Open University)
These notes have taken rather a long time to be added as I was co-running this Citizen Science session. The format was a quick introduction to the two Citizen Science tools we would be using during the session: Sense-It and Field Trip GB, then a hands on adventure with the apps, and finally some tips on using social media in and communicating around citizen science projects along with a chance to look at the data collected.
Mike Sharples opened the session by introducing Sense-It, an Android app for collecting data, and talking about its origins in in Inquiry-based learning research. He went on to talk about the ways in which the app, which makes the sensors of the phone available for use in experiments or “missions”. Those missions are imagined by/co-created with the crowd – in this case young learners – and can then be shared with other Sense-It users to enable them to gather data.
Next, my colleague Addy Pope talked about FieldTrip GB (available on Android and iOS), originally created for earth sciences field trips, and explained how people using the app had led to a whole new type of use as a crowdsourcing tool. FieldTrip GB enables you to create your own data collection form, then access that on your mobile with DropBox providing the sharing in the background – so all of your data remains yours – and demonstrated that by building a quick custom form.
Eloy showed how Sense-It would be used in the session – with a mission to gather sound levels. In parallel we would also be testing out FieldTrip GB using a form also collecting data on noise, designed to compliment the Sense-It data. And with that instructions and a range of mobile and tablet devices were handed out as teams of two went out to gather data. In each pair one person used Sense-It (on Android) to record sounds, whilst the other person used FieldTrip GB (on iOS) to gather related information – what was making the noise, whether it was visible or not, an image, etc.
After adventuring around the campus and gathering sound recordings – popular stops were the fountain in front of Austin Pearce building and the registration zone (extra noisy!) but one person tested the noise levels of the flushes in the bathrooms and others ventured further into the campus – we returned back to the Oxygen room for my part of the session.
I talked about designing and planning citizen science – and how communications and social media fit into that. After having had a few (unplanned) hiccoughs in our own hands on session I hope my emphasis on explaining the purpose of any citizen science project, and understanding the motivation and support needed by participants had some particular resonance. The full set of slides will be available surely – either here or via the BSA conference website.
I also explained that as a follow up to this event we want to keep the conversation going, and hope to hold a Google+ Hangout with all of the speakers and Addy and my colleague, Ben Butchart. With that in mind we have created a G+ Community that we hope will be a focus for further discussion between those who attended our session, and also those who did not but are interested in what could be done with Citizen Science projects or with social media and communication around those projects. Join that conversation here.
And with that we moved onto looking at what all of the lovely session participants had gathered on their adventures – first viewing the FieldTrip GB records (28 in total) both in the Authoring Tool and via Google Earth, then viewing the Sense-It records which showed a few interesting peak noise levels around campus (it looks like buses trump fountains but that fountains are surprisingly loud).
As the session drew to a close Mike Sharples encouraged our participants to share their feedback and thoughts on the apps as part of our reason for running this session was to let our participants try out the tools – but also to try out some new functionality in Sense-It which got it’s first outing today (v. 1.1). Our participants very generously filled out feedback forms on both apps which we will be using to make them both even better – thank you!
Finally we took questions which included discussions on how quality is checked in citizen science apps and projects like this and the range of approaches taken (peer checking, automatic system checking by getting many people to contribute the same data, training participants, using expert/already trained participants, and manual approaches) and why the purpose of your project – is it about raising awareness and communicating science or is the data itself the objective – makes a difference when deciding on an approach. The other big question raised was whether the field of citizen science projects is already too crowded for new ones. This triggered a discussion of audience and scale. If you want to reach a particular community or interest group then there is huge value in running new projects specialist to them. If you want to be the next mega project – and success rests on having a huge crowd contributing data – then you may be better off working with existing well established projects or communities, particularly thinking about Galaxy Zoo/the Zooniverse for instance. However there is a huge amount of space out there for the right niche projects and communities. And projects can still go big – its just much much harder to do at this stage.
With that our session and my Science Communication Conference 2014 concluded. Thank you to all at the British Science Association for organizing a really stimulating two days. The event has left me with lots of new resources for my “The Role of Social Media in Science Communication and Public Engagement” MSc in Science Communication and Public Engagement students, and a fair few ideas about new possibilities and projects, and a number of new and lovely science communicator contacts!