We live in a society where ‘fake news’ accusations escalate as the politics of knowledge is being played on a global stage. Yet as we face very real problems demanding change it is interesting to reflect on the role of science communication.
We often assume that people will make ‘better’ decisions once they have the best facts at their fingertips and a proper grasp of scientific-based knowledge.
But more than ever, it is clear that credible facts and established knowledge are not driving public policies about urgent issues such as climate change; they are not influencing affluent middle-class people who decide not to vaccinate their children; and nor are they influencing people’s attitudes about the relative safety of genetically modified foods.
So as science communicators, how do we help create positive changes? Some suggest that we need to move to a more participatory style of communication where scientific knowledge is just one set of knowledge that is exchanged as various groups participate together to solve a mutual problem.
That’s why this month’s newsletter is about Participatory science communication.
We again welcome guest contributor, Dr Angela Dean from the University of Queensland’s Centre of Excellence in Environmental Decisions. She reflects on the relative power of citizen science to create behaviour change.
As usual, we welcome your feedback.
I recently attended a Knowledge Exchange and Coproduction workshop held at the Australian National University. In one of the sessions, we were divided into small groups and asked to tell each other stories of where we had been involved in knowledge exchange exercises, and to draw out what worked and what didn’t.
I spoke about the Climate Champion Program (2009-16)that involved farmers across Australia participating with scientists to share knowledge about managing climate risk. Another person spoke about an Indigenous community and their knowledge of water flows, and what that meant for managing a natural area. Someone else spoke about info-tourism in the Pacific and the exchange of information between tour operators, students and scientists. And another person told the story about a long-term interaction between fishers, government representatives, researchers and a local community, and how that interaction changed the community.
In discussing these examples, it became clear that 3 ingredients were essential for creating change:
(a) Time for people to participate with each other.
The Climate Champion Program ran for 6 years and during that time the 45 farmers involved had a chance to meet with scientists at formal workshops and field days; and informally through phone and email conversations, and personal visits.
(b) Ties or the relationships, which develop between the participants involved, including science communicators.
The Climate Champion workshops always included significant time for open discussions, and time to socialise informally. In the end of program survey, a climate scientist said the highlight was: “Meeting the real users of our products—hearing how they used it and what they would like to see from our work. But also friendships made”. Likewise several farmers mentioned the friendships formed through the program as a highlight: “The friendships formed and the understanding of issues right across Australia”
(c) Trust being built between participants so everyone, including scientists, can be open about uncertainties.
It takes time and positive relationships to build trust, and so this third ingredient is a result of the first two. In the Climate Champion program, scientists openly acknowledged what they didn’t know about climate risk and the farmers respected this.
Farmers working with scientists
By Toss Gascoigne
Robert Quirk is a sugar farmer in the Tweed River in northern New South Wales.
A sceptical schoolboy, he left when he was about 14 to go to work on the family dairy farm. This became a sugar farm when his mother realised the onerous life of milking cows was not for Robert and his brother.
Some years later, a couple of scientists knocked on his door. They were investigating acid sulfate soil and wanted to use his farm as an experimental site. Could they mount instruments in the middle of his cane crop, and run a series of tests? Still the sceptic, Robert was sufficiently curious to agree.
The experiments continued over some years and Robert was drawn in. He talked to the scientists and their students, tried a few new ideas, and got drawn into the process. PhD students became a regular part of his life.
He laser-levelled his paddocks, revised the drainage system and built up mounds to create a micro-climate on which the cane is grown. He added lime and cut back on fertiliser, and says it took 5 years to get the whole system to work.
Robert’s active contact with the scientists and their students completely changed his farming system. It also changed his life.
He was such a valuable part of the research that the scientific team invited him to talk about his changes “at a meeting in Sydney”. He found he was addressing the Soil Science Society annual conference! International invitations followed, and Robert was elected as founding chair of Bonsucro, the global platform for sustainable sugarcane.
This joint production of knowledge by a sugarcane farmer from the Tweed and soil scientists from Sydney and Melbourne was built on a relationship which took years to develop. It has all the essential ingredients of co-production: trust and respect, aided by a willingness to listen and an open mind.
Communicating for change—make it real, and make it easy
By Dr Angela Dean
For many of us in science communication, ‘facts’ are necessary ingredients of the content we share. But, research reminds us that the ‘information deficit’ model is too simplistic, and raising awareness is not the main route to behaviour change. So what are the alternatives?
We surveyed people attending marine citizen science events to see whether attendance fosters longer-term stewardship. About half of attendees reported intentions to adopt a new sustainability behaviour. But what aspects of their experience motivated these intentions?
One of the main drivers was negative emotions. People who agreed with the statement ‘I felt sad or angry about something I saw’ had stronger intentions to adopt new sustainability behaviours.
Psychology tells us that emotions allow us to appraise situations and prepare for action. People generally like to avoid loss. So, negative emotions may be necessary ingredients for motivating new actions.
We also found that the influence of learning varied with the type of learning we measured: ‘Procedural learning’ (how to do something) was associated with stronger intentions to adopt new behaviours. However, ‘factual learning’ was associated with lower behavioural intentions.
We think these findings provide an important reminder to not rely on factual learning to motivate change. Instead, we need to ‘make it real and make it easy’.
How do we do this? This can feel challenging for practitioners who want to provide enjoyable experiences for audiences.
Firstly, we don’t need to avoid issues about environment impact and loss. Showing people real impacts can be very powerful.
But, we can’t stop there—we also need to show people what they can do. Without the opportunity for action, negative emotions can lead to disempowerment and disengagement. Hands-on initiatives, like citizen science, provide a way to highlight environmental problems and motivate action.
For more detail of Angela’s research, see her paper.
Find the common ground
By Jenni Metcalfe
I am reading a wonderful nature book right now called ‘the Eastern Curlew’ by Harry Saddler. In it he reflects on his childhood love for both literature and biology and the career dilemma that these dual loves presented. I too faced such a dilemma, which resolved itself by me doing both science and journalism and ending up as a science communicator.
A quote from his book (p.39) resonates with me: “The art/science divide is a myth, and whether artist or scientist, our fundamental aim is to illuminate the world in which we live”.
To me, participatory science communication is about bringing together a concerned group of people from different backgrounds to tackle a problem they jointly care about. This means recognising each other’s different values and beliefs, but it also means finding common ground: to solve a problem; to create positive change.
So how do we find that shared fundamental aim? That common ground?
1. Listen to others
2. Check you really understand others: their perceptions, concerns and needs (don’t assume)
3. Identify and acknowledge social, cultural, economic and environmental contexts to the problem
4. Respect other people’s knowledge, beliefs and values
5. Discover the big picture that everyone wants to happen regardless of different beliefs, values and knowledge sets (e.g. safe, nutritious food available; clean plentiful water)
Quote of the month
“We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say.”
Zeno of Citium, a Greek philosopher who was the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy