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Science Communication

The British Government Inquires Into Science Communication. Here are my thoughts

The British Government Inquires Into Science Communication. Here are my thoughts

Today, the first evidence session of the Select Committee inquiry into Science Communication takes place at 215pm. The focus is the NERC team and the #BoatyMcBoatFace phenomenon. In a nutshell, this involved a research council inviting the public to name a new boat. The internets had a bit of fun and voted for the funny one, not the most historically serious and important one. In the end, NERC went with 'Sir David Attenborough' - who just turned 90 - but then the Internets campaigned for Sir David to change his name to #BoatyMcBoatFace. We all lolled. So, today, NERC is outlining what happened. Aside from that, here's what I submitted as evidence to the Committee.

To watch the live hearing at 215pm GMT, click HERE

 

Science Communication 2.0:
Priorities Going Forward
 

Written evidence submitted by

Professor Andy Miah, University of Salford, Manchester.

Chair in Science Communication & Future Media

Summary

1.     Examine how the Research Excellence Framework ‘Impact’ category can be better audited to measure and reward science communication work.

2.     Consider how best to embed DIY science communication into university training courses, particularly around using social media channels for communication.

3.     Audit the work of university press officers and their relationships with science journalists.

4.     Assess the extent to which science communication in public engagement events such as science festivals, meets the higher expectations of science communication – based around the ‘upstream’ model.

5.     Find ways to support best practice in the science communication industry to diminish the economic black hole of such work, which relies heavily on the good will of scientists to undertake such labour.

6.     Examine the involvement of citizen panels within funding councils.

7.     Take into account how media consumption habits are changing for the younger generation – the next generation of science audiences – particularly around mobile media.

 

“the UK public are as enthusiastic about science as they have ever been”… but misconceptions about how scientists work, concerns about how well science is regulated and a low level of trust in mainstream science journalism.

To understand why a lack of trust in science media is apparent, it is crucial to come to terms with the dramatic changes in media consumption and communication that have taken place over the last decade. Furthermore, it is important to take into account how science communication has evolved methodologically and whether science journalism responds to this effectively enough. This submission of evidence focuses on the following key points:

·      The Impact of Media Change

·      Recognition and Reward for Science Communicators

·      The Expansion of the Science Communication Sector

In 1985, the Bodmer Report highlighted the importance of science communication through public engagement and, since then, research in science communication has flourished, with the creation of dedicated scientific journals and University Chairs in the field emerging in several institutions around the UK.

Research discoveries have drawn attention to the inadequacies of the conventional model of science communication, which assumed a deficit in the public’s comprehension of science that needed to be filled. This assumption has been criticised heavily for inadequately characterising who are the public and for its presumption that they lack knowledge. Furthermore, this unidirectional approach to science communication is now considered an inadequate basis on which to educate. Instead, learning must involve more than simply receiving information, and integrate aspects of participation, experience, and co-production.

These insights have led to a shift from ‘deficit’ to ‘dialogue’, which recognises the importance of conversation, which is now a core part of what science communicators are doing – not just explaining work but, but conversing with audiences about it and involving them in the production of findings – as evidenced by the rise of citizen science projects.

Within the field of communication, more generally, we now see the consequence of this shift, particularly in how the media industry has evolved (Miah, 2005). Today’s dominant media are those that prioritise sharing and co-production of content. Notably, social media has transformed the media ecosystem and, along with it, the expectations of audiences. Traditional formats of journalism must find ways to adapt, but this is just beginning to happen. Examples of such platforms as Storify, Snapchat, and Facebook Instant Articles, speak to this shift, but science communicators and science journalists are not using these formats very much yet.

Audiences are no longer content with just consuming journalism, but want to play an active part in its curation. Science journalism may be inherently resistant to this, as it relies on the authoritative figure of the scientist to verify knowledge. In this respect, diminished trust may be a product of the shift in mainstream journalism towards co-creation, which may not have happened as much within science journalism. It is also important to come to terms with the relationship between the public and the media – we are in the wake of a decade of distrust about our media industry, epitomised by the Leveson Inquiry and the rise of Wikileaks.

However, achieving dialogue is not sufficient to address the concerns of the Inquiry about how to better develop trust in science. Focusing on the state of science journalism misses a big part of the picture. Rather, the state of the art in science communication methodology recognises the importance of ‘upstream’ engagement with the public. This means involving and empowering the public in decision making processes in advance of the science industry deciding where it makes investments and, despite a few attempts to embed such an approach in science over the last 10 years, it is still not a core part of how science works.

The pressures on journalists has also grown in recent years and this may have been to the detriment of science journalism. Editors expect their staff to be capable of producing work across media formats now, rather than just working as specialists. Radio is now a visual medium; writers are now also photographers. Staff numbers have been cut across newspaper platforms and yet content is expected to be developed for many more digital environments than was previously required. In turn, this has led to a greater reliance on science publicists to help produce stories, which may also contribute to diminishing trust.

Alongside this, the world of science has become much more astute at managing media stories, which may help the science industry control their narrative, but doesn’t necessarily help audiences trust science journalism or science at all. A good example of this is synthetic biology, which hit the headlines in 2007 when Craig Ventor ran a UK lecture tour, book launch, and made the front page of tabloids with research that was still in development, rather than fully realised.

Equally, there are cases where the debates around a science story seem to betray trust and this shifting sand of science stories may be an inherent problem. For example, in 2005, I was invited to comment on a story for the BBC about mitochondrial DNA transfer, an experimental technique to address the seriously debilitating consequences of having dysfunctional mtDNA. The report shows how the scientists involved made great efforts to state that any resulting, modified egg would ‘never be allowed to develop into a baby’ (BBC, 2005). Yet, a decade later, MPs have approved such use for assisting the creation of healthy lives (Mason & Devlin, 2005). While I believe this is a sensible decision in this case, for the public, it can create a sense of uncertainty about whether any new discovery and the limits to which it may be put, can ever really be trusted.

In the United Kingdom, we have a number of institutions and communities who may be better unified in their work on science communication. These include: The Science Media Centre, The UK Science Festivals Network, FameLab, The Science Museums Group, Debating Matters, Sense About Science, The MAKER Movement and, this, year, the European City of Science programme in Manchester.

There is also a range of other events/institutions who are in the business of communicating science, even if they do not identify themselves as science communication organizations. This includes a range of art festivals around the UK, such as Future Everything, Abandon Normal Devices, Future Fest, to name a few. On this point specifically, the relationship between art and science – from STEM to STEAM education – is a crucial way to make more out of the science communication opportunities within the UK – which themselves are ways of engaging the science media in a more meaningful way. Making more of bringing these two spheres together, would be a formidable way of building more opportunities to undertake science communication work.

Finally, it is crucial that the Committee takes into account the growing number of freelance science communicators around the UK, which are well supported by the BIG STEM Communicators Network, but which are presently undervalued and under supported financially and institutionally. Even the most successful Science Festivals around the UK do not have sufficient investment around them to financially remunerate their contributors and, more widely, there is an economic black hole around science communication that needs to be filled, in order for the community to grow and be appropriately valued for their work. A sound basis for engendering more interest within the university community is to build on the Research Excellence Framework’s interest in recognising ‘impact’, though more effective mechanisms of evaluating aspects of science communication within it should be developed.

 

In sum, the different approaches towards science communication, research impact, public engagement, public involvement, and citizen science, must be better differentiated and supported, to optimise their value and promote more opportunities to nurture trust in science communication and science journalism.

 

References

BBC (2005) Embryo with Two Mothers Approved, BBC http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/4225564.stm

Mason, R. & Devlin, H. (2015) MPs vote in favour of 'three-person embryo' law, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/feb/03/mps-vote-favour-three-person-embryo-law

Miah, A. (2005) Genetics, cyberspace and bioethics: why not a public engagement with ethics?, Public Understanding of Science, 14(4), 409-421.

 

Biography

Professor Andy Miah is Chair in Science Communication and Future Media, at the University of Salford, Manchester. He is 2015 winner of the Josh Award for Science Communication, and works with a range of news organizations, including the Press Association special interest group in Social Media. He is Advisory Board Member to the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester, and Board Member to Manchester 2016 European City of Science. He is a member of the Scottish Government’s Ministerial Advisory Group for Digital Participation and has contributed to various European Parliament inquiries into future technology and communications.  He can be reached by email at email@andymiah.net and followed on Twitter http://twitter.com/andymiah

 

 

 

 

 

#VirtualChernobyl on CBBC Newsround

#VirtualChernobyl on CBBC Newsround

This last few days, I have been working with an amazing group of people from Salford in producing the Virtual Chernobyl Experience around the 30th Anniversary of the Disaster.

This video is still the best overview of what we did.

All of these people need credit for their extraordinary efforts in making it happen. They all came through at short notice and put time in well beyond the job description and they are all yet more reasons for why I feel very lucky at Salford to have such talented, versatile people.  

They are:

  • Dr Mike Wood, Lead Scientist - will literally fly through the night to get the job done
  • Simon Campion - VR wizard who worked the Oculus content
  • Mikhail Polshaw - VR go to for 360 rendering at short notice
  • Dr Gary Kerr - sci comm agitator, evaluator, and all round 'can doer'
  • Ross Fawkes - science guy, PhD aspiring
  • Moo - puts radiation detectors on Reindeer
  • Rosie Mawdsley - Producing ninja at MSI Manchester
  • Justin Webb - Press master at MSI
  • Gareth Holllyman - Press 2.0 doer at Salford Uni
  • Nicol Caplin - the fastest sci comm'r in town. all the way up from Bristol
  • Darren Langlands - videographer at Salford Uni
  • ...and a whole bunch of STEM volunteers who went the extra mile

And here's what we did...CBBC Newsround

 

Beacons for Science #ESOF16

Beacons for Science #ESOF16

Over the last few months, I've been building the momentum around our flagship activity for the European City of Science in Manchester. Essentially, I want to create a digital encounters experience for visitors and residents, through which they can encounter the city differently and see its historical and contemporary science scene. 

We've just put out an invitation to curators to assist in making this, so that it's not a top down history and a much more democratised version of what science entails. We are targeting individuals who we think would like to take part, but if you are interested, please drop me a line. 

Here's a link to the Eventbrite for further info on project dimensions. Each core strand needs more team members, so if you see an entry point or would like to get involved, email me.

It's not just for Manchester based folk, so if you are keen and are from elsewhere, feel welcome to take part!

 

 

 

DIY Steroid Labs

DIY Steroid Labs

A big story broke this week on Sky News, which has been investigating the rise of DIY steroid labs around the UK. It tells a story of how body building and performance/image enhancement is not just a matter for the world of elite sport to address.

My arguments focused on the cultural shift towards enhancement and the need to re-appraise the morality and law surrounding such practices. If so many people are doing it, it's hard to still claim them as morally bankrupt.

If we can just address the health risks more effectively, then we need not worry. This means a harm reduction model and supervised doping.

Communicating Chernobyl

Communicating Chernobyl

Over the last year, I've been working with Dr Mike Wood and Prof Nick Beresford on a NERC funded public engagement project, examining life in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, 30 years later. As part of this, I was in Chernobyl this semester making films about the research consortium behind the work. 

This week, the team had a meeting near Oxford at which the films were launched. You can find a play list of them all here, or simply scroll through to  see what we did.

Leadership in Science

Leadership in Science

It's not every day that you have a meeting with the good and the great in Manchester within a ball pool, but this was that day. Organized by Siemens and the Museum of Science and Industry, a select number of Manchester leaders were brought together to consider how to address the low levels of productivity within the North West. 

It was a first step in re-thinking how we collaborate, inspire, and stimuate the economy of the region, at a crucial time in Manchester's history. Ahead of the European City of Science and the Northern Powerhouse debates, this was a fantastic and inspiring conversation which was made all the more remarkable by it taking place in an adult ball pool!

 

Drone Expo

Drone Expo

Another big delivery for me within the Manchester Science Festival was the Drone Expo at the Museum of Science and Industry, which took place over the opening weekend of the festival. It was produced in association with my Josh Award for Science Communication and we created a large flying space at MOSI with professional pilots and STEM volunteers to show the public what's happening with this amazing techology.

Science Jam

Science Jam

Well, this is the night when it all comes together, the preview of our Science Jam, our main delivery weekend within Manchester Science Festival. Over the last year, I have been curating a programme of work in the festival as Salford University's contribution. For many of the activities, I've also had some creative oversight and provided direction to some of the amazing people around the projects. 

It has been an amazing and exhausting journey to get to this point, but the evening was a great success, with previews of the Royal Photographic Society science prize, the Chernobyl installation, Alienated Life?, and our co-commission exporing electricity and art, Kinetic Flux, produced with artists Paul Miller and Griet Beyaert, along with some science busking and a premiere of a new documentary science film called Traces.

There was so much over this weekend, I'm not sure how to showcase it, but here's a snapshot.

Science Question Time

Science Question Time

For the first time in Manchester Science Festival, we have produced a 'Science Question Time', which I'd like to make a regular feature within the programme. To address some of the key issues facing science, we brought together a fantastic array of expertise, comprising the following:

Professor Judith Smith, parasitologist,
Dean of the School of  Environment and Life Sciences, University of Salford, Manchester

Marieke Navin, physicist and science communicator
Director of Manchester Science Festival

Dr Delphine Ryan, engineer
Ministry of Defence

Gunes Taylor, biologist
University of Oxford

We held the event at the newly opened University Technical College at Media City, in their amazing tv studio, filmed by students. It was a fantastic, wide ranging debate and we'll follow it up with some key statements. The event was produced with the support of the amazing Dr Gary Kerr.

Back to the Future Today

Back to the Future Today

In advance of #futureday, I worked with Guardian journalist Joanna Goodman to produce a piece that would come out on the day. It was a fantastic chance to talk about how close the film came to realising our world as it is today. Here's the final article - it got the most views on the Guardian for that day and Joanna even came up to Manchester for our sell-out screening.

Communicating Chernobyl

Communicating Chernobyl

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I have spent the last week in Chernobyl with my Salford colleagues Dr Mike Wood and Professor Nick Beresford, as part of a programme funded by the Natural Environment Research Council. The week was spent visiting key sites around the Nuclear Reactor, including the reactor itself, along with doing some fieldwork. I have been working with Mike and Nick on a project called 'Alienated Life?' which is an artistic installation for Manchester Science Festival. I spent a lot of my time there producing films for the install and documenting what took place over the week. Films to follow.

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In search of the Giant Anteater

In search of the Giant Anteater

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This is the first of a series of short films about colleagues in ELS I am making, profiling their research and sharing a bit about their lives. I'm delighted to have worked with Prof Rob Young to track this enigmatic creature. We got a lot more than we expected, even a mother carrying its young. Hope you enjoy the footage.

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Andy Miah Filming
Andy Miah Filming

The Josh Award for Science Communication

The Josh Award for Science Communication

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This week, i was in my home city of Norwich for 'BIG' the STEM communicators Network, at which I received their Josh Award for science communication. The Josh Award is so named after Josh Philips, the first science communicator at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester. You can read a bit more about Josh here. I had a chance to talk to his dad while in Norwich, which was really lovely. It was fantastic to be among such wonderful communicators and it was really humbling to see the range of talented people who are making a career out of professional science communicators.

This award comes at a wonderful time for me, as I find myself doing a lot more production, commissioning, and staging of science communication activities. During the event, I attended a session for freelancers, to understand what they need and what they are going through. it was led by my friend Greg Foot who has to be one of the best examples out there for this kind of work.

I'm really over the moon to have received this award. My first forays into science communication were when I was a PhD student and decided I needed to start building websites to communicate my research. I remember hearing that the average academic article is read 6 times and felt there was a lot more we need to do to get our work out there. Since then, I have made public communication, engagement, and involvement, a core part of my own research discovery process. From working with film makers on productions, to developing concepts around theatrical shows, to giving talks at festivals and speaking/writing for the media, communication is core to what I have tried to do as an academic.

My new role at University of Salford, along with the wonderful relationships I am developing around Manchester with the likes of MOSI's Sally McDonald, Natalie Ireland, and Marieke Navin, along with long standing relationships with other creative people in the city, it feels like this year is really going to be a fantastic time for me to have this award and, I hope, make a contribution to the prospects of other science communicators.

The major thing for me will be the Salford Science Jam, a weekend of science activity taking place at our university building in  Media City. Keep the 24-25 October free to come to Manchester!!

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Drones at #CheltSciFest

Drones at #CheltSciFest

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This week, I took part in a panel at the Cheltenham Science Festival focused on the use of drones in every day life. I talked a lot about Project Daedalus and some new innovations, particularly high authority autonomous systems - essentially completely intelligent drones - while Gerry Corbert from the Civil Aviation Authority gave a run down of the rules and regulations surrounding application. He was quick to point out that the guidelines that surround UAVs were never designed for the very small UAVs which can now be picked up in toy stores or even the Apple store, but there were some key issues that seem unresolved. One of them relates to this video:  

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fZkZ4FONiiw

This example of a form of augmented reality glasses being used to give FPV perspective of the drone's camera is provocative because the CAA guidelines stipulate that flying with FPV goggles is actually not legal, since the pilot must always have visual line of sight (VLOS). However, these glasses offer transparency which permits VLOS, while locating the drone's camera feed within the glasses as well. So the question is, 'is this legal?'

This seems one of the future directions around the use of augmented reality devices with drones, making even more complicated the way in which the rules operate.

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Science Communication & Chester Zoo

Science Communication & Chester Zoo

Yesterday, I spent the day at Chester Zoo, filming with our Brazilian PhD researcher Luiza Passos, who is working with the Golden Mantella frog, a species under threat in Madagascar, under the supervision of Professor Robert Young. In the afternoon, I gave a talk for Heads of Depts at the Zoo, talking about science communication opportunities. It was such a refreshing and engaging discussion and we've got so much to do, not least of which is working to build a really exciting and creative documentary programme around the amazing science that is happening at the zoo!

FameLab UK

FameLab UK

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This week, I judged the regional final of @FameLabUK with contestants from Manchester and Sheffield. It was a fantastic display of the talented science communicators around England's North and the winner was @Benstutchbury with a 3 minute whirlwind through 'Mucous'! It was great to be involved with this and I really look forward to growing this network in my new role. 

How do science festivals nurture scientific citizenship? #scicomm

How do science festivals nurture scientific citizenship? #scicomm

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This week, Salford University launched a number of studentship calls, one of which would be under my supervision, focusing on the role of science festivals in society. I am really excited about this position for a number of reasons. I think there is a need to investigate the value and contribution of science festivals to society, so we can make the most of them and understand what else needs to be done develop critically engaged citizens, who are mindful of the complexity of science and compelled to invest themselves into its development. I am also interested in the range of events that fit into the category of 'science festival', which is surely more expansive than the term often denotes. For instance, there are many festivals that provoke a lot of engagement around new creative technologies, such as Burning Man where the focus is on participation and inhabiting the festival, and where there is a lot of experimental technology developed and discussed.

Alternatively, there are hundreds of science festivals, which link with science funding bodies or the media to deliver science communication events and opportunities for public debate. Great examples of this include Manchester Science Festival, an organisation which we would expect to work closely with in fleshing out this project.

Having worked around a lot of scholars who focus their research on festivals, I think there is something distinct about the science festival, but I am not yet sure what it is or which functions they serve, or how effectively their impact across policy or public understanding can be measured.

This PhD will explore some of these dimensions but its theoretical contribution will speak to some of the broad questions that confront humanity today, such as trying to unpack the limits of democratising science and the implications of this for how societies organize and progress. Science festivals find themselves at an exciting time in human history where the kinds of changes that are on the horizon are potentially species altering and certainly environment altering. There seems no more important time in human history than now that the entire population needs to tune into some of the decisions which are affecting our future.

The successful candidate will have a great time in this role discovering the wide world of science festivals. The methodological underpinning will rely on social scientific approaches, but there is an opportunity also to shape this and an understanding of science policy processes, critical theory, media studies, and a desire to inquire into the role of science in society are at the heart of the project.

The role will be located within the School of Environment and Life Sciences at the University of Salford, Manchester. It is a really dynamic and exciting place to work with huge investments and partnerships, a lot of ambition, and this PhD is the first kind we have advertised. It will be a unique context for someone who has aspirations to work within the field of science communication and public engagement, whether or not they have a background in science. Many of us are hybrids in this school and even more of us believe in studying the cross over of disciplines to really make sense of the world.

If you are interested in applying for this fully funded PhD studentship, please find all the relevant info here. If you are interested in providing financial support for the PhD, either in match funds, or supporting additional placements, please contact me directly.

 

Photograph from the Marcus Coates 'The Sounds of Others', part of Manchester Science Festival