Public Engagement at Bath

Supporting researchers to engage the public with their research

Reflections from Communicate 2017 - Researchers as brokers of communication

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Maya Singer Hobbs is a postgraduate researcher in the Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies. She received a bursary to attend Communicate 2017, the UK's conference for environmental communicators. Below, she reflects on her experiences of the conference, of how it compared to academic conferences, and some of the insights that she's taken away from her attendance.

As a PhD student in the Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies there were two immediate differences that were staring me in the face when I walked into Communicate. The first was that the conference was held in the beautiful Bristol Zoo Gardens function rooms, which makes a change from stuffy hotel function rooms or the Brutalist architecture of university buildings. The second was the gender ratio of both the attendees and speakers – for once, it was about 50:50 – which never happens at a chemistry conference!

In addition, we were free to wander around the zoo in the down-time, and I struggled to decide between all of the parallel sessions because they all sounded fantastic! It’s hard to pick out a session that was my favourite, but there were a few concepts that have stayed with me.

The first was a comment by Anna Starkey from We the Curious, which was that saying “making science accessible for all” is a passive statement. It’s easy to open the doors, and say you’ve made the science accessible, but then stand around scratching your head when people aren’t walking in. It got me thinking about our attitudes to public engagement and science communication and what we, as scientists, are hoping to achieve by doing PE. I don’t have any answers – but it did challenge me to think about WHY and HOW we engage.

In the same session, Peter Morris, from the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust used the expression “brokers of communication”. This was in contrast to the ways in which science communication is often conducted, where we, as scientists, centre ourselves in the conversation, rather than opening a dialogue. It again challenged me to think about how PE is conducted, in a wider sense, in the scientific community.

These thoughts complimented the opening speech by Tim Silman from IPSOS MORI, who talked about a series of studies that showed that public trust of scientists is actually relatively high, certainly when compared to trust for politicians. It seemed to suggest to me that we, as scientists, conservationists and others, have a platform that we’re not taking full advantage of to get our messages across.

I left feeling surprisingly hopeful. The variety of projects and approaches, from the use of art to help people explore their natural environments, to turning the weeds in the cracks of the pavement into a learning experience, left me feeling enthusiastic about the communication that’s going on, and gave me loads of new ideas.

 

Art that inspires and engages

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Joanna Wright is a Visiting Researcher in the Department of Social & Policy Sciences. She received a bursary to attend Communicate 2017, the UK's conference for environmental communicators. Below, she shares her experience of an 'Art Changes People' session given at the conference.

In the whirlwind of lectures, talk, chatter, discussions, seminars at Communicate 2017, the Rainforest Room at Bristol Zoo hollered my senses at a toolbox session on the subject of Art Changes People given by Tim Goodwin of Human Nature and ATM, an artist.

Tim’s core belief is “to make art that inspires and engages people on the environment commonplace and to have a positive impact”. Tim believes that provocative and idea-driven art can transform our relationship with the natural world. Human Nature want to run projects with artists making art in local spaces where everyday people are everyday.

Tim talked about a recent project working with graffiti artist Louis Masai on the project called the Art of Beeing which has highlighted the extinction crisis by putting up murals in major US cities from New York to Phoenix. These large and wildly colourful spray painted walls show a creature on the brink of extinction with text giving information on their present situation.


Some of Louis Masai's art. The text reads: 90% of yellow legged frogs have disappeared with in the last 100 years.

Tim was followed by the artist ATM who paints with brushes onto walls rather than sprays with cans. ATM had a great love of birds and was painting large murals on very public spaces in the UK to highlight habitat loss for many species. ATM did not put any text with his murals and this became a subject of debate by those attending. Some felt that images need text to explain them to the viewer, to make the image more understandable, the reason more coherent. Others, including myself thought that the image was enough. The sheer beauty gave a space in which the public would want to find out more. Does every image have to be explained through a caption card or is it more important to pull the public in and make them think where are all the sparrows?

Tim and ATM want to take these paintings further and put them in places where people go everyday, car parks of shopping malls, retail parks. Art to become the fulcrum for change.

 

From BBC Bristol to the ABC Breakfast in Sydney!

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It has been over a year since we received our seed funding from the Public Engagement (PE) Unit to undertake a community based participatory research project and there is plenty to reflect on as I sit here in Sydney, Australia preparing to present the findings at a conference!

I worked with Caroline Hickman and Sam Carr on a project that aimed to shift perceptions of unaccompanied asylum seeking children in foster care.

From the outset, we understood the term ‘public’ in its widest definition, anybody and everybody outside of academia. We may not have reached everyone just yet but the project certainly engaged with a wide range people! Initially we had very focused discussions and involvement with unaccompanied asylum seeking young people their foster carers and social workers, but this has quickly spread - watch our video about Fostering Hope here.

On the back of being finalists in the NCCPE Engage Awards we have found ourselves engaging with the media and this has allowed us to start a critical dialogue with the public. This has really enabled us to meet the aim of the project, which was to challenge stereotypes and misconceptions around unaccompanied asylum seeking children and to present the day to day reality of their experiences in foster care.

From local to international engagement

With the support of Andy Dunne in the Press Office and the PE Unit we started this media engagement locally on BBC Bristol. However, in the past week I have found myself as far from Bristol as you can get, in Sydney Australia, on the live TV breakfast show on the national news channel ABC. Our local community based project has officially gone global.

The experiences of seven young people from Afghanistan and Albania who live in foster care in Bristol have resonated on the other side of the planet, such is the global impact of forced displacement.

Watch Justin's interview for ABC Weekend Breakfast

In this project, we have been sure to balance research with action, using photography and focus groups we have gathered rich data about the experiences of the young people as well as the perceptions of their foster carers.

Today I'm presenting a keynote presentation drawing on results from the project at the Create Foundation Voices in Action conference. The conference is like no other, with nearly 400 registered delegates, nearly half are children and young people who live in out of home care in Australia. It is a unique opportunity to speak with those at the centre of foster care practice, the children, alongside their carers as well as practitioners, academics and policymakers in the field.

Visiting Bath alumni at Kids Express

The trip has provided opportunities to engage with colleagues working with refugees here in Australia. I have visited the offices of the charity Kids Express, where Bath alumni Dr Ben Rockett is the general manager.  Kids Express provide creative forms of counselling to children and young people across New South Wales, including those in public care as well as those from migrant & refugee communities.

The past week has been a truly amazing experience and I will return to the UK feeling inspired and committed to developing my research in this field to ensure I make a positive impact on the lives of the children and young people who are at the centre of all of this.

Justin in Sydney where he's been sharing experiences of 'Fostering Hope'.

Justin in Sydney where he's been sharing experiences of 'Fostering Hope'.

Dr Justin Rogers is a lecturer in social work within our Department of Social & Policy Sciences.

Small-scale public engagement projects reach conclusion

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Across the 2016-2017 academic year, we have funded 10 small-scale public engagement projects. Read on for links to blogs capturing the progress of these projects. With thanks to Marina Vissaridis for writing the project blogs.

Aimed at supporting those researchers new to, or with little experience of, public engagement, the Public Engagement Unit's seed fund call in autumn 2016 saw 10 public engagement projects funded, a total grant of just under £5000. Grants were awarded to researchers from across the faculties and the School of Management.

The projects span from more traditional public engagement forms - e.g. dialogue events, citizen science and outreach activities - to the more innovative and creative - e.g. eliciting research data through making puppets and making pizza!

You can read short blogs about each of the funded projects here:

Not so wild about seagulls in cities (Caroline Hickman (Social & Policy Sciences))
GameTale 2017 (Daniela De Angeli (Computer Science))
Threshold concepts, social justice & the use of multi-platform storytelling (Dr Matthew Alford (Politics, Languages & International Studies)
Reducing animal use in cancer research (Bailu Xie, Faye Monk, Dr Paul De Bank (Pharmacy & Pharmacology))
Antibiotic resistance: Public engagement & risk assessment (Dr Susanne Gebhard (Biology & Biochemistry)
The human library (Meike Scheller & Tayfyn Essenkaya (Psychology), Daniel Finnegan (Computer Science))
Using food to illuminate the tensions experienced within a community enterprise (Sarah Bloomfield, School of Management)
How animals find medicine in nature: A citizen science display (Dr Nick Priest, Biology & Biochemistry)
Plankton: What lives in a drop of water? (Russell Arnott, Architecture & Civil Engineering)
A tiny solution to a big problem? Public acceptance of using yeast and microalgae to make deforestation-free consumer products (Dr Sophie Parsons, Mechanical Engineering)

 

A tiny solution to a big problem? Public acceptance of using yeast and microalgae to make deforestation-free consumer products

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Dr Sophie Parsons (Mechanical Engineering) was awarded £500 to run a dialogue event on microbial biotechnology.

Sophie used her grant to hold an event at the Watershed in Bristol on 15th June 2017. The event was about microbial biotechnology, in which she began with a 25 minute presentation to give an introduction to the area. This included background on sustainability challenges the technology could contribute towards addressing, along with potential applications, benefits and concerns.

After the presentation, the audience were asked to write down the one or two words that they feel represent her talk on microbial biotechnology, or based on what they already knew about the technology. Most of those words were positive or neutral terminology, such as “green”, “good”, “innovation”, “health benefits”, “low impact”, “ethical”, and “post scarcity”. Some people highlighted negative concerns, such as with the effectiveness of the technology, and the ability to address waste issues and issues with patenting.

The participants were then separated into two groups. There were 13 people altogether, which mostly consisted of students and councillors from the Bristol City Council in the age range of 20-30 years old. The two groups were given post-it notes that contained prompts for positive and negative words within three different product application areas for the technology – food, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals. They were asked to rank the various words relating to these products applications, and they were able to add more positive or negative words if they came up with any of their own.

Overall, the participants associated most of the important positive benefits of the technology with food. These positives included an improvement in food security, a potential reduction in global warming impacts, and a reduction in deforestation and biodiversity loss. The groups all highlighted the cost of using the technology as a key concern for all the product categories. Both cosmetics and pharmaceuticals had important concerns relating to morality and unintended consequences to both people and the environment.

There were many interesting and engaging discussions during the event, and several of the participants were from a biology background so they understood most of the technical aspects relating to genetic modification. If she was to do this event again, Sophie would want to expand into more detail for her introductory presentation due to the audience’s advanced knowledge. Sophie hopes to hold a similar event on a larger scale further into the project, which would be focused on having a larger audience and a wider use of networks (i.e. not just local Bristol).

Contact Sophie (s.c.parsons@bath.ac.uk) for further information about her project.