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.