Public Engagement at Bath

Supporting researchers to engage the public with their research

Posts By: Ed Stevens

We’re not the only ones navigating change …

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Disclosure: Dr Jenny Hatchard is Research Fellow in Public Health Policy in the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath. Jenny’s research, funded by Cancer Research UK, explores how producers of harmful commodities such as alcohol, tobacco and sugary drinks influence public health policy. Jenny has previously worked in sustainable fisheries management research.

I was delighted to be awarded a place at this year’s Communicate. Just like the environmental sector, public health advocates are Navigating Change and the two sectors are closely linked. I frequently long to have the time and space to think about how my environmental and public health research ideas fit together. So thanks for this opportunity to think “aloud”.

Public Health and Change:

Tim Scoones’ opening presentation flagged urbanisation, digitisation and a rising culture of questioning science as three forces for change facing the environmental lobby. These changes are also posing challenges in public health. On urbanisation, more than 50% of the world’s population have been living in towns and cities since 2007 and the World Health Organization point to safe water, sanitation, waste disposal and injury prevention as key factors for urban health. On digitisation, while the potential for digitised healthcare is being explored, risks that this may increase health inequalities and threaten our privacy are also being identified. On questioning science, the work of my research group on tobacco plain packaging confirmed that the tobacco industry’s 20th century practice of commissioning scientists to combat regulation of their products is ever present in the 21st Century. Most recently, independent US scientists have used the global tobacco giant PMI’s own data to show that their new “heat not burn product” is no safer than smoking.

Links between Public Health and Environment:

The recent diesel emissions scandal has led to research which shows that tens of thousands of premature deaths result from diesel-related air pollution every year. This throws into sharp relief the fundamental overlap between public health and environmental concerns and highlights the need to communicate between these two public interest sectors. At the conference, Russ Moody from Public Health England described the One You campaign’s efforts to break out of public health’s echo chamber in order to communicate more effectively with groups in society that would benefit most from health messages. For One You to be successful in achieving one of its objectives – increased physical activity – clean air would be highly advantageous.

Who else is navigating change?

Reflecting on my own research, the conference made me think about who else is navigating change and how they are going about it. One observation I’ve drawn from my current study of networks across public health is that global tobacco and alcohol companies are using sustainability as a positive investment story. Within many companies’ annual reports, there is a striking emphasis on sustainability, environmental impact, community and social responsibility. At the same time, global accountancy firms are promoting the UN Sustainable Development Goals, sustainability reporting and best practice. And supposedly public interest foundations are becoming a standard tool in corporations’ social responsibility toolbox. In a world where ethical investments are growing in popularity, this is not a surprising development. However, the tobacco and alcohol sectors are responsible for over 7 million and over 3 million premature deaths respectively worldwide every year. It is important not to lose sight of this in the midst of their tide of apparently “good” news stories about environmental and social responsibility.

Navigating change together:

With this issue held firmly in mind, the conference confirmed for me that there is an opportunity for public health and environmental researchers, advocates and policymakers to help each other navigate the changing corporate world around us. In particular, we need to be sceptical and critical when private interests borrow public interest language and ideas (such as evidence and sustainability). And we must also remember how companies whose products damage health and the environment have questioned and undermined the science base in order to avoid regulation. The fact that industries which threaten health and environment have been shown to work together to achieve this in the past adds an urgency to this agenda and should encourage us to communicate our knowledge of corporate practice beyond our own echo chambers.

 

Fake news and alternative facts

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Tess Legg is a postgraduate researcher in the Department for Health. She received a bursary to attend Communicate 2017, the UK's conference for environmental communicators. Below, she reflects on a panel discussion at the conference entitled 'Fake news and alternative facts: making the case for nature'.

The 2017 Communicate conference, ‘Navigating Change’ was a great couple of days. I really valued meeting and talking with people outside of academia, and hearing about people’s experiences of communicating environmental messages. On day two I particularly welcomed the discussion on ‘Fake news and alternative facts: making the case for nature’, where a panel (Steve Lewandowsky – University of Bristol, Adam Joinson - University of Bath, Dan Metcalfe – Wellcome Trust, Amy Mount – Greener UK) got together to discuss this post-truth era in which we find ourselves.

Speakers outlined ways in which misinformation (around environmental and non-environmental issues alike) is often disseminated through media channels. It was argued that media landscapes are becoming ever more riddled with misinformation, presented as balanced views. This makes it challenging for the public, and other interested stakeholders, to differentiate between something communicated as an attempt to push hidden agendas, and something communicated as a genuine attempt to contribute to shared knowledge.

Speakers on the panel outlined certain barriers that can inhibit the ability of those working on environmental and other issues to communicate their messages clearly, without obfuscation from others. These included social media issues such as Twitterbots, and fake grassroots accounts on Facebook, created to cause friction between different pockets of society.

As environmental communicators it is important to look at exactly what evidence is being disseminated, and by whom. And as both Steve and Adam outlined during the panel discussion, once misinformation has been taken into public consciousness, it can be difficult and complex to reduce its impact or to reverse or update public opinion (Cook and Lewandowsky, 2015).

When considering the ways in which multi-national corporations attempt to influence public opinion and policymaking, rhetoric from big business - which can seriously threaten environmental concerns – also feeds into public consciousness through means other than social media. One of the most well-known incidents of ways in which corporations have attempted to affect public opinion in order to prevent policymaking, is the fossil fuels industry’s denial of climate change (Oreskes and Conway, 2010). This has consisted of many different tactics designed to create scientific uncertainty, such as funding research and ensuring that results are favourable to industry, disseminating research indirectly through front groups to increase its perceived credibility, co-opting experts to communicate industry-friendly rhetoric, and attacking unfavourable research created by environmental scientists (and often the scientists themselves) (ibid).

Similar tactics to influence science have been uncovered within other industries that affect the environment. One example is the copper and gold mining companies attempting to obscure environmental damage caused by mining practices, by producing research that denies any harm is being done (Kirsch, 2014). Another is the cover-up of evidence concerning the potential of pesticide ‘Round Up’ to harm populations and environments, by agro-chemical company Monsanto (Gillam, 2017).

I am interested in these (and other) ways in which corporations contribute to a post-truth world through their attempts to influence science. My PhD research is about corporate influence on science and the use of science in policymaking, across different sectors (such as alcohol, fast food, tobacco, and industries contributing to pollution and climate change). I am particularly interested in conflicts of interest in research and how different groups understand them.

From this conference panel on post-truth, I came away feeling that it is really important to keep questioning what constitutes good scientific evidence, and who can be trusted to provide this. On day one of the conference, Tim Silman from Ipsos MORI showed us figures illustrating public trust in different professions. Scientists came out on top, with 80% of the public trusting them (journalists 24% and politicians only 15%).

Though this appears to be good news for science, it also means that for those attempting to co-opt experts, in order to disseminate pro-industry rhetoric around environmental issues, things perhaps become easier, as their messages may seem more trustworthy. I believe it to be critically important, now more than ever, that we view science (and the news articles and social media posts this science becomes) through a critical eye; always asking questions such as who has funded this research, and for what purpose.

Thank you so much all organisers behind Communicate 2017 for a thought-provoking conference, I look forward to more next year!

• Cook, J. and Lewandowsky, S. (2015) The Debunking Handbook. https://skepticalscience.com/docs/Debunking_Handbook.pdf
• Gillam C. (2017) Whitewash: the story of a weed killer, cancer and the corruption of science. Washington, DC: Island Press.
• Kirsch, S. (2014) Mining Capitalism. The Relationship between Corporations and their Critics. Oakland, California: University of California Press
• Oreskes, N. and Conway, E. (2010) Merchants of Doubt. London. Bloomsbury Press; 2010.

 

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

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Fiona Gleed is a postgraduate researcher in Civil Engineering. She received a bursary to attend Communicate 2017, the UK's conference for environmental communicators. Below, she shares her reflections on the conference and of some of the workshops that he attended.

Five years ago, I did something crazy... A colleague in the Civil Engineering cluster at UWE had been approached by Dr. Helen Featherstone, then with the Science Communication Unit, to submit a bid to the Royal Academy of Engineering Ingenious grant scheme but wasn’t sure she had the time so passed my name on instead. It turned in to an amazing experience, including presenting in the Royal Institution's lecture theatre!

After the adventure, the central pole of the crocheted canopy was returned to its mundane life as a washing line prop and I returned to an annual cycle of classroom teaching and curriculum review. But participating in public engagement had made me realise that there was more beyond the walls; more to learn and more to share. And so, I took another crazy step; returning from teaching to learning to make good on previous missed opportunities and start a PhD, investigating flood resilience of masonry walls.

Flood resilience can be addressed at multiple scales, from global co-operation to address climate change right down to nano-coatings that reduce water absorption of construction materials. Many of the most immediate gains are in property level flood resilience; the construction or adaptation of buildings to reduce the volume of water reaching habitable areas and make it easier to clean up any water that does get in. And to make that happen, you need to engage with people helping them understand the risk to their property, explaining the technologies available, and encouraging proactive steps to minimise future flood damage. So when I saw a call for postgraduates to apply for funding to attend the Communicate 2017: Navigating Change conference, I jumped at the chance.

The conference was over two days at Bristol Zoo, with a packed schedule that saw delegates dashing across the zoo between the Education Centre and the Pavilion for their personal pick of plenaries and toolbox talks. After the Opening Briefing had set the scene, of a public broadly convinced that climate is changing but still expecting engineers and researchers at Universities to fix the problem for them, I chose to Explore Echo Chambers. This considered both current and target groups, with an exploration of how putting the audience first and the message second could make communication more effective.


Stag beetle sculpture at Bristol Zoo

I had already found one opportunity to break out of the engineering echo-chamber, presenting a paper at the Academic Archers conference looking at how Ambridge residents could develop their resilience to future flooding, which has now been published as a chapter in the book Custard, Culverts and Cake, edited by Cara Courage and Nicola Headlam. This formed the basis of a poster for the Communicate 2017, prompting several interesting discussions about story lines and the potential for fiction to communicate truth in an era of fake news. And the book was also to form the basis for an interview with Steve Yabsley on BBC Radio Bristol, which made "Meeting – and Surviving – the Media" a clear choice for the Toolbox session after lunch! I had hoped to gain a few notes to ponder but the imminent interview meant I was selected as the guinea pig and had a chance to practice. This gave me useful feedback on presentation but also some suggestions of additional facts to have ready for a local audience.

And so on to Policy and Strategy, with an overview of the Natural Capital Committee’s input to DEFRA’s 25 year environmental plan, as yet unpublished. By “The Swap” at the end of day 1, I had a long list of queries and hashtags to follow up – but not before a drink and networking dinner.

Day 2 was similarly packed; an Introduction to Generation Z, an exploration of Fake News, the changing face of Green Space and Tools for Behaviour Change – all interesting, all informative and all helpful for future engagement on Flood Resilience and Civil Engineering in general.

And did I survive the radio interview? Well it was still nerve racking but I was extremely grateful for the experience of the Communicate conference. Not only had it helped me prepare myself and my message, but it also gave me a broader context to respond to some unexpected questions.


Creative support for branching out at Bristol Zoo

Thank you to the Bristol Natural History Consortium, the Public Engagement unit, the speakers and all the delegates for taking me out my comfort zone and showing me creativity isn’t crazy - it’s the only sensible way to navigate change.

 

Learning how to communicate at Communicate 2017

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Russell Arnott is a postgraduate researcher in the Research Unit for Water, Environment & Infrastructure Resilience (WEIR). He received a bursary to attend Communicate 2017, the UK's conference for environmental communicators. Below, he shares his reflections on the conference and of some of the workshops that he attended.

I first became aware of Bristol Natural History Consortium through Viewpoints; a series of talks and networking events aimed at bringing together anyone with an interest in the River Avon. The Viewpoints sessions ran in the build up to the Festival of Nature and as the newly appointed Outreach Officer for WEIR, I felt it was important that we had a presence. After all, as the Water Environment and Infrastructure Resilience unit, it would be a shame if a research unit with such an appropriate acronym weren’t involved.

While WEIR was unavailable to take part in the Bath component of the Festival of Nature this year, I was still keen to get to know other environmental outreach practitioners in the area with a view to collaborate with / learn from them in order to better the outreach provision provided by WEIR.

I felt very lucky to be awarded a grant to attend BNHC’s Communicate conference which brought together people from a broad range of sectors to discuss how best to disseminate environmental information to different demographic groups. While most academic conferences have a tendency to be very niche, Communicate opened me up to different ways of thinking about issues I had never really even contemplated.

Hosted in Bristol Zoo’s ornate Clifton Pavilion, Communicate opened with a thoughtful report by Tim Silman from Ipsos Mori discussing the environmental views of the UK population; worryingly, only 60% people now claim to be concerned with climate change compared to 82% in 2005.

Often spoilt for choice, a number of overlapping sessions then took place throughout the day; I opted for “Outrage, Optimism and Curiosity” which focussed upon various campaigns to engage people by comparing language use and approach. Having worked in environmental campaigning in the past, it was interesting to find that the simple phraseology of slogan can have a profound effect on campaign engagement. Furthermore, environmentalists are too quick to point the finger of blame which acts as a barrier to positive behavioural change. Similarly, the environmental movement can be detrimentally pessimistic often resulting in inactivity as people think “what can I do…?”. As such, Richard Young, Head of Conservation Science at Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, suggested adopting an approach of conservation optimism where success stories are publicised; an approach particularly important when engaging with informed audiences.

After an informative Toolbox talk on using social media effectively (particularly useful for a technophobe like me!), we were treated to a showcase of nature-themed murals around the world presented by Tim Godwin of Human Nature and artist, ATM. While it can be difficult to get those living in urban environments to appreciate the natural world, Human Nature brings nature to the urban environment by collaborating with artists, councils and communities to produce giant paintings of carefully chosen native species.

The networking evening was a fun affair, particularly when Simon Garrett treated the last remaining hangers-on to an impromptu night time tour of the zoo. This included a visit to the zoo’s infamous “Cupboard of Death”; a repository of animal artefacts ceased from customs at Bristol airport over the years.

Day 2 began with an informative and insightful talk from Naomi Sesay, Head of Youth Engagement at The Media Trust. The talk discussed the attitudes of Millennials and Generation Z with a focus on how these demographics engage with different aspects of social media. Equal parts fascinating and terrifying!

After a couple of workshops focussing on tools to change behaviours and an obligatory wander around the zoo, the second day wrapped up with another small networking (drinking) session allowing us all to discuss what we had gained over the course of the conference.

It’s not often that a situation arises where so many people from such a range of backgrounds would be in the same room at the same time but Communicate provided that opportunity and did it well. Environmental campaigners, conservationists, academic researchers, media gurus, TV producers… all sharing best practice to affect meaningful change in the hope of making our planet a better place. Very much looking forward to next year.

 

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.

 

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.

 

Using food to illuminate the tensions experienced within a community enterprise

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Sarah Bloomfield (School of Management) was awarded £500 to trial a creative research method technique - a pizza-making workshop designed to elicit participants' reflections on a ‘community’ village shop versus a ‘commercial’ village shop.

Sarah’s research is looking at ‘hybrid organisations’, i.e. organisations that try and do more than one thing at once. A social enterprise, like the Big Issue, is an example of a hybrid organisation, as it tries to achieve social good through commercial means. Sarah was keen to use creative techniques to further understand how people are feeling rather than relying on common research methods such as interviews. She knows the people who run the village shop and café in her local community area, so she decided to place her experiment there.

In this pilot project, Sarah worked with the staff and ten local volunteers to create pizzas and talk about them. She gave them pizza bases and asked them to use toppings to produce two pizzas: one that they felt represented a ‘community’ village shop and one that represented a ‘commercial’ village shop. The idea was to generate a reflective space and use the pizzas as a way of increasing engagement and talking about issues. The data collected was taken from the volunteers’ explanations of their creations that indirectly showed their emotions towards the two enterprises and the discussions around them. Some words that arose included: “exciting”, “care”, “mundane”, and “boring”.


One of the pizzas created at Sarah's workshop

Sarah was initially unsure about whether the method would work, but she feels that pizza worked well in this context and it made her feel more comfortable being involved in the research setting. The workshop taught her a lot about using creative techniques, combining them with more traditional techniques, and the importance of matching research questions to techniques. Sarah has now run the workshop twice in two different contexts and it has been requested for a third time due to its success.

Her original plan was to do a theatre workshop. Sarah’s aim was to generate data from actors’ portrayal of participants’ stories. However, she found that it would be too expensive to pay for the actors’ time, so she decided on the pizza workshop instead. This was because she felt it would allow her to generate emotional data, and it was inclusive (all participants were over 50 years old).

She has presented talks on her project at conferences with a focus on her use of creative techniques as a research method. These have taken place for the academic audiences at the School of Management PhD conference at the University of Bath, as well as a conference in Spain which was funded by Erasmus+ where they were trial running a new Masters course around how creative arts based methods can be used for gathering empirical material.

Contact Sarah (s.bloomfield@bath.ac.uk) for further information about her project.

 

Plankton: What lives in a drop of water?

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Russell Arnott (Architecture & Civil Engineering) was awarded £461.48 to develop school-based public engagement activities and to support members of the Water, Environment & Infrastructure Resilience (WEIR) centre to develop their public engagement skills.

Russell is a postgraduate researcher in the Water, Environment and Infrastructure Resilience (WEIR) research centre. The centre studies water in all its capacities and it has grown a considerable amount in numbers since it started in 2013. They have coastal engineers studying how to protect our coasts; limnologists trying to make our reservoirs cleaner; computer modellers trying to understand how floods occur; and microbiologists studying the diseases found in water.

The project was designed to get people thinking about the importance of water and the processing that goes on in order for us to be able to turn on tap and drink the water. Clean water is something we take for granted in the UK so it’s important to be aware that almost half of the world’s population doesn’t share that luxury.

For the project, Russell gathered seven colleagues from WEIR to raise their confidence and aspirations when engaging different audiences with their research. They took part in a seminar where Russell, who used to be a teacher, coached them through the language and approaches they should use when talking to non-specialists. They all had to present their research to a class of children using only one slide and then answer questions. He trialled some activities and the presentations with them and offered constructive feedback. The aim of the event was to raise awareness about the importance of water; to increase researchers’ confidence when engaging with non-specialists; and to help children realise that science isn’t done by white men in lab coats (most of the researchers that took part were female).

The team also went to schools to teach the children about the importance of water quality by carrying out activities with them, including identifying animals from dirty pond water and learning how to filter dirty water. The children were given muddy water that they mixed in with other substances, such as glitter, to represent diseases and other contamination. At the end, the water was filtered and the solids were recovered and put in the bin. Russell found it a fun experience to be teaching again, and everyone from the department was grateful for the opportunity and found it helpful to gain experience in talking to non-academics. Russell enjoyed seeing his colleagues, who were initially nervous about going to the schools due to their lack of experience with children, relax into it and interact with them.

Initially, it was challenging for Russell to find a way to co-ordinate people because there are a lot of people in WEIR and he wanted to give them all equal opportunity to take part. Although Russell feels that the activities were only loosely related to his research-themes, they were important because they resulted in members of WEIR being more able to communicate ideas effectively to a non-academic audience. To encourage people to do public engagement, having someone within the department to mobilise, support and coordinate it is key.

Originally, the group were going to attend the NCCPE conference in Bristol, but unfortunately they were unable to attend it due to timings. However, they held a public engagement talk about their research at the Bath Taps in Science event this year, which Andrew Ross helped them to organise. Russell thinks it is very important to have a culture of public engagement. He believes that if you are an academic, you should incorporate public engagement in research, as it’s hugely useful and valuable.

Contact Russell (r.n.arnott@bath.ac.uk) for further information about his project.