You’ve probably heard the lament that people are now more removed from nature than they have been at any time in our long history on Earth. This, of course, is a difficult statement to verify, but it certainly is true that increasing proportions of humans are living in urban areas at the same time that more species are either going extinct or coming under threat from a range of factors—many of which can be traced back to people. Recognizing the incredible extent to which humans have impacted the planet, some researchers have even proposed that we call this epoch the ‘Anthropocene’.
Scientists and nature-lovers alike have long worried about the negative effects of humans on wildlife and on the habitats in which they live; you can find centuries-old manuscripts in which some of our earliest naturalists sadly noted the harmful impacts of, for example, overly intensive agricultural practice or hunting activities.
Since that time, scientists and policymakers alike have become increasingly interested in communicating with lay audiences in order to ensure that people know more about the incredible world in which we live; the ways in which our behaviours affect species, habitats, and ecological processes; and the options we have for protecting and preserving nature before it’s too late.
Whether the ultimate goal is to teach someone about an interesting animal behaviour, encourage them to make wildlife-friendly lifestyle changes, or perhaps vote a certain way on an environmental law, the key is connecting people with nature. This can be done in a variety of ways – a topic that was the focus of a symposium at the 5th European Congress of Conservation Biology (also known as ECCB2018), held from June 12th-15th, 2018 in Jyvaskyla Finland.
At ‘Connecting People and Nature: The Importance of Diverse Science Communication’, an international group of communicators shared their experiences with a range of outreach methods. Let’s hear a bit more from each of the contributors, starting with Dr Stephanie Januchowski-Hartley, who talked about how to bridge science and current affairs via an educational Twitter game using the hashtag #damornot:
Dr. Stephanie Januchowski-Hartley—Swansea University
My talk highlighted how I run the weekly game, the types of images that I share on the game, questions that I ask, and also the diverse ways that people engage with the game both on and off Twitter. The goal of #damornot is to raise awareness about the effects of built infrastructure, like dams or roads, on our global aquatic ecosystems, and to also demonstrate the different types of tools, like satellite images, that we as scientists used to ID and map these infrastructures and their effects on aquatic ecosystems. The game is a team effort with many different people contributing stories and images. If you’re interested in learning more, you can check out the hashtag #damornot on Twitter and join in any Tuesday at 2100 British local time.
Stephanie not only spoke at the symposium, but also was of its conveners. Her co-convener was Daniella Rabaiotti, whose presentation explored the role of humour in reaching new audiences:
Daniella Rabaiotti – Institute of Zoology (ZSL) and Centre for Biodiversity and Environmental Research (UCL)
Often in conservation, we’re communicating quite negative news; a recent paper showed just 32% of marine news was positive. And, basically, a lot of the time what we’re saying is that everything is dying, and I’ll be demonstrating this later in my poster, which is about African wild dogs dying. But we also know that negative messaging is not effective for engaging people; in fact, it often puts people off—it makes them feel like everything is hopeless—and this goes across topics, but it’s also been studied in the field of biodiversity. This paper by Sheffner et al. found that communication strategies using positive messages were much more effective in getting people to engage (and also it’s been found to get people to donate, as well), particularly when these things are paired with information and facts and you can make them informative. So, to counter this, E.j. at Oxford, and a few other people, set up Conservation Optimism, and the idea behind this is to get people optimistic about conservation by showing them optimistic news stories and to get rid of that negativity. But I went to the Conservation Optimism Summit and I scored 3 out of 25 on the conservation optimism scale and spent the entire time being told there was no place for me in conservation as a pessimist. So I’m here to tell you, for the conservation pessimists in this room, all is not lost! You can take that cynicism and that sorrow and you can turn it into positive messaging using humour!
If Dani’s name sounds familiar, that’s because she’s a co-author of the recent bestselling book Does it Fart?; her next title, True or Poo is already in the pipeline. As you can tell from those titles, Dani practices what she preaches when it comes to using humour to help people to connect with nature.
Stylistic considerations are also important to Karoliina Isoaho, who described her research on how the method of ‘linguistic nudging’ can impact the ways in which different stakeholders respond when presented with information about ecosystem services:
Karoliina Isoaho—University of Helsinki
In our study, we examined the role of information interventions in communicating about new forest management practices, and we conducted our research in Finland, where, according to previous research, there’s an opinion divide between forest owners and professionals towards practices that are more ecological. We thought this gives an interesting avenue to explore the use of the ‘nudging policy’ instrument, which is a communicational tool where one can use framing methods. Put simply, we created four policy texts that had a different methodological emphasis to describe forest management practices. Some were more biased towards business-as-usual forest management, and the others had a more ecological emphasis. What we found is quite intriguing: The main take-home message is that wording really matters and the linguistic nudge can be a useful communicational tool for policy interventions. But it’s really important that we also found that the stakeholder reaction is complex and it depends on the characteristics of the receiver. So, a one-fits-all strategy is likely not the optimal approach to get the highest acceptability among stakeholders, and it’s important to take this into account when designing informational interventions in the context of environmental policy.
Whereas Karoliina studies foresters, fellow presenter Seppo Leinonen actually was one before pursuing a career as a cartoonist and illustrator. Like Dani, Seppo is a firm believer in the power of humour, and his work shows how valuable it can be to communicate with images as well as words. He said that when people interact with his cartoons, it’s like there’s a little door in their brains that opens up when they laugh, and just before it closes again, some of the scientific information from his illustrations can slip back in and maybe influence their thinking in the future. Seppo also recognized that there are sometimes limits to what an artist can convey to viewers in a single image; for example, whereas he once agreed to make large, busy cartoons full of information about various aspects of an ecosystem, he now shies away from this sort of project because our knowledge has grown so much now that it’s impossible to fit everything in, which means that it’s hard to produce something that isn’t reductionist.
For certain topics, then, it may be better to find an alternative means of communication – science fiction, for example. This is the tactic used by author Alex Martin, who dedicates a portion of the proceeds from his books to science outreach efforts associated with his Experience Daliona initiative:
Alex Martin – Experience Daliona
As you’re doing science communication, you want to tell a story, and, obviously, that’s pretty relevant in science fiction, but there is a role reversal in science fiction as compared to straight up science communication. In science communication, you want to use science to tell a story, but with science fiction, I kind of see it as using sci-fi as a way to integrate scientific concepts in a really simple way that is natural, inside the world of the story, that people can then go on and research more about on their own time if they are intrigued to do so. So, it’s definitely an exploration of science in a very broad context, because you can have this entire world and touch on multiple concepts instead of being restricted to one concept and have to tell a story around that. So, it can be very broad, very shallow, but with the potential to have more educational resources as you go research more of it on your own time.
When audiences have been motivated to go off and investigate scientific concepts in more detail, as Alex hopes they will, it’s important for them to find something informative and useful. That’s where people like Matt Jarvis come in. Matt discussed engaging media for worldwide scientific research:
Matt Jarvis – Journecology
Journecology is an initiative I co-founded with my partner last year. It is exactly what it says–a hybrid of journey and ecology, so basically travel and conservation science—and what it aims to do is feature amazing scientific initiatives and conservation plans from across the world so that 1) they can all be in one place where they can be found and 2) so that the travel community can become interested. This is great for scientific communication because I feel that one of the main things about scicomm is that we target audiences outside of the scientific bubble to become more interested in science. I think the travel community is a great audience to target because they’re open-minded and they’re willing to share things and they’re very visual learners—and our focus is visual content, so through video, film, and photography—and what we aim to do is to make videos, write articles with lots of pictures and make photo galleries about amazing scientific work and then for the travel community to be interested in that. We engaged the travel community through videos on social media across a variety of social media platforms and then hopefully some of those people will then go on to become more interested in science if we share a scientific comment. So where we’re at now: We’ve got a lot of travel content out there, we’re just still building our audience, and at the same time we really want to get involved with scientific researchers, academics from across the world to feature really interesting, cutting-edge scientific research and conservation initiatives that will really grab the attention of the travel community so we can get more people travelling responsibly and also being aware of the amazing science that goes on in these places across the planet. We also really focus on the importance of greenery and urban environments, making cities green; we also feature information videos about certain animals, sometimes endangered animals. It’s really satisfying to see your work going out there and getting people really interested about science and talking about it and people who previously weren’t necessarily interested in it and now, from traveling, they’ve gotten interested in conservation and also in science.
As anyone who does science outreach will tell you, one of the biggest stumbling blocks to engaging audiences is actually coming into contact with them to begin with. Some members of the public, like Matt’s target audience, are adventurous types who are both willing and able to go somewhere to interact with nature. But what about those for whom money, mobility, or other issues may present a barrier? That’s one of the problems that Soapbox Science was created to tackle; it also takes on popular assumptions that scientists are always a) men and b) awkward and unsociable. Isla Watton described the process of taking science to the streets:
Isla Watton – Zoological Society of London
So the way that we do this is that we take active researchers and we put them on soapboxes in the middle of these public spaces and get them to talk to the passing public. And this is a really good way of not only talking to people about your research, but it also kind of smashes stereotypes about what people think a scientist is. Why is the stereotype a problem? Just to give you an example, recently I was chatting to a friend of a friend, and when I said that I worked with scientists at the Institute of Zoology, she turned to me and, really seriously, said, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s amazing, and they must love having you there because none of them will ever have met a woman before!’ Sadly, that kind of stereotype of scientists being a nerd with no social skills is actually still quite widely spread. What we’re trying to do is get away from this [shows slide of a traditional ‘crazy scientist’ from a black-and-white film, with two quotes]. These two quotes are actually from a study done in the 1950’s, where they asked 35 primary school kids to draw kids and then describe them. What’s worrying is that it’s not just the physical side—you know, like a man with a beard—but also the personality, that scientists are unsociable, unattractive, and the most worrying one, I guess, is that they’re selfish and self-centered. This is a problem because diversity enriches science and drives innovation in science and we really want to try to put these scientists in the street to talk to people, to talk to children to make them feel like science is a place where they’re welcome. But, also, a big part of this is that we catch children when they’re with their influencers, so with their parents and with people that might have impact on their career choices and it’s quite surprising how many times we might see a small girl run up to the scientists and be really excited and then a parent will drag her away and say, ‘Oh, that’s science, you won’t like that’. The other thing is that the stereotype isn’t just harmful for the next generation of scientists coming through; it also impacts the way that people perceive the message that scientists try to portray. A lot of people engage with science passively via TV and they think that scientists are bad at communicating because of some distrust of experts, which is a real shame. So how we tried to combat this is to put people on boxes in the streets, and the audience, as you can see, is kind of free to move around. It’s based on, the picture you can see at the top there [shows slide] is Speakers’ Corner at Hyde Park, which in Victorian Britain was a place for debate about equality issues and social issues, and we kind of do the same thing with the science. People can come who didn’t necessarily intend to come to that event that day.
Hopefully, over the last few minutes you’ve found yourself drawn into the individual narratives of each of the symposium presenters as well as the overarching narrative of this entire piece. If so, then you are a living, breathing demonstration of the ideas discussed in the final contribution to the symposium. Dr Caitlin Kight – that’s me – examined the role of storytelling—particularly oral storytelling and narratives embellished by other acoustics that form an all-encompassing soundtrack to the story—in science outreach.
Dr Caitlin Kight – University of Exeter
As a scientist, I studied animal communication, specializing in acoustic communication in particular. I was attracted to this area of study after a remarkable public engagement event at which the pre-eminent ornithologist Don Kroodsma played birdsong recordings at various speeds—a technique that took something familiar and made it brand new and utterly compelling. Having experienced the power of audio personally, I make sure to utilize my own field recordings wherever possible when I design outreach events. I’m also aware of the influence of acoustics more generally; the biology and culture of Homo sapiens are such that we can’t help but notice and pay attention to certain sounds — especially human voices, and, especially, human voices telling stories. This is one of the reasons why podcasts are so successful right now—and I think the current popularity of this mode of communication is something that scientists can take advantage of when trying to disseminate their findings to a new and wider audience.
With any luck, having read the stories shared here, you’ll agree that they can be powerful – and you’ll also concur that fiction, humour, images, videos, carefully crafted conversations, and social media activities (among other things) can all play an important role in helping to connect people with nature.
No matter the form it takes, science communication is a vital part of the research process, now more than ever. Whether you’re a participant or a creator, hopefully, the symposium contributors have inspired you to interact with some of the diverse forms of outreach described here—and to go forth and connect with nature!