I wish I could say the same for a lot of us scientists and science organisations. We try, and we are getting better, but we have some way to go. Science, and my domain, geology, has many exceptionally talented scientists and some great stories to tell, but unless we recognise the need for an equally talented set of storytellers, then our work won’t have the reach and impact we would like it to have across the rest of society.
It’s not that geologists and other -ologists are poor at communicating per se, we are pretty good at talking to our peers. But for too long our dialogues and standard outputs were like a secret code, only accessible to those with at least a degree in the subject. Want proof? Try using a conventional geological map, as colourful and pretty as it is, to identify, in simple language, the rock type under your house and then translate that into something you’d like to know, e.g. should we worry about subsidence?
There’s been a lot of improvement in recent years and products have been developed that don’t require a Masters in geoscience or spatial analysis to tell you that you may have an issue with subsidence, or landslips. Now when you buy a house your solicitor will have ordered a digital report saying whether your house is at risk from hazards like carcinogenic radon gas and what to do about it.
There is so much else we can do and in fields a lot broader and happier than hazard prediction. There is a real appetite within society for knowledge about our landscape, its origins and inhabitants. Look how successful natural history communicators like David Attenborough, Brian Cox and Iain Stewart are. There is a wealth of information available too. But too often it’s locked up in academic recesses and incomprehensible language.
We scientists can’t all be Davids, Brians, and Iains, but we can do better than we do currently. For a start we can ring fence a significant (say 15%) part of every project budget for dissemination and communication. After all it’s probably the public purse that is paying for the research, so shouldn’t the public get to hear the outcomes in plain English? Another worthwhile investment is already underway: training our young scientists to present their research to diverse audiences. Now all we’ve got to do is work on the more senior people who hold more of the key knowledge and the positions.
The Wildlife Trusts are good at communication. But that aspect of their mission faces at least a couple of challenges. One is the increasing number of rapidly emerging complex and contentious issues they will have to take a position on and then convey meaningfully to members, government, industry and the public. Issues like the content of the post-Brexit Environment, Agriculture and Fisheries Bill; nature’s place in a Covid-19 world - lack of funding and pressure on the countryside; the seemingly intractable challenges like raptor persecution, and fly tipping; and last, but far from least, defining a strong but rational and pragmatic stance on climate change and its impacts.
The second challenge is the unprecedented growth in the ways to reach our audiences. Who regarded Facebook as a valid, professional way to reach people 10 years ago? If TikTok survives, should we use it rather than Instagram? Has Twitter and fragmented audiences made conventional print and TV media third rate channels? How can we best use the personalisation and immediacy of digital social media to our advantage? Which digitally native ‘influencers’ do we associate with? What is the next communication breakthrough?
One thing is in our favour, in an increasingly issues-driven world, nature presents us with some crucial issues to convey. But we can’t rest on our laurels and however complex the subject matter and media channels, we have an obligation to think wisely and communicate effectively to everyone.