Curiosity continues to rock on Mars

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NASA might be having a rain-check on its outreach activities, but that’s not why Curiosity has gone silent the last few days. Every once in a while an event known as the Mars Solar Conjunction places Mars’ orbit directly behind the sun with respect to Earth, and makes communications impossible. Transmissions have ceased until May 1st, when the red planet will pop back into digital sight. Until then, Curiosity is working on the ‘B-side’ (like the cool side of the pillow) of its systems and operating autonomously.

In the mean time, I’ve been fortunate enough to be at the MSL (Mars Science Laboratory) Press Conference here in Vienna, with the latest from the little (1 tonne) science-savvy robot. During the current down time, it’s a chance for the teams to begin to really process the data and get the science out there (see here for where Curiosity has got to so far). This is a snippet of what to expect in forthcoming publications.

Panel at the Press Conference: (from left to right) John Grotzinger, Sylvestre Maurice, Sushil Atreya, Javier Gomez-Elvira, and Igor Mitrofanov (click for larger)

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Plan of action!

Crikey, it’s been 3 months already?! *panics* At Imperial College, new PhD students have to produce an initial plan of study within the first three months of setting off, and submit it for independent assessment. Having uploaded mine just now (not in the slightest bit late..), I figured I’d share it here! It’s a broad outline of what I’m aiming to do for the next wad of months – any comments or feedback will be massively appreciated!

Proposed title of thesis: Diversity crash at the Jurassic/Cretaceous boundary: a forgotten mass extinction?

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The crux of the matter – language, context, and narrative

Throughout this series, I have highlighted the pitfalls and issues associated with effective communication of scientific knowledge to and with the public. This has largely been fueled by a recent paper highlighting these points as stepping stones and hurdles which scientists face and can develop upon to create strategies for becoming better at public communication. However, I’ve yet to offer any kind of solution.

Yesterday, I wrote briefly about the way in which geoscientists can use different plots to help them reconstruct scientific information into a digestible narrative format, taking on the style of a refashioned ‘story’. Continuing to draw upon the analysis by Iain Stewart and Ted Nield, this post will focus on how developing a narrative and particular language can help researchers to ‘talk geoscience’ in a more engaging manner.

To reiterate the actual issue, I’m going to steal a quote from the Stewart and Nield paper citing the geoscientist and science writer Rex Buchanan (it’s like he was made to be a geoscientist with a name like that..):

“We do a mediocre job of helping adults to learn about and appreciate science. Many of the science stories that I read in newspapers or try to watch on television aren’t very engaging. Some are too long, and many seem irrelevant. Popular science often seems like castor oil – some we should take because it’s good for us, not because we want too” (2005)

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The role of TV in geoscience communication

This is now the fifth part in a series exploring the public communication of geoscience, this time focusing on the role that television can play as a communication medium. It is based on, and a development of the ideas conveyed within a paper by Iain Stewart, no stranger to TV himself, and Ted Nield, a writer of popular geoscientific novels and Editor of Geoscientist magazine published by the Geological Society.

The four previous posts, in order, are:

1. Why bother with communication?
2. What do the public already know about geoscience?
3. Who are this ‘public’ we are aiming to communicate with?
4. What is the role of the mass media and newspapers in communication?

Without a doubt, television is a powerful communication tool. I imagine everyone reading this at least owns a TV, and watches a variety of shows of their liking (depending who has power of remote contol). As such, it is, or has the potential to be a powerful national communication tool, especially within the scientific domain.

I’m a palaeontologist, so am going to include Stewart and Nield’s quite relevant case study. In 2007, a hundred prospective students to the University of Glasgow were asked several questions along the lines of ‘who digs dinosaurs?’ (not like that), ‘what does a palaeontologist do?’, and ‘what does an archaeologist do?’. The results of the first of these are shown below.

Tut (click for larger; copyright: Stewart and Nield 2012)

Firstly, I’m surprised by the small proportion of those who answered ‘Ross’ (the palaeontologist character from Friends), seeing as that’s already my nickname among the new geology undergraduates at Imperial College who I demonstrate to. Secondly, it’s quite disturbing that many students seem unable to distinguish between palaeontologists and archaeologists, albeit not that all palaeontologists actually dig dinosaurs (in fact, many I know have a distinct dislike for them). This is actually quite counter-intuitive, as given the wealth of dinosaur-related films out there, and them being the focus of many Earth science based documentaries, you’d think the distinction would be far more apparent. Apparently not. In fact, speaking with no statistics to back this statement up but based on a general feel of the field, vertebrate palaeontologists, and specifically those that work on dinosaurs, appear to be pretty decent at public engagement with the field relative to other geoscientific disciplines, so you’d think people would actually know what they do. This result above is confounded when 83% of respondents to the second question answered yes, and 100% to the third question answering yes. Clearly this is not a valid representation of the entire public domain, but does raise the interesting question of why, despite the claim for distinction, there is a blurry perception of the two reasonably distinct fields.

While it is possible this conflation is simply due to the difficulty in pulling apart two groups who ‘dig up the past’, the study in which this survey was published suggests that the result may largely be due to where the public receive their information from. A previous survey of the public perception of archaeology revealed that over half of the respondents got their archaeological knowledge from TV (Tony Robinson?), but less than quarter used written media (including newspapers, magazines and books) for such a purpose.

The world’s most famous archaeologist?

This pattern is reflected in knowledge acquisition regarding the entire domain of science and technology, according to a survey by National Science Foundation (2008). 40% of adults from the US and Europe get their general S&T information from TV, with 28% using the internet, whereas for specific scientific issues, only 21% use TV, and a mighty 54% use the internet, with the rest taken up by radio, newspapers, magazines and friends, family and colleagues. In terms of trends, for general S&T this figure has remained roughly constant in the period from 2001-2008 (for TV), but has more than doubled over this same period for specific science issues, with internet continuously dominating the second category.

The UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) conducted a survey in 2011, revealing that 54% of people obtain scientific information through TV, 32% through newspapers (I wonder how much of this is down to The Metro..), only 19% through the internet. There is also the slightly thought-provoking statistic that only 2% of the UK public use science blogs specifically as one of their most regular sources – the reasons for this could do with further exploration by someone far more qualified than myself). The overall trend is that the general consumption of scientific knowledge is through popular and mainstream television programmes, and for specific issues people turn to the internet, somewhat unsurprisingly.

There are two main categories of programme that geoscientific information can be consumed from – the news, and the, er, non-news. News, by it’s very nature, is rapid, topical, and reactionary. Non-news items, such as documentaries, are more passive in nature, more structured, and designed to inform about specific fields of science or technology, instead of singular occurrences  This makes the two intrinsically different modes of communication, both with different audiences, reflected by a dichotomous information content.

Documentaries offer more time for creation, due to their non-reactionary nature, and actually afford good opportunities for the development of working relationships between those in the media and those within the associated scientific area. Both can gain a reciprocal appreciation of operational criteria, agendas, and demands on each in terms of knowledge communication.Note that TV is predominantly a one-way communication tool, not affording the luxury of open communication that blogging and direct contact can bring, distancing itself from forms of digital and direct engagement.

BBC science coverage (news and non-news) to scientific output on the Web of Science for various topics. The height of the bars, and the figures above them, are proportions of each of the topics. Source: BBC Trust (2011). (click for larger)

In the grand scheme of science coverage, and specifically in terms of output from the BBC, geology actually fares pretty poorly. In both news and non-news coverage, geology can only be credited with an average of 3% of total scientific output when ranked against the other sciences, falling well short of molecular and medical science, biology, chemistry and physics. This is quite counter to the statistics for newspapers, in which (in 2011), geoscience-based stories were covered more than both physics and chemistry combined, and more than biology. Why this discrepancy exists is unknown, but it may be perhaps due to the ‘lab invasion’ that occurs with media presence, and the disruption that camera and lighting crews, scripts, and phone calls brings to lab life, something that perhaps geologists more than other scientists dislike. Perhaps geoscience is not seen as glamorous enough for television relative to the other sciences, or perhaps there is a general lack of understanding within the geoscientific community about how to engage with the TV media and the protocols within which it operates.

The solution, according to Stewart and Nield, is that geoscientists need to gain more of an appreciation of how the broadcast media works, and for geoscientists to be more targeting in what they want from programmes. My suggestion, as well as this, would be for geoscientists to develop more along other strands of communication such as podcasting and blogging, which may currently have a smaller target audience but can be highly effective modes of communication. The remarkably small proportion of public consumption of scientific knowledge from science blogs shows that there is most certainly room for improvement in the realm of digital communications.

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Who the devil are this ‘public’ everyone keeps rambling on about?

The last two posts in this series, based on a recent paper by Ted Nield and Iain Stewart, addressed the issues of why should scientists bother communicating, and what do people in general already know about science, and geoscience in particular. Oddly, these are the most fundamental questions when it comes to science communication, but often can be the most difficult to answer. They either require a degree of personal subjectivity, or data that can be extremely difficult to obtain and measure in any meaningful way.

Throughout any discussion of science communication, the ‘engagees’ are typically referred to as ‘the general public’, and on a more specific level, public stakeholders – those who require or will use in some way the information being conveyed to them. Scientists are probably best at communicating between other branches of scientist, be they in academia, industry, government, or elsewhere. I guess this is due to the inherent fact that there will more often be a commonality of both understanding and interest, within fields, that may not be as highly replicated outside of these spheres.

But what about non-scientists in business and government? There can’t always be a geoscientist in these where one may be only briefly required. So how do you communicate with these sectors, where the challenge will often be to communicate potentially complex issues, as Stewart and Nield say, within the ‘vexing’ (great word) framework of institutional structures, decision-making, and often completely overwhelming and equally-complicated jargon of ‘policy speak’. Often, I don’t think this is as bad as is made out to be, but certainly sometimes it seems that actual substance and content can get lost among inane ramblings and meaningless buzzwords. Increasing the interaction between these spheres for greater mutual understanding is very much an on-going issue. Similar issues are encountered when transcending from science to planning documents, the “associated lexicon of the regulatory framework”, the educational system, and well, actually, thinking about it, anything that isn’t formally classified as ‘science’. Which actually raises the point that perhaps it’s science which needs to change the way in which it internally communicates, before scientists can be readily equipped to begin interacting with the various public domains.

Nothing better than a good ol’ fashioned rock festival.

With so many different levels of complexity to potentially communicate to and through, is it therefore any surprise why some scientists avoid public communication like the plague, or defer it to the media and journalists? What about these less-specific domains of the public. Go beyond jobs and background, and instead you find that there are equally disparate groups based on their actual interest in science. One commonly used sub-division, albeit a crudely defined one,  is that of the ‘attentive public’, the ‘interested public’, and the ‘residual public’; the latter of these is an utterly thankless name, given the negative connotations associated with ‘residual’, as almost left overs.

Say hello to ‘the public’! Now, categorise them..

The first of these sub-categories comprises 10-20% of the whole. Stewart and Nield highlight several social traits associated with people within this, including university-training, generally being younger, those who are interested in the news, read popular science or general science articles and magazines, attend museums and seek out information in general. Seeing as you’re currently reading a science blog (or at least what masquerades as one), that probably includes you. I do think this is a little unfair, as you don’t really have to be interested in science to do all of these things, and you could be interested in science but not actually do all or any of these. I think what it bores down to is awareness, or at least a desire to be aware of how the world around you works. But you can quite comfortably do this sitting in a park and using your brain.

The majority form the ‘interested public, some 40-50%. These are usually older, more distant from science (if you haven’t done a science degree, then chances are you won’t have had any scientific training since 18 or younger), watch scientific documentaries, and maintain an interest in science stories in the news. However, they will generally be largely uninformed (not ignorant, as many would put it, infuriatingly) about particular topics they maintain an interest in.

The ‘residual public’, or non-attentive, or crudely put, “scientifically illiterate” (something that I would never ever say to anyone, or even think about calling someone – not sure why Stewart and Nield put that in here) public who neither acknowledge nor have an interest in science, for any number of reasons.

What is significant, is that each of these broad, and not necessarily independent publics (probably better to think about the ‘general public’ as continuous data, with sliding scales defining these sub-categories depending on which parameters of ‘scientific-attentiveness’ you apply) requires a different mode of engagement. I think one difficulty with this is that you’ll never know who you’re really targeting. At a science museum, there is no guarantee that you’ll be communicating solely to members of the ‘attentive public’, so a degree of diversity and flexibility should be maintained. I guess the same thing applies to blogging, especially as every hit on here will be from an invisible member of the internet. So while focus can engage with a specific audience, you never know that it’s them you’ll be reaching, and flexibility and diversity can help maintain interaction with multiple audiences.

Nield and Stewart describe an initially disheartening issue, but then a comforting solution to approaching it. According to a previous study, the majority group, the ‘interested public’ are unlikely to pass a relatively minimal test of scientific literacy. This makes the information needs of this group particularly complicated, but suggestions that communication with this group should be non-technical and pictorial, generally speaking. They also conclude, worryingly, that there is no current consensus about how to interact with the ‘non-attentive public’. Seeing as they currently comprise, according to the above stats, anything from 30-50% of the general public, I’d propose that trying to figure out methods of interacting with this putative subset be made a priority for social scientists (and maybe a natural scientist or two), if not already.

Some people might just be a little bit beyond help, no matter how much science you throw at them.

So if we take this, and try and reconcile it with the notion of public stakeholder groups, it becomes a strategic nightmare. People don’t walk around with these labels attached to their heads. In the policy domain, it is traditionally accepted (but not necessarily practiced) that scientific expertise should be more strongly accepted over public opinion, although not at the compromise of democracy. It is actually sometimes the case that the two are still raucously opposed, such that policy can become a public relations battle, instead of an evidence-informed process. Take the case of fracking for example, both in the UK and USA.

When professional scientific advice clash with various rhetorics and public perceptions based on popular science culture or misinformation, or less rigorous information, it can be difficult to establish a method of communicating a particular message to a particular target – everything gets caught up in the spider’s web. The focus and context changes. Instead of trying to convey a message about a specific aspect of science, it becomes about engaging with this public baseline, albeit a potentially messy one, based on prior knowledge, social norms, beliefs, ethical standards, motivation, and interest in actually listening. Scientific knowledge is cultural, in this sense, and requires an approach that accepts, reflects, and understands that.

I’ll finish with what I think is the most important message from Stewart and Nield (who, now that I’ve met both of btw, can confirm are both totally awesome dudes).

Public understanding of science becomes a long game in which we engage the public in a discussion about what interests them. That discussion is a dialogue, not a monologue. It is less about providing information and about providing context …. One way to frame [geological] information in more familiar ways is consider not what the public needs to know about geology, but what the public wants to know.

While I think there are some things the public need to know about geology (how natural hazards work, how it records climate change and the record of the history of the planet – nothing big), the big message is about having a discussion with people. This is easy in the times of the internet, and even easier in person still. Test, learn, adapt – I think that’s how randomly controlled trials operate, but the same principles apply when it comes to direct or indirect science communication. Don’t talk at people, talk with them.

Next time, probably something about the news and media.