In a recent book review for JCOM, I outlined a few of the ethical, social and legal issues that make synthetic biology a potentially fascinating topic from a public engagement perspective. ‘Synthetic Biology Analysed’ (Englehard, 2016) draws together contributions from experts in ethics, law, risk analysis and sociology. In doing so, it provides a fairly accessible discussion of the nature of synthetic biology – what the field encompasses and how we might think about different types of synthetic biology (from those that are essentially developments of genetic engineering to approaches that incorporate non-naturally occurring nucleotides (components of DNA)). These raise different challenges when it comes to assessing risk, for example to the environment, posed by these developments.
Shortly after reading Englehard’s (2016) book, I had the opportunity to explore synthetic biology further, through a participatory theatre project – Invincible – initiated by the University of Bristol’s SynBio group and produced by Kilter theatre company. Both Englehard’s book and ‘Invincible’ the theatre production point to a need for public engagement in this area.
Speaking to the members of the Invincible production team, I learned much about the process of developing this work and the learning curve that had to be climbed in order to understand the research. Kilter were also keen to address other STEM issues, such as presenting women as scientists to counter gender stereotypes.
One aspect of the performance I found particularly refreshing was the way that actual researchers were included. They may not have had ‘acting’ roles, but they were present throughout and engaged in discussion with the audience at the end of the performance (when their presence was revealed). Their inclusion, and the setting of the performances in a flat both worked to highlight the pervasiveness of science in our lives.
In a chapter focusing specifically on public engagement in Synthetic Biology Analysed, Pardo and Hagen point out the low salience of synthetic biology with the public. While this is not uncommon, with many scientific topics taking place silently and behind closed doors, the potential impacts (social and environmental) of synthetic biology highlighted in Englehard’s book suggest it is time for a public discussion. It is nice to see that University of Bristol’s SynBio group are beginning to hold this conversation.
ENGELHARD, M. ED. (2016). SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY ANALYSED: TOOLS FOR DISCUSSION AND EVALUATION. SPRINGER INTERNATIONAL.
Since May 2016, the Science Communication Unit has been involved with a four year, Europe-wide research project ClairCity. Laura Fogg Rogers, Margarida Sardo and Corra Boushel are all staff members on the project, leading the communication, dissemination and evaluation. Working on large-scale international projects requires a slightly different set of sci-comm skills to local or national projects. ClairCity is specifically about air pollution in cities, so communication is also affected by the fact that the team are working on issues that affect the public and their health every day.
ClairCity is an innovative air quality project involving citizens and local authorities in six countries around Europe. There are sixteen partner organisations involved in the project, which is funded by the EU Horizon 2020 fund. The project activities are geographically focused in six areas – two regions and four cities. These are: Amsterdam in the Netherlands; Bristol in the UK; Ljubljana in Slovenia; Sosnowiec in Poland; the Aveiro region in Portugal and the Liguria region around Genoa in Italy. The project aims to model citizens’ behaviour and activities to enrich public engagement with city, national and EU policy making about air quality and health. The resulting policy scenarios will allow cities to work towards improved air quality, reduced carbon emissions, improved public health outcomes and greater citizen awareness.
Each city or region is hosting a series of events and special activities to engage citizens in the ClairCity process and with the issues of air pollution and public health. The range of activities is designed to attract a range of different audiences into the project. There are large, online surveys, face-to-face encounters, workshops for citizens and local organisations, an online game, a free app, a schools’ competition, film-making with older people, city events and celebrations of cleaner air and better health. Promoting each of these requires planning for different audiences, meaning different media of communication, messaging, timescales and targets.
Our public activities in Bristol will start in May 2017, with our Bristol game release scheduled for April 2018.
Top tips for large, international projects:
- Get to know your partners. They are the gatekeepers to your local audiences and they will know the issues, processes and politics.
- Translation is an art, not a science. Google translate can do marvels to understand incoming emails or tweets, but of course if you are communicating with a public outside of the writer’s native language, find a translator that you trust. This might even need to be a science writer.
- Art can be international. Strong graphics can help to give your project a shared identity across multiple languages, in a way that infographics, diagrams and text will struggle. ClairCity had a graphic notetaker at the first project meeting and the output has been invaluable to giving an identity to the project.
- Don’t forget time differences when organising skype calls!
Dr. Corra Boushel
2017 marks the ten-year anniversary since I started working on the Talking Robots project with my former SCU colleagues Karen Bultitude and Emily Dawson. A lot has been happening in robotics since then (you can read a quick summary of some key developments from the last ten years in Robotics Trends) but at the time we were interested in two key questions; What were people’s attitudes towards robotic technologies, and how were publics being engaged around these developments?
Ten years on it’s interesting to consider how many findings from this project are still relevant to public engagement. In one journal article based on this project we took the chance to explore the perspectives of the engagers and researchers involved in a series of different types of public engagement events regarding robotics in a bit more detail. The article ‘Oh yes, robots! People like Robots; the Robot people should do something’, is full of information on some of the benefits and constraints engagers identified in their work. Expectations, organisational aspects and practical issues could have a considerable impact on engagement events, but there were also signs that, a decade ago, engagers were feeling more supported and prepared to engage, and conscious of a desire amongst people to ask questions, not only to learn. We also found that definitions of public engagement, which some have more recently described as a ‘buzzword’, were by no means fixed:
‘Scientists do not operate with one definition of public engagement (Davies, 2008), instead moving between flexible, diverse and disjointed notions suggesting that ‘engagers’, ‘organisers’ and ‘audiences’ alike will change their engagement agendas if and when controversies arise.’ (Wilkinson, Bultitude and Dawson, 2010).
Alongside those seeking to engage, we were also interested in finding out a bit more about the people who participate in public engagement activities focused on robotics. In our article ‘Younger people have like more of an imagination, no offence’ we wanted to know more about why people, publics, you and me, were engaging, where they came from and what they wanted to achieve. This is something researchers are still interested in today. The recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report ‘Communicating Science Effectively’ highlights that people’s ‘needs and opinions’ can change and thus, over time, effective communication must also be ‘iterative and adaptable’, perhaps no more so than in 2017.
Looking back to 2007 we found that there were lots of reasons why people were attending their local science centre, visiting a science café or participating in a school workshop. Some were attracted by the subject matter, others because it was part of their usual routines. And whilst they often empathised with the researchers they interacted with, they also had clear expectations of them and individual hopes as to what they would gain from an experience. But there were challenges:
‘Participants often struggled to identify how members of the public might participate and contribute their view in engagement settings, though often there was an underlying perception that engagement was considered ‘citizenly’. They identified that certain subjects had a greater relevance to public participation than others, in particular those with societal relevance… The challenge for those engaging publics is thus to effectively communicate the aims of such activities and appreciate the differing notions of role and participation that may exist amongst their participants.’ (Wilkinson, Dawson and Bultitude, 2012).
Some, more recent studies, continue to explore these themes, such as Gehrke’s (2014) interest in ‘existing publics’, and of course, there is now the added edge of the role of public engagement in ‘post truth politics’.
So ten years on are these issues still relevant? In my view, it’s a yes, and yes. We can still learn more about how researchers consider, engage and communicate around their work, particularly as research agendas shift and change, and the culture of engagement matures. And there’s always more to understand about people, how and why they participate, as well as why they don’t. As for robotics itself, there will also of course, be ever emerging developments, some of which will pose philosophical, ethical and social questions in the future. Are we still interested in ‘Talking Robots’, I think so.
Both Talking Robot articles are openly available via the UWE Research Repository:
Talking Robots was funded by the ESRC (RES-000-22-2180).
Last week we posted details of our work on environmental policy publications as well as our research on outreach and informal learning. This week’s blog highlights our work in public engagement with robotics and robot ethics, as well as our work on science communication in wider cultural areas, including film, theatre and festivals. We also revisit the controversial issue of ‘fun’ in science communication.
Winfield, A. F. (2016) Written evidence submitted to the UK Parliamentary Select Committee on Science and Technology Inquiry on Robotics and Artificial Intelligence. Discussion Paper. Science and Technology Committee (Commons), Website. Available from: http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/29428
This is a slightly unusual publication; here Professor Alan Winfield tells the story behind it. In March 2016 the UK Parliamentary Select Committee on Science and Technology opened an inquiry on Robotics and Autonomous Systems they posed four questions; the fourth of which held the greatest interest for me: The social, legal and ethical issues raised by developments in robotics and artificial intelligence technologies, and how they should be addressed? Then, in April, I was contacted by the EPSRC RAS UK network and asked if I could draft a response to this question to then form part of their response to the inquiry. This I did, but of course because of the word limit on overall responses, my contribution to the RAS UK submission was, inevitably, very abbreviated. I was also asked by Phil Nelson, CEO of EPSRC, to brief him prior to his oral evidence to the inquiry, which I was happy to do. Following the first oral evidence session I then wrote to the Nicola Blackwood MP, (then) chair of the Select Committee. In response the committee asked if they could publish my full evidence, which of course I was very happy for them to do. My full evidence was published on the committee web pages on 7 June. To compete the story the inquiry published its full report on 13 September 2016, and I was very pleased to find myself quoted in that report. I was equally pleased to see one of my recommendations – that a commission be set up – appear in the recommendations of the final report; of course other evidence made the same recommendation, but I hope my evidence helped!
Our public engagement projects also influence research as this paper by the Eurathlon consortium shows. The paper reports on the advancement of the field of robotics achieved through the Eurathlon competition:
Winfield, A. F., Franco, M. P., Brueggemann, B., Castro, A., Limon, M. C., Ferri, G., Ferreira, F., Liu, X., Petillot, Y., Roning, J., Schneider, F., Stengler, E., Sosa, D. and Viguria, A. (2016) euRathlon 2015: A multi-domain multi-robot grand challenge for search and rescue robots. In: Alboul, L., Damian, D. and Aitken, J. M., eds. (2016) Towards Autonomous Robotic Systems. (9716) Springer, pp. 351-363. Available from: http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/29283
“Fun” in science communication
The following two publications are the same text published in two different books (with permission). The chapters summarise the views of the authors, including our own Dr Erik Stengler, about the use of fun in science communication, and specifically in science centres.
Viladot, P., Stengler, E. and Fernández, G. (2016) From fun science to seductive science. In: Kiraly, A. and Tel, T., eds. (2016) Teaching Physics Innovatively 2015. ELTE University. ISBN 9789632848150 Available from: http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/27793
Viladot, P., Stengler, E. and Fernández, G. (2016) From “fun science” to seductive science. In: Franche, C., ed. (2016) Spokes Panorama 2015. ECSITE, pp. 53-65. Available from: http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/29105
Both of these are related to a rather controversial blogpost hosted on the SCU blog. That post was selected for publication in a book that captures a collection of thought-provoking blog posts from the Museum field all over the world. In it Erik expressed in a more informal and provocative manner the ideas in the above papers.
Stengler, E. (2016) Science communicators need to get it: Science isn’t fun. In: Farnell, G., ed. (2016) The Museums Blog Book. MuseumsEtc. [In Press] Available from: http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/30360
Science communication through wider cultural activities
A recent commentary explores the factors that contribute to festival goers’ choice to attend science-based events at a summer cultural festival. Presented with a huge variety of interesting cultural events, attendances at science-based events were strong, with high levels of enjoyment and engagement with scientists and other speakers. Our research found out that audiences saw science not as something distinct from “cultural” events but as just another option: Science was culture.
Sardo, A.M. and Grand, A., 2016. “Science in culture: audiences’ perspective on engaging with science at a summer festival”. Science Communication Vol. 38(2) 251–260.
This is a paper on science communication through online videos, long awaited by the small community of researchers working on this specific field who met at the conference above. It reports research conducted by interviewing the people behind the most viewed and relevant UK-based science channels in YouTube. One clear conclusion is that whilst all are aware of the great potential of online video with respect to TV broadcasting, only a few, mainly the BBC, has the insight and the means to realise it in full:
Erviti, M. d. C. and Stengler, E. (2016) Online science videos: An exploratory study with major professional content providers in the United Kingdom. Journal of Science Communication. [In Press] Available from: http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/30236
One area we are interested in is the impact of cultural events on the audience. In this recent paper, we explore the impact of a performance about haematological stem cell transplant on two key audiences: haematology nursing staff and transplant patients. The article suggests that this type of performance is beneficial to both groups, encouraging nursing staff to think differently about their patients and allowing patients to reflect on their past experience in new ways.
Weitkamp, E and Mermikides, A. (2016). Medical Performance and the ‘Inaccessible’ experience of illness: an Exploratory Study, Medical Humanities, 42:186- 193. http://mh.bmj.com/content/42/3/186 (open access)
We’re also very pleased to highlight a publication arising from a student final year project. This was first presented at an international conference in Budapest. It presents the results of a study of the Physics and Astronomy content of At-Bristol in relation to the national curriculum:
Stengler, E. and Tee, J. (2016) Inspiring pupils to study Physics and Astronomy at the science centre at-Bristol, UK. In: Kiraly, A. and Tel, T., eds. (2016) Teaching Physics Innovatively 2015. ELTE University. ISBN 9789632848150 Available from: http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/28122
As we are keen to share our learning more widely, we also occasionally report from conferences. This report, published in JCOM, summarizes highlights of the sessions Erik attended at the 15th Annual STS conference in Graz. It focuses on sessions relevant to robotics and on science communication through online videos, the latter being the session where Erik presented a paper (see next item below):
Stengler, E. (2016) 15th annual STS Conference Graz 2016. Journal of Science Communication. ISSN 1824-2049 Available from: http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/29106
We hope that you find our work interesting and insightful – details of all our publications to date can be found on the Science Communication Unit webpages.