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Global challenges of science communication

Event in Greece introduced science communication activities that can be conducted in any country

Sandra JavierScientists and communicators all over the world often face challenges when it comes to engaging with a variety of audiences to share and explain advances in science that emerge on a daily basis in various fields knowledge.  Difficulties in obtaining funding for these activities also poses challenges.  To present and discuss communication experiences, the European Union has funded a program known as Erasmus+ to train science communicators.  Held July 3-12, 2017 in the city of Marathon in Greece, the STEAM Summer School is the fruit of a partnership between the universities of Malta (Republic of Malta), Haag-Helia (Finland), Rhine-Waal (Germany), and Edinburgh (Scotland), the Science View (Hellenic Society of Science Journalists in Greece) and the European Union of Science Journalists’ Associations.

The event brought together 52 scientists, professors, graduate students, journalists and science communicators from 19 countries, mostly in Europe, as well as participants from Asia, Africa and the Americas.  Targeted to the communication of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), the course is scheduled to take place in three editions hosted by a different European country each year.  The first took place in 2016 in Cleves, Germany. The organization behind the event added the “A” for art, making it STEAM. The purpose of the summer course is to emphasize communication skills and theories about the topic and address science communication policies and project management.

David Munaò Activities geared towards science communication in GreeceDavid Munaò

Several case studies were presented as examples of activities that can be carried out in any country.  One of them was Bright Club, a short comedy show involving scientists from every field.  At each edition of Bright Club, a professional comedian hosts the evening, inviting volunteer researchers to the stage to do a presentation as a stand-up routine. They have eight minutes to employ humor in talking about their scientific fields of expertise.  Aside from entertaining, the show is an opportunity for scientists to develop public engagement skills.

First held in 2009 at the University College London (UCL), the idea has spread to more than 10 locations in the United Kingdom.  Editions have been held in Australia, Germany, France, Belgium, Malta, and during the STEAM Summer School in Greece in July 2017. “Interested parties contact us and talk to us before they start preparing the show.  We don’t “own” Bright Club, we were just the first to stage it,” explains historian Lizzy Baddeley, coordinator of the Public Engagement Unit at UCL.  Organizers can be associated with research institutions or simply volunteers who have an interest in science. They determine the frequency of shows and are urged to follow the original framework. An information manual is sent to those who are interested in replicating the event, which should be held at sites the public already recognizes as comedy venues and the organizers need to call on different scientists for each show.  Everyone has to undergo up to two hours of training on the basics of stand-up comedy, although it is up to individual researchers to come up with their own script.

Amanda Mathieson “The preparation is intentionally flexible to help them develop their own comic voices,” explains Steven Cross, comedian and science communicator from the United Kingdom.  Cross headed up the Public Engagement Unit at UCL for seven years.  When the project was first conceived, the idea was to communicate science through humor and so Cross looked for ways to make that feasible.  The comedian talked to researchers in marketing and psychology as well as professionals who put on comedy shows, and was able to come up with a strategy to sell tickets: the admission price needed to be accessible while at the same time positioning Bright Club as a quality event. The British biomedical philanthropic institution Wellcome Trust funded the earliest performances and today the costs are covered by ticket sales at £ 8 (close to R$ 30), aside from the payment of professionals involved in the organization who are associated with the UCL, says Baddeley. Outside of London, each Bright Club has its own funding system.

Amanda Mathieson Presentation given this year by James Ciarlo…Amanda Mathieson

Bright club
During the STEAM Summer School, 10 course participants performed according to the Bright Club format. One of them was climatologist James Ciarlo, a researcher at the University of Malta, who told stories about the times he was often mistaken for a “weatherman,” saying he gets frustrated when climate modeling studies are confused with weather predictions. “We don’t look into a crystal ball, that I can assure you.  Instead, we sit in front of the computer and spend long nights studying, programming and cursing until we come up with something useful,” he said in his presentation.

Another initiative that can inspire communication projects was Creations, a program that includes a variety of countries and cultures promoting the relationship between science and art through such things as plays, music and exhibits. The initiative involves 10 European countries and its goal is to have participation by 2,000 professors and 25,000 students, including those from rural regions, by September 2018.  Creations is funded by the European Commission–the European Union’s executive agency–through an € 1.7 million Euro (close to R$6.3 million) investment in a three-year program begun in 2016.  The project takes an educational approach, believing that teaching science based on investigation and problem-solving using artistic activities youth are interested in will engage them in learning.

In this model, research laboratories take part, using their infrastructure to create what are called “scenarios,” suggesting practical activities for the students.  The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), in Geneva, Switzerland, is one of the institutions that participates in the event.  There, students in coursework that corresponds to Brazilian high school curricula get to conduct experiments such as particle collisions.  “Based on the visit, the students devise songs, videos, drawings, photographs and other artistic works,” says mathematician Menelaos Sotiriou, a researcher associated with the School of Philosophy, Pedagogy and Psychology of the University of Athens, which coordinates the Creations program.  Activities like that of CERN are documented and made available to teachers through an online platform.  Through sharing, they use, adapt or create additional content for science classes.  By 2018, the project is expected to have accumulated a repertoire of 100 activities carried out by partner institutions.

David Munaò …and students from the Creations project in a playDavid Munaò

In Greece, participants were also allowed to take part in the course Science in the City – Science and Arts Festival, a one-day event that has taken place in Malta every year since 2012. The capital city of Valeta in that southern European country of nearly 450,000 is taken over by artistic pieces, plays, music, dance, games and exhibits. Everything is inspired by a science theme, such as “Futures, or how the research of today shapes the society of tomorrow,” the title of the 2017 festival that will take place September 29.

According to geneticist Edward Duca, a coordinator of the Maltese festival, artists are selected through a call for bids, and receive payment for their performances.  The goal is to provide visibility to research studies and researchers, in addition to introducing certain fields as career options.  Duca says that the festival has given Malta social, touristic and economic significance.

Elisa von Brockdorff Public performance in Malta’s capital, Valeta, as part of the 2015 Science in the City – Science and Arts FestivalElisa von Brockdorff

Necessary advances 
In Latin America, events are the strategy most often employed to communicate science (32.9%), followed by the internet (14.6%) and traditional media, such as TV and newspapers (12.8%). Unlike the European cases presented in Greece, 68.3% of the initiatives are one-time or occasional events, which limits their impact, according to the study published in the book Diagnóstico de la divulgación de la ciencia en America Latina [Diagnosis of science communication in Latin America], published by the Latin American and Caribbean Network for the Popularization of Science and Technology (RedPOP).

The study was conducted by an online survey conducted in 2016 among managers of research institutions, journalists, science communicators, organized groups of researchers and independent communicators that received 123 responses from 14 countries of the region. According to the authors, despite the fact that advances have been made in promoting science culture in the region, political and economic fluctuations generate discontinuities for the sector. “It is easier to create new science communication initiatives than to maintain those already in place, due to the issue of visibility,” says journalist Luisa Massarani, a researcher at the Center for Science Communication Studies at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), in Rio de Janeiro, and co-author of the study.

Elisa von Brockdorff Sculpture by Elisa von Brockdorff created for the 2012 Maltese Festival: artists are selected through a call for bidsElisa von Brockdorff

In Europe, even with assistance from private foundations or using alternative models such as joint project funding, experiences indicate that science communication funding comes mainly from public research funding agencies, according to science communication expert Alexander Gerber, a professor at Germany’s Rhine-Waal University. He believes that science communication resources should continue to be the responsibility of public research and education systems.

Analyzing the actual results of outreach activities was a need identified in the Latin American study.  According to Gerber, that gap may be directly related to the lack of training in the field.  He points out that in actual practice, the accumulated knowledge in the theoretical field of science communication is often not taken into consideration. “That is why actually analyzing what is happening in the exchange between science and stakeholders (the interested parties) is an extremely complicated activity,” he says.  This also occurs in Germany, Gerber says.  “Assessment is an applied research activity and must involve methods and expertise in conducting it, ideally together with outside participation,” he concludes.

PATIÑO BARVA, M. L., PADILLA GONZÁLEZ, J., MASSARANI, L. Diagnóstico de la divulgación de la ciencia en America Latina: Una mirada a la práctica en el campo. León: Fibonacci – Innovación y Cultura Científica, A. C., RedPOP, 2017, 144 p.