Science storytelling – it’s what the Centre for Science Communication in Dunedin knows well. It was the focus of this year’s Public Communication of Science and Technology conference held at the University of Otago. The Gala opening at the Regent theatre welcomed the public to take delight in listening to NASA’s guest speaker, Dr. Jennifer Wiseman. She relived the magic of the Hubble Space Telescope and enticed the audience to the stars and beyond. Some Maori singing and dancing bought us back to Earth – and culturally revitalised the New Zealand spirit. It was an action-packed four day schedule; days filled with keynote speakers, researchers, roundtable discussions, and workshops. It was great that many buddying research scientists were given a voice to share their work – but it was a smaller voice.
What science stories should we tell?
Stories add real emotional power to connect audiences. Prof. Lisa Matisoo-Smith reminds us of the children’s story; The Rat and the Octopus, and the power of Pacific myths and legends. Adding to legend stories, Prof. Lee Berger accentuated the power of sharing material to communicate science. The scientific discovery of Homo naledi published in National Geographic, was indicative of this success. Almost Human became one of the top science stories in 2015. Thanks to technology, the dawn of humanity can be mapped in detail and with extraordinary preservation. Live communication connected thousands of people who were interested.
The power of a story interests us if we can relate to it. How do we internalize and personalize science stories that are meaningful to us? Susana Herrera discussed different kinds of narratives scripted by different science and environmental communicators. Ultimately, she viewed the communicator as a cultural mediator between different social groups and roles. It’s about understanding your audience – and not underestimating your audience. A simplified credible storytelling approach is key, building scientific facts along with character development.
Given that science is already established, how can a different story perspective be created? A plenary panel involving Prof. Lee Berger, Assoc. Prof. Ayelet Baram-Tsabari and Jan Riise were up for discussion. Teamwork is vital. Given people make decisions about their lives together, we should tell stories made together. Developing further awareness of scientific procedures would prove useful; to share more about the processes, challenges and failures of science, the controversies and ethics. In many ways, you could relate science writing to the process of designing an educational experiment.
Science engagement and participatory science
How do we promote and develop activities in science, technology and innovation to create responsible citizenship? A roundtable discussion chaired by Dr. Fabien Medvecky, engaged professors Massimano Bucchi, Joan Leach and Michael Dahlstrom to dig deeper. It was acknowledged that the audience seeks out and interprets science. It raised the question of how science is being conveyed? Is it a matter of style and how science is presented, and more specifically, how do we measure this?
And what is the public’s understanding of scientific terms? Sara K. Yeo from the University of Utah researched the word usage of global warming and climate change through Twitter. She concluded that twitter opinions do not equate to public opinions. Following the number of tweets in relation to a heat wave, there were more tweets about global warming as opposed to climate change.
The ongoing experiment of science and art
Science and art have a special partnership; they are distinctly different disciplines; yet also reliant on each other. It is a constant experimentation; merging physics, chemistry, biology and geology with theatre, dance, music, film and the visual arts. You could argue that art does more for science than the other way round. I know only too well having delved into the field of scientific illustration. But just how do we make scientific artwork stand out? Wiebke Finkler discussed her thoughts on the picture superiority effect and the emotional power of film. In her opinion, film can combine a number of features, evoking strong emotion, context and structure.
Science has always belonged to the arts – early scientific illustrations are evident of this. Comic books tell stories through sequential art. With the aid of technology, audio-visual texts will continue to shape the way we communicate. The increase of digitalisation in science is escalating matters; science and technology now move at greater speeds.
The future of science and technology
Sir Peter Gluckman shared his thoughts on science in an era of rapid technological change. The wave of innovation is forever increasing; just how will the power of technology be positioned? He acknowledged that science could inform societal choices, although it may not influence policy directly. Technology has to be useful; social acceptance takes time to work through barriers of uncertainty. Technologies do no evolve in isolation and there is continual understanding of the costs and benefits as the technology evolves. What is the solution? Regulatory regimes need to be more adaptive to refocus social innovation. It calls for a shift in science communication, a shift that goes beyond social media to sustain longer discussions. What toolkit will we use to communicate science and technology to greater depths?
And as a final note to this blog post, the highlight for me was winning the poster prize for my Masters’ research. I had explored the use of augmented reality as an educational tool in science and technology education. I like to think my Antarctic images were eye-catching, but what seemed intriguing to most visitors was that they were able to interact with my poster. With the use of a digital device, visitors could discover different images coming to life as film, animations and 3D models. It was the unexpected that was most captivating of all….