Paddy Fowler speaks to Hilary Geoghegan, Carl Stevenson and Hannah King about NERC-funded public engagement and the role engagement plays in environmental science research.
Would you be able to give some details about the NERC public engagement funding project?
Hannah King (HK): We worked with Hilary and Carl on Engaging Environments1, which is NERC’s biggest single investment in public engagement to date, at £1.3 million, highlighting how serious NERC is about the importance of high-quality public engagement. The project uses creative approaches, including community development, storytelling and citizen science, to involve people in the critical environmental science issues of our time, such as climate change, air pollution and energy. There is a focus on engaging those typically less represented in public engagement activities, for a specific purpose which is defined by members of the public. Partnership working is at the core of this project, building on the diverse and extensive network that formed in the early stage of the project. Collaborators have put their money where their mouth is, with project partners pledging a further £235,000 of in-kind contributions.
Would you be able to give a brief overview of Engaging Communities with their environment/Opening up science for all?
Carl Stevenson (CS): Engaging Communities with their environment (ENCOMPASS)2 was a capacity-building project that employed community organising as a way to develop relationships and engagement opportunities with environmental science. The principles of community organising are rooted in what motivates people, their hopes and fears, but mostly what they want to change. Organising involves an approach that listens to people, builds relational power and helps people to act to effect change. We worked with Citizens UK3 in Birmingham to learn about organising practice and build relationships with community groups to explore how environmental science research is relevant to them and how they can benefit from it.
Hilary Geoghegan (HG): Opening up science for all (OPENER)4,5 and ENCOMPASS were year-long NERC-funded projects to build capacity and consortia as part of the NERC Engaging Environments programme. I led the OPENER initiative with colleagues from Earthwatch, Imperial College London, Newcastle University, University College London and the University of Salford6 to scope out a national community of practice for public engagement with environmental research. We took a community-of-practice approach, which brings together people of like mind to work together and advance their interest. For us a key element was citizen science, namely the contribution of volunteers to professional science projects, so we developed training for researchers, a website on links between public engagement and citizen science, and four local communities of practice in London, Newcastle, Reading and Salford. Through OPENER we found there was an amazing appetite to work across sectors and disciplines to avoid reinventing the wheel and learn from each other. Last year, our two projects joined forces to develop a bid for the NERC’s £1.3 million three-year national programme of public engagement with environmental science.
What can be taken away from the Blue Planet Effect in effective engagement with environmental issues?9
CS: It’s difficult to measure the actual engagement but it raises awareness. Some people may decide to recycle more, reduce their use of single-use plastic or eat less meat as a result but the most valuable part is awareness. It is wrong to assume that those who do not recycle or go vegetarian just don’t care. We have found that people generally do care; people just feel that they won’t make a difference, that the problems are too large. This is where relational power comes in, but needs to be on a big scale. By bringing researchers and communities closer together the relevance of research and the agency that universities and research institutions have (researchers as community leaders like doctors, teachers and faith leaders) can be realised.
HG: The viewing figures for Blue Planet reveal an appetite for engagement with the environment within some sectors of UK society. However, what happens next? Where does this interest go once the series has finished? I think we need a range of engagement approaches that will help to lower the barriers to participation for communities and researchers. For example, contributing your environmental science research to the development of a programme like Blue Planet might be one way for researchers to undertake public engagement, for others it could be co-creating a citizen science project with a community local to your chosen field site, as we will see in our new project. For a member of the public, tuning into Blue Planet might be the start, and this might revitalise their enthusiasm for the natural world that they experienced as a kid and encourage them to join a local science group to find out more. However, for us, research has shown people need to be able to make a connection between environmental issues and their everyday lives, and I suppose this is what Blue Planet did very well, and something we hope to do in our work.
What examples can you give of NERC successes in public engagement in the past?
HK: There are so many, both at the level of projects that NERC has funded, but also many excellent examples of engaged research within the research community. I will choose an example from the former as something that I have most closely been involved in personally – Operation Earth10. We collaborated with the Association for Science and Discovery Centres (ASDC) to engage over 200,000 children and their families with how environmental science affects our daily lives, through 11 science and discovery centres across the UK.
The family show tells the tale of Earthy, our planet Earth costume character with its very own ice cap. Following the show, visitors will be able to try their hand at a selection of experiments, specially designed for 6 to 11-year-olds. In one of these, kids investigate air quality and think about what they can do to improve it. In another, they have to try to spot as many different plants and animals as possible in our indoor meadow, before becoming a citizen scientist when they get back home.
Not only was this project a great example of encouraging people to use environmental science evidence in their decision-making, through conversations with scientists, it was also a great mechanism to raise the profile of evidence-based decision making with other NERC stakeholders – we even took Earthy to Downing Street11, as part of UK's first Green GB Week, which coincided with ten years of the Climate Change Act.12
Michael Gove infamously said “Britain has had enough of experts”; why should researchers care about engaging with the public?
CS: Maybe the question should be why should the public engage with researchers?
I think the Gove comment was trying to describe the loss of trust, he was trying to dismiss dire warnings that didn't support his narrative and unfortunately, the current political climate has allowed what is essentially propaganda to be conflated with fact. But politicians have always had a complex relationship with experts. Gove's follow-up was essentially to put the expert opinion in doubt by undermining the objectivity of the experts. This is not a new tactic but it feels like it has become par for the course in public discourse. So, perhaps ironically, Gove's comment has helped to precipitate the loss of trust.
Scientists are in fact the most trusted members of society13 but this position of trust is in danger of being eroded or undermined if we don’t make effort to understand why what we do is important and relevant. Policymakers are not trusted in the same way so when a politician or policymaker says this policy is based on science, scientists get tarred with the same brush, we are seen as being in cahoots with the politicians. For example, the introduction of charges in Clean Air Zones in cities. No one will argue that we shouldn’t have clean air or that traffic pollution is a major contributor, but extra charges for parking or driving in the city will still be seen as whichever authority making cash out of it.
HG: In an ideal world, all publicly-funded research should be accessible to anyone who wants to know about it. Researchers - who are publically-funded (and those who aren’t) - should care about engaging with the public. We've found from Opening up science for all that personal satisfaction is an important motivation for researchers to engage with the public, but so too is making a difference and sharing their knowledge. The problems facing the world - whether social or environmental - won't be solved if we keep our expertise under lock and key. Researchers need to be a bit more humble and recognise we can't know it all and there is much to be learnt from the public too.
HK: Really great engagement takes time and effort, and researchers seem to be increasingly stretched, however, engagement can help make research more relevant and useful (dialogue/collaborations), and keep in line with 21st-century thinking, and build trust in evidence-based decision making.
We also need to be open and transparent about how public money is spent, so the purpose and impact of NERC research is understood and valued across society. Some research can be genuinely improved through involving the public as stakeholders in science, much as we do other stakeholders
Hilary Geoghegan is Professor of Geography at the University of Reading, and specialises in collaborative, interdisciplinary research between the social and natural sciences. She led the social science work package in the Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Initiative’s Protecting Oak Ecosystems project, is PI of the NERC Community for Engaging Environments (2019–2022), and represents social science on the UK Environmental Observation Framework.
Carl Stevenson is a Senior Lecturer in Geology at the University of Birmingham. His research is the flow and emplacement of geological materials from magma to ice to sediment. Carl was PI of the stage I ENCOMPASS project and is Co-Director of the NERC Community for Engaging Environments alongside Hilary. He is public engagement lead for the College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham and Academic Keeper of the Lapworth Museum of Geology.
Hannah King is Public Engagement Programme Manager at Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), and embeds public engagement within NERC as a responsible organisation, and within the research community NERC supports. Hannah works on diverse projects, from creating strategy, to supporting researchers through Engaging Environments, to national-scale projects such as Operation Earth.
To read more of this interview, check out The New Radicalism in Environmental Engagement edition of the environmental SCIENTIST.
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- (2018) NERC at Green GB Week: The Highlights. NERC. <https://nerc.ukri.org/press/releases/2018/46-highlights>
- Ten years of the Climate Change Act. The CCC. <https://www.theccc.org.uk/our-impact/ten-years-of-the-climate-change-act>
- (2014) Public attitudes to science. Department for Business, Innovation & Skills <https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/public-attitudes-to-science-2...