Mastering the art of science communication

06 May 2020

This article presents three blogs by UCL MSc students, selected as best in class, following a seminar on ‘Communicating to different audiences’ delivered by Jessica Bays.

The importance of learning good science communication skills cannot be underestimated – the current Coronavirus pandemic has shone a light on how important it is to communicate science effectively to various audiences.

However, for many, these are soft skills, acquired through trial, error, and practise. So when I was invited to deliver a seminar on communicating to different audiences to UCL MSc students studying ‘Energy, Environment and Resources in Developing Countries’ I gladly accepted. It was great to see part of the course dedicated explicitly to helping students refine their skills in this area.

Different types of science communication

There are many different types of science communication, but most can be boiled down into four different categories, with each increasing in complexity from 1 – 4.

  1. Intra-specialist communication: At the centre of each scientific field, experts communicate between themselves using specialist terminology, sharing findings, and discussing topics at an equal level. The background knowledge of the audience needs to be thought about the least, as recipients can be assumed to be familiar with the concepts.
  2. Inter-specialist communication: This takes place between experts in different fields, who may not share a common knowledge or vocabulary. Publications in journals that span several fields such as Nature and Science fall into this category. Communication succeeds when ideas and concepts are easy to understand.
  3. Educational communication is ‘textbook science’: Information is communicated to students, via lectures, textbooks, and other teaching materials. Accepted subject knowledge is transferred to students via an interactive process. Through this process students become members of a community and culture, adopting thought patterns, values, and norms.
  4. Popular communication reaching all citizens: Audiences are not expected to have specialist knowledge or vocabulary. There will be varying levels of scientific literacy, and due to personal interests some individuals may be highly knowledgeable on particular topics. Delivery needs to be amended to meet the audiences level of knowledge and it is essential to stimulate interest and state what relevance the information has on people’s lives

The further away from intra-specialist communication, with its shared concepts and terminology, the harder science communication gets. Greater attention needs to be paid to the knowledge of those you are communicating with, and it is necessary to listen carefully to ensure that the information being communicated is received and understood.

The Task

The students were asked to submit a blog on a topic of their choice, on which they were to be assessed. Their target audience was assumed to be the same as that of UKERC, i.e. comprised of experts in many different fields.

The best three blogs were submitted by Molly Tinker, Sebastian Spiteri and Vivek Parek, and we are sharing these below. Please click on the links below to jump to each individual blog.

Hidden truths of ecotourism: Colombian case study

by Vivek Parekh

Prosperity for all – what’s not to like?

Ecotourism is responsible travel to natural areas intended to produce benefits such as conserving the environment, sustaining local people’s wellbeing and increases education. Western conservationist movements and a growing demand for nature-based tourism has led to a rise in ecotourists by approximately 10% annually since the turn of the century.

Beneath the surface…

Unfortunately, visitors are often oblivious to the historical origins of these areas. Conflict has occurred when areas of interest, such as wildlife and conservation parks, overlap with indigenous and local community settlements. This has led to cases of ‘green grabbing’ which is the transfer of ownership from local communities to either the government or private sector under the banner of environmentalism. In some cases, ecotourism directly contradicts one of its main objectives – to sustain the wellbeing of local people.

Case Study: Tayrona National Natural Park, Colombia

Colombia’s struggle with land appropriation has been well reported in recent decades with violent paramilitary presence, illegal crop production and high-level corruption. Until now, green grabbing is yet to face the same scrutiny.

Tayrona National Natural Park lies on the Caribbean coast of Colombia spanning over 15,000 hectares and was home to numerous local communities, many of whom worked as peasants, fishermen and provided tourist services through local organisations. The park is now one of the country’s most protected areas following a large government strategy of touristification and militarisation. This aimed to eliminate the prominent illegal production of marijuana and coca and resulted in conflict hotspots turning into ecotourist destinations.

Approximately 90% of the park is now privately-owned, with a significant proportion owned by members of the local elite who acquired properties through illicit expansion and corruption favours. This has occurred despite the park’s public status deeming acquisition illegal unless occupiers possess royal decrees dating back to the Spanish colonial period.

The concession of ecotourist services by the state to a private alliance in 2005 enabled land appropriation to be sold as the ‘protection of nature’, legitimising actions to restructure resource access, use, and control against local community members. The restructuring saw those who relied on tourism as the main means of subsistence being criminalised, relocated, and expelled due to pressure on resources. Those fortunate to remain employed following the concession saw earnings significantly cut and faced constant threats of eviction. So, does the growth of ecotourism actually sustain the wellbeing of local communities?

A need for greater community integration

The current model used by the ecotourism industry in Tayrona National Natural Park fails to incorporate local communities who have inhabited the area for decades, and instead frames community members as illegal occupants and their actions as threats to conservation. Whereas, if they were to integrate community participation through local ownership and knowledge transfer, the ecotourism industry could create a replicable model to responsibly deliver their objectives.


Why we need to talk about energy access and gender

by Molly Tinker

In 2020 13% of the global population lack access to modern electricity. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 7 aims to achieve universal access to affordable and clean energy by 2030.

How does gender affect energy usage?

There is an established gender occupational segregation across the world. Social norms dictate that women are more likely to be engaged in housework and agriculture. Prevailing gender roles result in women using energy differently. Consequently, women often bear the brunt of energy poverty.

In rural Nepal, women spend up to 6 hours a day collecting fuel, leaving little time for income-generating activities. When women are overburdened their daughters are more likely to be kept home from school to help, reinforcing gender inequalities across generations.

Energy poverty also impacts women’s health and security. 4 in 10 women wake up each morning and light a fire. Lacking access to clean cooking causes indoor air pollution. According to the World Health Organisation, household air pollution is responsible for 4 million premature deaths annually.

Lastly, anecdotal evidence has found that women are more at risk of sexual violence when they collect fuel and water and go outside after dark. In Kenya research found that women prioritised lighting outside their homes for improving security, particularly when using the toilet at night.

Providing energy access offers huge opportunities for improving the health, security, education, and income of women.

Including women in the conversation

Providing energy access is however not enough. Studies in Peru have shown that interventions to provide access that do not consider gender, together with local norms and practices, can hinder women’s development. Provision of access is tacitly designed to become a realm largely dominated and controlled by men.

Different kinds of energy access provide different services, some electrification might only provide enough power for basic lighting. It is crucial that women are consulted in the planning process, to provide a service that can make a difference in their lives. Taking a gender-blind approach to providing energy access could deprive half of the population of its benefits.

Despite the time savings expected with electrification, women often devote this time to unpaid work. To achieve maximum impact, interventions should challenge existing roles. In rural Afghanistan, the highest benefit to female empowerment was seen when interventions included training and recruiting women as engineers.

Not So Simple

This work is easier said than done. The inertia in prevailing gender roles was evident in a project to create employment for women in Ghana. Focus groups revealed women’s preferences for carrying on the same trade as their elders. Before promoting policies, actors should understand why women choose the activities they do.

Ultimately, taking a bottom-up gendered approach to energy access is crucial. Both because there is huge potential for women to benefit from energy access and because without including them in the conversation these benefits cannot be realised.


Carbon Taxes, Brazil and the Amazon

by Sebastian Spiteri

Once revered as a global leader in the fight against climate change, Brazil is now at odds with the urgent calls for international climate action.

Currently, Brazil has the second-largest hydropower capacity in the world which supplies over three-quarters of its electricity demand. Renewable energy trends are positive in Brazil with the latest auction for wind, biomass, and hydro pushing ahead 58 projects with a combined capacity of 1162 MW. These market developments support the country in overachieving the nationally determined contributions set out for its energy sector. Notwithstanding this positive news, Brazil is yet amongst the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters.

Government inaction is worsening the current climate action policy in Brazil. This inaction is particularly evident in the Amazon rainforest whereby the current administration has vowed to scale back protection and weaken environmental laws protecting the Amazon. Brazil’s second-largest source of emissions is due to unsustainable land use and deforestation of the forest to meet the needs of the agricultural sector. Over the last 5 years, Brazil’s annual deforestation rate has been increasing to around 7,000 square kilometres (700,000 hectares) per year. Registering the world’s greatest loss of 1.3 million hectares in 2018.

Protecting and restoring this already heavily exploited repository of biodiversity and natural resources are of utmost importance to halt the existential threats of climate change and biodiversity loss.

“Goodwill alone is not enough anymore” exclaimed the president of Peru, Martín Vizcarra.

Existing investment into natural climate solutions such as conservation, restoration and land management fall short. To safeguard the tropical rainforests and biodiversity, a new solution must be introduced.

This can be achieved through the introduction of a fossil fuels levy in the form of a carbon tax. Raising funds for natural climate solutions but also inciting behavioural changes and innovation to reduce carbon-intensive products such as oil, gas and coal.

Costa Rica has already paved the way in this area, acting as a viable case-study to replicate. In the 1980s, Costa Rica had the highest deforestation rate in the world. After setting a 3.5% tax on fossil fuels and creating the National Forest Trust (FONAFIFO) which disburses these funds to support conservation, reforestation and agroforestry, forest cover more than doubled from 1986 to 2013. These funds also supported the impoverished states within the forest, contributing to the sustainable development goals of ending extreme poverty, hunger and improving health.

Following from Costa Rica’s success with carbon taxes, such a policy intervention would not only support combatting the rising levels of deforestation but also act to alleviate poverty in the states found within the Brazilian Amazon. A paradox and a prime example of a resource curse, whereby some of Brazil’s poorest states lie in the world’s largest and naturally rich resource. In light of this, the adoption of a rainforest carbon tax is a practical solution for Brazil and its Amazon.