Review of the George de Boer biennial lecture given by Prof. Iain Stewart, Professor of Geoscience Education, University of Plymouth.
A guest blog By Dr. Lara S. Blythe
Prof Iain Stewart, geoscientist and TV personality, was the guest of honour at the University of Hull on Wednesday 29th October, invited by the Department of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences in collaboration with their geology society, the Harker Society, to mark the reinstallation of geology as a degree programme after ca. 25 years of absence. Prof. Stewart presented the George de Boer biennial lecture entitled ‘Between a Rock and a Hard Place’ to an audience of well over one hundred people.
|Photo by Rebecca Williams|
The title, one might think, is not unfamiliar territory to the professional geologist. However, in this case we should think again. Caught between our science and the public, science communication and more specifically, geoscience communication is something that traditionally we scientists have had a bad reputation for. Good then that the Professor of Geoscience Communication at Plymouth University, whose interests are the cultural and social effects of geology, should give us his take on the matter.
Geology, from the perspective of the public, can be likened to an omnipresent invisible subject, which only becomes visible when necessary: at times of crisis. One issue almost immediately brought to the fore was the L’Aquila case in Italy, where a number of senior scientists and officials were sentenced to six years imprisonment for their 'inability to predict the earthquake' that killed 309 people in 2009 (Hall, 2011; Davies, 2013). This case, akin to several aftershocks, has reverberated through the scientific community and highlights the need for a better relationship between geoscience and the public where good communication is paramount.
Even though being a member of the scientific academic community and being in the public domain may seem like a contradiction in terms, the incentives for academics to communicate are clearly present and, in the face of recent developments (e.g. fracking) are increasingly necessary. For me, academia and science represent a true ecological niche whose inhabitants, as Prof. Stewart explained, approach geological events in almost a complete opposite way to the public in order to understand them. Although this niche is seen as typically attracting introverts obsessed with rocks, in short an ‘odd bunch’, these scientists in fact have a responsibility to interpret their research to the public and inform them about the world.
As Prof. Stewart pointed out, why should the public be interested? and how do we get through to a public that may not even be interested? Combined with poor understanding and many misconceptions, science is not popular amongst the public. Why ever not? I hear you ask; because it contains too much erm, science. Too many details and facts that are in essence, boring. However according to Stewart, and co-author, Ted Nield (2012) people are interested in other people, a point towards which we need to direct out efforts to communicate effectively. Geoscience is both an applied and a visual science, attributes which enable an interesting and ‘audience grabbing’ story to be told out of an otherwise ‘dull’ subject. Take for example, one of Prof. Stewarts Earth Science broadcasts on the BBC – Journeys to the Centre of the Earth, which links Sedimentary, Metamorphic and Igneous rocks through the building stones used by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans respectively. This series used a visual art to connect history with geology and its applications, and it proved a hit.
Used to fascinate and spark an interest rather than educate, geoscience communication in ‘quiet’ times facilitates the important transfer of information in times of change and crisis. The public know what geoscience is and know where to find out more information for themselves. As the phoenix of geology and geoscience rises from the ashes left behind at former departments country wide, so (geo)science communication must grow into a new world where academics and the public learn to first respect, then trust, and finally communicate successfully.
Dr. Lara S Blythe.
The lecture is available here.
Davies, L. 2013. L’Aquila quake: Italian judge explains why he jailed scientists over disaster. The Guardian, World News, 18 Jan.
Hall, S. S. 2011. Scientists on trial: At fault? Nature, 477, 264-269.
Stuart, I. S. and Nield, T. 2012. Earth Stories: context and narrative in the communication of popular geoscience. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, 124, 699-712.