Tag Archives: scicomms

Is ecology really more important than ever?

Mock poster based on a real review of Baxter State Park in Maine, created by @ambershares_ for her @subparparks series. If you like it then buy the book or a range of merchandise. Lest it need pointing out this is a humorous take, not the actual views of the artist.

I’ve grown weary of the repeated assertion, expressed in journal editorials, society newsletters and conference promotions, that ‘ecology has never been more important’. Is this really true? And even if it is, does it provide a strong case that everyone else should care about it? I think we should retire the phrase and instead seek to make more direct, positive statements about the value of ecology*.

My scepticism arises from the observation that the rhetorical trope is by no means restricted to ecology. The same justification appears repeatedly in other fields, both inside and outside academia, diluting its impact considerably. I suspect that their communities of interest could make a case that everything from radiology to real ale to Renaissance poetry is now more important than ever. If you’ve seen the phrase used in another context and thought “So what?” then it’s very likely that non-ecologists are thinking the same thing when we use it, and fellow ecologists hardly need persuading.

If everything really is becoming more important then this might be caused by two broader trends. One is an ever-expanding, educated and increasingly connected global population, so for any topic there is almost bound to be more people taking an interest than before. At the same time, political, social and technological change continues to intensify, threatening to eclipse or eradicate many of the things we care about, whether it’s butterflies or Brutalist architecture. Neither of these patterns makes a strong case for ecology in particular.

If everything is increasing in importance than the absolute increase in the value of ecology (perhaps greater than before) is less relevant than the relative value of ecology. Can we say that ecology is more important than public health, or economic inequality, or agricultural production? Phrasing it in this way makes the original statement appear even more nonsensical because we are ranking the incomparable**.

A useful rhetorical approach is to argue from the opposite position. Could it actually be the case that ecology is less important? Are our claims merely attempts to draw attention to something we wish people would care about as much as we do?

The truth is that for a large proportion of people, their direct dependence on natural systems is decreasing. On an individual level, ecology is surely most important of all for hunter-gatherers, whose entire survival depends on the vagaries and vicissitudes of natural forces. I have worked with shifting agriculturalists, and I know of no other people whose understanding of their environment, formed through careful and systematic observation, is as great as theirs. Even farmers in the developed world retain a close connection with nature. I view all of them as ecologists in one form or another.

Contrast our increasingly urbanised, detached species, and for the most part it is possible to live our lives without recognising our dependence on nature. When we do encounter the living world it is often through the managed conditions of parks and gardens, and we are as likely to be repelled by the intrusions of uncontrolled nature (wasps and weeds) as to be delighted by them. Even if ecological processes underpin many of the services we require, our direct needs are often met from systems that are heavily managed, sanitised and shifted a long way from any natural baseline.

Viewed from this perspective, the problem isn’t that ecology isn’t becoming more important, it’s that to a large proportion of the people on the planet (increasing in both absolute and relative terms) it is becoming less obviously relevant. We recognise this phenomenon in issues such as plant blindness. A natural world that is not encountered or interacted with is difficult to muster much enthusiasm for. It’s not as important to people, even if it’s important for people.

This lack of connection can remain true even while nature documentaries are among the most-watched broadcasts on television. This is because they often editorially eradicate humans through the use of careful camera angles and choice of filming locations. Nature is presented as something pure and detached from humans; when a human does appear it is often in order to foreground the emotional response of the presenter. This is nature as spectacle, not as lived reality. We are not truly immersed and connected with it.

But what about the bigger picture? It is surely the case that ecology is central to solving many of the grand challenges that face humanity: climate change, collapsing biodiversity, feeding a growing population. It is in facing these problems that we can make the strongest argument for why ecology truly matters. This also makes me uncomfortable though because it frames ecology as a crisis discipline, only worthy of attention because things are going so badly wrong. Surely we can all believe in a more positive vision.

This then is the crux of the problem: ecology is important to our species collectively, even while it is becoming less directly important to us individually. Many believe that there is a connection between the two, and that by providing individuals with opportunities to experience and relate to nature they will be more likely to act in the greater interest (I’ve often heard this said but am unaware of any compelling evidence from a direct study***). How should we as ecologists address this? Blanket statements of its importance are not going to cut through.

There’s a sense in which the ‘ecology has never been more important’ claim is an admission of insecurity; a cry for attention in the face of abundant evidence that economic and social systems are ignoring our scientific expertise. It’s also one that only needs making in an affluent, Global North context. There’s no point trying to tell a subsistence fisherman to care about ecology because they already do, even if they might not phrase it in quite the same terms.

A more productive approach then is to direct our energies into finding a form of words that will demonstrate the relevance of ecology to the audiences we are trying to reach. To some extent we are already attempting this with concepts like ‘nature-based solutions’, which can help policy-makers relate to our science****. We might resent the consequent dilution of our passion into someone else’s priorities but ultimately this is likely to be the most effective way to achieve the responses we are looking for. Rather than trying to turn everyone into ecologists (although more will always be welcome) we should show others how ecology impacts on the things they already care about. Make ecology important to them instead of asserting that ecology is important in its own right.

* I’m not going to get into an argument here about what ecology means, given that the word itself carries different implications for academic researchers, environmental campaigners or outside observers. For the purposes of this post assume it means something like the study of the natural world.

** I’m sympathetic to the argument that all three of those fields can be linked to ecology. On the other hand, someone outside our own subject area might argue that studying ecology is only important insofar as it advances public health or agriculture. I’m put in mind of the absurd claim by pathologist Rudolf Virchow that ‘Medicine is a social science and politics is only medicine on a large scale’. That everything links to your field doesn’t make it the centre.

*** In opposition to this view are observations such that conservation biologists have a relatively high carbon footprint. I’d be delighted to learn of any systematic study that has tested the assumption rigorously.

**** This is a generous reading because I’m aware that there are plenty of people who dislike the term, and indeed all buzzwords and phrases that create bandwagons around poorly-defined concepts. If they achieve the intended outcome then I’m inclined to be less critical.


Science Outreach Opportunities


Guest post by Maria Zygouropoulou (@maria_zyg). 

At a recent meeting of our School’s post-grad management committee, Maria shared a document which she had put together describing the opportunities for students and academics to get involved in outreach activities. I thought this was too good to keep internal, and she has kindly agreed to let me repost it on the blog. Below she explains why you should get involved with outreach, how to do it, then a short bit about herself. Thanks Maria!

Shared Science = Powerful Science

The importance of engaging the public with science is becoming increasingly recognised; as an example, various MSc programmes in science communication are now on offer, public science festivals have sprung to life and outreach activities have become a compulsory requirement in many PhD programmes.

Why should we engage?

Although we sometimes forget, in most cases, our research money comes from public funding. Therefore, communicating our science back to the public is like saying ‘look, here is where your money was spent, thank you very much indeed’. If our research is not worth sharing then it is definitely not worth doing. Naturally, no-one is better placed to demonstrate the value and relevance of our research to the society than us. At the same time, simply by sharing we can also contribute towards building sustained support for our work. Furthermore, in the wider context of science, it is our responsibility to make science accessible and inclusive as well as to ensure that the public is well-informed about science. So next time you hear about the benefits of homoeopathy or that cracking your knuckles gives you arthritis think that at some point science was not communicated accurately or not communicated at all.

What is in it for us?

Engaging with the public can be fun and rewarding. You never know when and where you might plant a seed, but there is nothing more exhilarating than inspiring others with something that you are passionate about. And really it’s a two-way street: interacting with people other than your colleagues can sometimes help you realise the bigger picture of your research and see things in a new light. Of course, you will also have something extra to put in your CV and get to meet lots of like-minded, fun people and expand your network. Most importantly, communicating (your) science is easy and you can do it your own way: be it writing, painting, filming, speaking, social media… anything that suits you works. There is no wrong way of doing it, apart from not doing it at all!

Nevertheless, having recently joined the world of research as a PhD student, I appreciate that sometimes scientists find it hard to explain their science in a simple and universally communicable manner. Very often, scientific jargon, wordy slides and lack of enthusiasm spoil otherwise promising talks which in the end fail to communicate the most important points. I am even certain that some of us would prefer to write a peer-reviewed research article than to explain our work to a child, our grandma or even to a fellow scientist in a different field! Clearly, this is because we don’t do it enough… and since there are hardly any communication naturals, it takes practice!

If you don’t know where to start from, here is a list of a few good science communication opportunities/examples that might inspire you and help you on your way.

Some science communication opportunities (either for active participation or as a member of an audience):

A free online event where school students meet and interact with scientists. It’s an X Factor-style competition between scientists, where the students are the judges.

The 3MT concept was developed by the University of Queensland, Australia and has spread to universities around the world. The challenge is for researchers to explain the complexity and relevance of their research to a non-specialist audience in a concise and engaging way. Presenters have a maximum of three minutes to pitch their research and can only use one slide.

Based at Cambridge University’s Institute of Continuing Education (ICE), the Naked Scientists are a team of scientists, doctors and communicators whose passion is to help the general public to understand and engage with the worlds of science, technology and medicine. If you are interested in writing a guest article for the Naked Scientists website then please get in touch with articles@thenakedscientists.com with details about your background and interests.

PubhD is monthly event that started up in Nottingham. At each event, three PhD students, from any academic discipline, explain their work to an audience in a pub in exchange for a pint or two. The talks are at a ‘pub level’ – the idea is that you don’t have to be an academic to understand the talks.

Hosted by the British Science Association and CAMRA, Nottingham SciBar is a monthly event where a research scientist will present a short introduction to their work and how it affects all of us. This is followed by a friendly discussion interspersed with regular beer breaks. If you’re interested in science, and enjoy real ale pubs then we’d love for you to come along and enjoy an evening’s entertainment that stimulates those grey cells!

FameLab is a communications competition designed to engage and entertain by breaking down science, technology and engineering concepts into three minute presentations.

ScienceGrrl is a broad-based, grass-roots organisation celebrating and supporting women in science; a network of people who are passionate about passing on our love of science on to the next generation.

The VoYS Standing up for Science media workshops encourage early career researchers to get their voices heard in public debates about science.

Cafe Scientifique is a place where, for the price of a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, anyone can come to explore the latest ideas in science and technology. Meetings take place in cafes, bars, restaurants and even theatres, but always outside a traditional academic context.

The Pint of Science Festival brings some of the most brilliant scientists to your local pub to discuss their latest research and findings with you.

Festival of the Spoken Nerd is the science comedy phenomenon that will feed your brain, tickle your ribs and light your Bunsen burner. Full Frontal Nerdity guaranteed!

It’s a regular comedy night started in 2009 down in London that has academics getting up behind the mic and entertaining audiences about their subject/research. Over the past two years it has also kicked off several other branches in cities across the UK.

It’s a chaotic open mic night for scientists, science communicators, science teachers, historians and philosophers of science, students, science popularisers and anyone else with something to show off about science.

An independent press office helping to ensure that the public have access to the best scientific evidence and expertise through the news media when science hits the headlines. The Centre offers free places at its hugely popular ‘Introduction to the News Media’ events which give a flavour of what media work involves.

Horizon is an ongoing and long-running British documentary television series on BBC that covers science and philosophy. BBC offers work experience opportunities. A previous volunteer is here.

Formerly known as the British Interactive Group, BIG is a not-for-profit organisation for all people involved in informal science communication activities and hands-on education projects in the UK.

STEM Ambassadors volunteer their time and support to promote STEM subjects to young learners in a vast range of original, creative, practical and engaging ways. You can become a STEM ambassador yourself and participate in activities in your local area.

Professional Societies:

The J.A.M.s are a monthly junior seminar series aimed at integrating and connecting young researchers around the world. Each month a new junior researcher will be invited to present their work in a relaxed, friendly environment in an exciting and engaging way.

Each year the Biochemical Society looks for talented science communicators to take part in our annual Science Communication Competition. The competition is open to all undergraduate and postgraduate students. To enter, submit an original piece of writing or video on a biomolecular topic of your choice. Your article or video must be aimed at the general public and must be submitted with an entry form.

The Max Perutz Science Writing Award aims to encourage and recognise outstanding written communication among MRC PhD students. The annual competition challenges entrants to write an 800-word article for the general public answering the question: ‘Why does my research matter?’.

Check what your own society offers!

Some science communicators:

  • Prof Alice Roberts

  • Dr Adam Rutherford

  • Jon Wood

  • The Juggling Scientist

  • Sally Le Page

  • Mad Marc

Some advice, courtesy of TED(x), for any aspiring science communicator:


Maria Zygouropoulou (@maria_zyg) is a BBSRC-funded PhD student in the Synthetic Biology Research Centre of the University of Nottingham. She is currently trying to turn anaerobic bacteria into tiny superheroes that can help in the treatment of solid tumours. Previously, she obtained a Master in Pharmacy and worked in industry and hospital settings. She is Events Manager for the STEM Outreach society and Publicity Coordinator for the Nottingham Pint of Science festival. In her free time, she enjoys dancing salsa, baking, DIY decorating, puzzles and (occasionally) running!