Everyone likes a story. Stories have a uniquely captivating effect on the mind that transcends the boundaries of language and culture; if two people from opposite sides of the world read the same story translated into completely different languages, their brains undergo the same patterns of activity as they visualise the story and are carried through its emotional ups and downs. Research, on the other hand, operates in a language that is far from universal. It’s a major barrier to communication between researchers and the public, making people feel shut out from vital discussions. If we are to tackle global issues like climate change, we need ways to break down these barriers and engage people in a language they understand.
Researchers undeniably have a wealth of stories to tell: from the issues underpinning their work, to their personal journeys through discovery and disappointment in the field and in the lab. But when you spend much of your career trying to describe your work in a way that makes a grant panel sit up and listen, it can be difficult to tap into a narrative that matters to the public. I traveled to the Hay Festival, the home of storytelling, where NERC was launching a project to bring research stories to life.
NERC has previously supported storytelling techniques through its public engagement activities, with the winner of the most recent round of the Engaging Environments programme combining community development, storytelling and citizen science to link people in to environmental research. The Trans.MISSION public engagement project puts storytelling at the forefront. Launched in partnership with the Hay Festival in 2018, the first round of Trans.MISSION brought together three groups of researchers and three well-known storytellers: Aardman Studios director Dan Binns, poet Nicola Davies and children’s illustrator Chris Haughton. Together, they made three short films exploring subjects ranging from air pollution research to the impacts of climate change.
“The project has put imagination into research that is central to all our lives and all our futures,” says Emily Shuckburgh, a polar researcher at the University of Cambridge whose work on climate change was made into an animation by Chris Haughton. “I’ve taken the animation to many different audiences: from four to five year olds to the University of the Third Age, and the message comes across much more clearly than in graphs or figures.”
The project has left a legacy in the continued collaboration between Emily’s team and Chris, who have gone on to produce a second animation exploring the effects of climate change on UK wildlife.
The second phase of Trans.MISSION aims to take the project to an international audience. This time, three groups of NERC researchers working in the UK, Colombia and Peru have been selected to work with storytellers to draw out the narratives in their work. The stories will then be developed into an animation, infographic or animated text with the help of an artist. But why go international, when there is much work still to be done with engaging the UK public?
“All these issues are global and local” says Cristina Fuentes, International Director at the Hay Festival. “Now more than ever we need to understand what’s going on – to be able to convey to a wider audience the scientific challenges of preserving and looking after nature. This is especially important in Latin America, which is one of the lungs of the world.”
Crucially, the researchers will work with storytellers from the countries in which their research takes place, helping to put global issues into a national context and ensuring that the resulting pieces resonate with their audiences. The research projects involved in Trans.MISSION touch on issues that are already affecting people’s lives, include forest degradation in Colombia, water shortages and drought in the UK, and contamination of the glacial meltwater that supports major cities and agriculture in Peru.
“Environmental science is all about systems” says Alison Robinson, Director of Corporate Affairs, Futures & Change at NERC. “So we can’t do it in just one part of the globe. We need to find ways of having conversations to find what we as a society want scientific evidence to do.”
Josie Rylands is NERC’s Press and Communications Officer. She studied Zoology at the University of Sheffield, taking part in several schools engagement and outreach schemes alongside her studies. When she isn’t nit-picking copy and writing quotes, she enjoys getting over-excited about wildlife, mucking about in the garden and exploring Bristol and its surroundings on foot.