As researchers in the environmental sciences we are often being told that we should engage with more diverse audiences, but why should we bother? Isn’t this just a box that needs to be ticked? Why should we spend more of our time and other resources actively targeting these audiences? Can’t we just do what we normally do and give an assembly at our local school / run a stand at a science fair / give a talk at a science café and be done with it?
In 2017, University College London produced an excellent report on how engagement with science can be used to promote and develop social justice, stating that:
“Science can provide a route to social mobility, so more efforts should be made to include under-represented communities.”
This opportunity to improve science engagement and participation for both the personal and the public good is arguably the most persuasive reason for why we, as researchers, have a responsibility to actively target traditionally under-represented, or underserved communities. Furthermore, research has shown that many of the negative impacts of environmental change will fall disproportionately on several of the audiences that are traditionally underserved by public engagement efforts. For example, my own research has shown how people who are living with mental health needs in an inner-city environment are amongst the most vulnerable yet ill-informed with regards to the effects of air pollution.
Aside from the responsibility that we have as researchers to help promote equality and social justice through the environmental sciences, there is an equally compelling argument for why we should actively seek out and engage with diverse audiences: because they offer alternative perspectives and solutions that we might not yet have considered. Many of the environmental issues that we are working on as researchers (climate change, plastics in the oceans, soil degradation etc.) are global interdisciplinary problem that affect everybody, not just scientists. Similarly, the solutions to these problems are not just the concern or responsibility of scientists, and therefore it is essential that we consider as many different voices as possible in order to develop strategies that will be successful in both adoption and implementation.
One of the key findings from the Climate Communications Project (which was funded as part of Stage 1 of NERC’s Engaging Environments programme) was that engagement with these traditionally underserved audiences presents opportunities that far outweigh any potential barriers. For example, in working with Disability Stockport we found a community that not did not express a restraining sense of guilt around climate change, but rather an acceptance that they could not, and should not, be held individually responsible for the effects of climate change and our attempts to mitigate these changes. This attitude was likely fostered by a community whose awareness of the responsibilities of both local and national government has been critically shaped by austerity measures in the UK, serving as a powerful exemplar to overcoming personal guilt and the inaction that it can foster.
Engaging with traditionally underserved audiences does require additional time and resources, but it is also rewarding, impactful, and mutually beneficial for the researchers that are involved. Here are five practical pieces of advice for helping to ensure meaningful engagement when working with these communities:
- Go to them. For many different audiences, universities and other research institutes represent a physical and psychological barrier that can make engagement difficult if not impossible.
- Do NOT organise a one-off event to talk about your favourite research topic. Instead arrange to speak at / contribute to an event that has already been organised by the community.
- Consider the needs of your audience. For example, if you are working in a community where English is not widely spoken have you considered the use of translators?
- Be flexible. You are not giving a public lecture; people may wish to speak or ask questions in the middle of your planned activities. Embrace this – you already know what your own voice sounds like.
- Continue the relationship. Even when your planned initiative is finished are there other researchers who you could introduce to this community? Could you include them in any future research bids? Might you consider volunteering for them in your spare time?
Dr Sam Illingworth is a Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University, where his research involves using poetry to enhance dialogue between scientists and non-scientists. You can find out more about Sam’s work by visiting his website or Twitter @samillingworth.