Using our emotional intelligence: Lessons from the UK Geoenergy Observatories by Mike Stephenson

An interesting article in Nature last year, by scientist and journalist Anita Makri, described how science communicated in the popular media sometimes leaves the public confused, and that in the ‘post-truth’ world, scientists are increasingly being ignored[1]. Makri criticised what’s known as the ‘deficit model’ of the public understanding of science concluding that it’s partly scientists’ fault that they are being ignored. The message is clear. Scientists need to be less technical and perhaps even a bit more humble when putting over their messages. Over the last year at the BGS, we’ve been putting this theory into practice communicating our major UK Geoenergy Observatories investment to the public – with some success.

Anita’s Makri’s article makes an interesting distinction between the blue-sky, ‘sense-of-wonder’ science of Brian Cox and David Attenborough, and applied socially-relevant, ‘incremental’ science, suggesting that the latter is the more difficult to communicate. BGS science sits firmly in the socially-relevant category. Though we have grown out of a science rich in wonder (fossils, ancient climate change and mass extinctions), BGS concentrates on ‘lives and livelihoods’.  Our strategy of sensing the Earth is about understanding the subsurface at timescales that matter to people, rather than over millions of years. This is exactly the science of UK Geoenergy Observatories – infrastructure designed to look at the possibilities of using the subsurface for decarbonisation technology.

One of the problems of the ‘deficit model’ of science communication is its assumptions. The model was first promoted by the Royal Society in 1985 in a report called the ‘Public Understanding of Science’[2]. The story is that the public doesn’t believe or care much about science because the science isn’t being explained clearly enough. There are clear doubts now that this is the right model. Social scientists who study communication, for example Jane Gregory[3] and Ruth Dixon[4], believe that scientists worry far too much about the words they use and the diagrams they show, and too little about finding out about how people feel. Ruth Dixon says that academics need ‘…to question, with some humility, their own ‘deficit model’ of the public understanding of politics’, and try to empathise a bit with our audiences. She praises the artist Grayson Perry who recently said that what was missing when communicating with the public was ‘emotional literacy’, the ability to understand and express feelings. A recent academic article by Iain Stewart and Deidre Lewis has also suggested a more empathic approach is needed, in that ‘…factual information’ should be ‘…subordinate to values and beliefs in shaping public perspectives on contested geoscientific issues…’[5]

I have to admit that as a scientist with a role in communicating geoscience issues, I have sometimes got it wrong. A few years ago, a YouTube cartoon was made of a talk on shale gas that I gave at a London debate[6]. The filmmaker shortened and simplified my argument (that science needs to take a greater role in the debate). I liked the cartoon, and so was surprised by some of the online reaction, which described the delivery as a bit arrogant and stuffy. So when the UK Geoenergy Observatories project came along – with all its challenges for communication – it presented an opportunity for a new approach. This is part of a sustained BGS communications campaign, planned and led brilliantly by UK Geoenergy Observatories communications manager Cristina Chapman.

The UK Geoenergy Observatories are BGS and NERC’s new geoscience test sites being set up in Glasgow and Cheshire. The sites will watch and analyse the underground, and develop technologies that might help the UK to decarbonise. Our new observatories will look down into the Earth just as Jodrell Bank and Herstmonceux look up into the sky.

Developing the science, designing the arrays of boreholes and specifying the sensing devices has been an absolute focus of our activity to take the idea from concept to reality. So too has been the importance of meeting local people in Glasgow and Cheshire to explain what our observatories will do and why we are so excited about the science.

Reaching out to local people meant meeting them on their terms. We made sure that the approach was neither didactic nor pedagogic and that we were in listening mode at all times. We turned up in church halls and community centres right at the heart of the communities that would be closest to our boreholes. We turned up at times that allowed for different working patterns and daily routines.
The communications team stripped away the usual academic props (orating experts, lecterns, projectors, rows of chairs and jam-packed agendas), replacing them with open space drop-in sessions, free-flowing dialogue with BGS scientists ready to listen – and lots of pictures, maps and physical props. We fielded representatives from all areas of the organisation: generalists, specialists, delivery staff - and from the very top of the organisation. Everyone pitched in and everyone played a part – which helped to break down ‘them and us’ barriers.

BGS public engagement UK Geoenergy Observatories Chester Town Hall

The ‘drop-in and meet the scientist’ events I attended were among the most interesting experiences of my 17 years at BGS. It was intellectually taxing and physically demanding work, and probably some of the most rewarding work I’ve done in years. Others found it similarly rewarding. For a government scientist, there can be no better test of your ‘function’ - to be able to say convincingly what your science is for, how it benefits the country and whether it represents taxpayers’ money well spent.

BGS public engagement UK Geoenergy Observatories Helsby Community Centre
BGS has gone some way to understanding the challenges of communicating science but there is much more we can do. One thing is certain: when we make the time to listen, people return the respect by taking time to engage with us. It is this two-way dialogue that makes our science more relevant and our communication more efficient.

[5] Iain S. Stewart & Deirdre Lewis 2017 Communicating contested geoscience to the public: moving from ‘matters of fact’ to ‘matters of concern’. Earth-Science Reviews 174, 122–133