The Importance of Science Communications- Guest Article
Updated: Apr 5, 2020
We welcomed a piece written by Faye Vogely. Faye has a huge amount of experience at the forefront of conservation around the world. With new role as a Science Communicator with The British Trust for Ornithology, we asked her why she thinks this is such an important aspect of conservation.
The Importance of Science Communications
Close your eyes and think of a scientist. What springs to mind? A man in a lab coat? A woman with glasses and a notepad, perhaps looking at some mice in a cage? If you did, that’s OK – it’s what we’ve been made to believe science looks like. But like all things, science has evolved, and more often scientists now look something like the image below.
The glamour of fieldwork.
As a field biologist, I spent most of my days covered in mud, dung, or other grime, and was often either exceptionally cold or sweating buckets, depending on the country. I never once wore a lab coat, and although I do have glasses, I never worked with mice. The picture was taken on my first “real” job: studying lorises in the Javan rainforest. They’re a nocturnal primate, so I worked long nights trekking through the forest to record where they were going, who they were seeing, and what they were eating. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was making a difference.
This data on the lorises’ behaviour is giving them protection, helps conserve their habitats, and is changing the way we keep them in zoos. But every day, as I walked up the mountain to the forest, local people would walk past me and give me a look: we didn’t belong, we weren’t part of their community. And suddenly it wasn’t quite enough – we were saving a species, but we weren’t making a difference locally. That’s when I realised I wanted to make a change.
So I shifted my career focus to science communication. From spending my nights in forests, I went to sitting in front of laptops and standing in front of classrooms. And I learned a few things that I’d like to share with you, so that maybe you can apply them in your own work or share them with others.
1. Learn the lingo
When I first stepped foot inside a classroom in Java, the children had no time for me. I was just another “bule”, a foreigner, telling them things in a language they didn’t understand, who was going to take some selfies and leave two months later. So I spent two months studying several hours a day, talking to anyone I could find, learning Bahasa Indonesia. The change was immediate.
The first classes I gave, I had started off in English – “Hello class, how are you today?”. No response as the interpreter translated. After I started learning, I tried in Indonesian: “Selamat pagi semua, apa kabar hari ini?” Twenty-five smiling children replied: “Baik miss, apa kabar anda?” The connection was made, and for the next year I taught everything from plant ID to recycling and sustainable farming.
The children at my school soon became my biggest fans and support group - some of them now want to be biologists, or work with nature.
Learning the language is one of the biggest investments you can make – it takes time, patience, and often a lot of failure before success. But it also pays off the most. It shows that you are dedicated, respectful to the culture and country, and most importantly, it shows you are there to stay and make a difference.
2. It’s not all black-and-white
The world is a complicated place, and so are the people in it. In all of my fieldsites – ranging from South America, through Africa, to South East Asia – I have come across poachers, corrupt government officials, opposing scientists, and so on. It is incredibly easy to dismiss these people as “the enemy” or even engage in fighting them. But it is not always as simple as that.
On several occasions I spoke to poachers and hunters, asking them why they killed wild animals. Their answers were unanimous: “Because I need to.” A lot of conservationists, like myself, come from privileged backgrounds where we – generally speaking – don’t have to worry about going hungry, being sick, or living in poverty. But a lot of the people we might engage with do not have this luxury, and will put their own survival above all else. A poacher may not be a bad person; he may simply be hungry. The only way to ensure that we can engage with them on wildlife and nature, is by making sure they have the freedom to think about it.
Working together with humanitarian NGOs and governments is therefore vital to ensuring people’s health, safety, and wellbeing. Your open-mindedness and willingness to help people in their personal lives can make a huge difference in how they approach wildlife. Go the extra mile.
We worked closely together with local rangers in Tanzania, some of which had come from a hunting background.
3. It’s a balance
Modern-day science is impossible without public support. Funding comes from either direct donations or from grants and funders. The people giving away grants and funds care about their reputation – nobody wants to support a project that fails, or an idea that’s controversial. In other words, funders want your work to make them look good – to the public. The public is key, and that’s where your value lies as a communicator. You can help scientists translate their (often complex) scientific work by cooperating with the media.
At the same time, journalists, film-makers, and editors may not understand what is feasible in science. We’ve had people ask us to film monkeys mating on command, to put GPS trackers on underground animals, and to take live wild animals into TV studios. It takes an understanding of the science behind the story to be able to make calls on what can and cannot be done, and to convey this to the people creating the story is part of your job.
At the end of the day, it is about finding a means of communicating the science that works for both sides – so speak to both sides, and make sure they both feel valued and understood. The result will be a compelling story that the public will not only understand, but will want to support.
The opening of a new information centre on orangutans in Borneo. Pictured are scientists, designers, communicators, government officials and rangers. We all worked together to make the centre happen.
Think of your favourite teacher, or your favourite author. The reason they are your favourite is probably because they engage with you; they interact, and make you feel like you’re part of the experience. That is what engagement is all about: to feel involved and empowered. Your audience, be it a class of children, a group of funders, or your social media following, should have the idea that after listening to you, they can do something. Take action, donate, be a volunteer; it doesn’t matter, as long as the idea is there.
The easiest way to achieve this is to be passionate about what you do, and have a plan of how other people can help you achieve your goals. Donators will fund your work, children will be your future employees (or boss!), and followers will share your message. So talk to everyone, regardless of their profession, background, or interest, and make them interested. You love your subject, so all you have to do is share the love. It’s the most satisfying part of the job.
Faye regularly updates her instagram with her latest location and work! Follow her to see her amazing photos... HERE!