Engaging the public from the bottom of the ocean
“The internet and social media have really expanded how and where we engage but traditional media are still the gatekeepers of reaching big global audiences. The research we are doing is on everyone’s behalf so it is important that they feel involved, that they have a stake in the process and the findings” - Dr Jon Copley, National Oceanographic Centre, University of Southampton
“The public are ultimately the end beneficiaries of our research,” explains Dr Jon Copley, a researcher in marine ecology at the National Oceanographic Centre (NOC) at the University of Southampton, “that is why our public engagement programme not only raises awareness of what we do, but underpins our research.”
Researchers at the University of Southampton aim to understand the complex patterns of life in the deep ocean, the planet’s largest environment and mostly unexplored. Dr Copley and his colleagues spend months at a time on a ship in the middle of the ocean collecting data many miles under the waves.
“The ‘research user’ that might want to apply our research findings is not so easily identifiable: most of the deep ocean belongs to no-one, but we all share responsibility for its stewardship, and there are few obvious routes from our research to policymakers, or companies to generate economic impact, at least not at the moment,” says Dr Copley.
Therefore, public engagement through face-to-face encounters, the media, social media and the internet are Dr Copley’s and his colleagues’ pathways to impact.
The Southampton research team has two clear objectives for its public engagement activity:
Given that data collection goes on many miles under the sea, getting people actively involved in the research process without them directly participating is a challenge. The research team got round this problem by setting up live online broadcasts. People all around the world can now see and interact with Jon and his colleagues as they conduct their fieldwork from a research ship in the middle of the ocean.
“We have created an on-line engagement programme which allows anyone that is interested to follow what we are doing live in the deep ocean. There is a network of on-line resources and at its heart is a website that beams coverage of what we are doing. We post photos and films, and there is a blog with a chat facility so people can ask questions.” (www.thesearethevoyages.net)
Dr Copley and his colleagues also use Twitter and YouTube. This expands the ways in which they can interact with people thousands of miles away and builds a diverse narrative of their fieldwork. “The research we are doing is on everyone’s behalf so it is important that they feel involved, that they have a stake in the process and the findings.”
The website has been running since April 2010 and to date has had more than 200,000 hits from at least 90 countries worldwide and the YouTube channel has received 150,000 views. “There is a real public thirst for getting involved in scientific research. It is a tremendous boost to morale to know that people around the world are interested enough in what we are doing to visit our website to leave comments and offer suggestions," says Dr Copley
To generate this level of web traffic the researchers devised an integrated communications campaign using the reach of traditional media: newspaper, TV, and magazines. Working closely with the university press office the team keep the media informed in advance of upcoming expeditions, press releases go out when the expedition sets off, and there are news releases during the trip too. The website address features prominently and drives the curious to seek out more information on-line.
Dr Copley is clear on the vital role the media plays in raising awareness of deep ocean research and environmental issues. “The internet and social media have really expanded how and where we engage but traditional media are still the gatekeepers of reaching big global audiences,” comments Dr Copley. “Documentaries, for example, allow us to share discoveries and get messages about the deep ocean to a much wider and larger audience than we can reach by ourselves.”
There are some drawbacks, however, to allowing access to research fieldwork as it happens. Some journals are very strict about pre-publicity before the peer-reviewed article is published. “This can cause tension between our desire to draw the public into our research and at the same time safeguard our own scientific reputation. Researchers can be wary about sharing a new discovery, but we can get round this by, for example, sharing pictures but not going into scientific detail or offering hypotheses, particularly if we think we may have a major discovery.”
When Dr Copley and his colleagues are not at sea, they give talks, public lectures, and schools visits to raise awareness of their research. They have developed links with established groups of retirees and lifelong learners such as Probus (the Retired Professional and Business Club) and the University of the Third Age. The advantage of connecting with established groups is that they have structured forums for talks and meetings that the researchers can contribute to rather than setting up and marketing their own.
Dr Copley is very enthusiastic about this face-to-face interaction and the opportunities it presents to tap into diverse experiences. “What I enjoy about talking to lifelong learners is that they can really help to inform my research, asking questions that make me think about problems in new ways. It would be enormously arrogant to assume that as the scientists we are the only ones with professional insight.
“There is often a strong focus on targeting schools and young people. Yet older people play a pivotal role in our society that is not appreciated and often overlooked. I would encourage researchers from any discipline to include lifelong learners in their engagement programmes.”
Institution:National Oceanographic Centre, University of Southampton