June 6, 2016

Communicating science in the field and beyond

 Lundy is a beautiful island in the Bristol Channel of the British coast – no wonder is it very popular among tourists. On so called ‘boat days’, well over a hundred day visitor embark at the jetty and have a couple of hours to explore the place. When doing fieldwork on Lundy, one does therefore encounter a lot of interested folk asking questions about numbered nest-boxes, ladders at odd places and House Sparrows with colourful legs. And indeed it must be weird for the general public to see that we study House Sparrows on an island: People expect biologists to study Puffins, Shearwaters or Cabbage on Lundy but not Sparrows.

When we are not climbing around five meters above the ground checking a particularly inaccessibly placed nest-box we take the time to answer those questions. We explain that all the broods are monitored, that we know every chick, that we know every bird individually and that we can identify them thanks to the colourful rings. And we clarify that for our kind of studies, it is important to have a closed population, so that we can know all the individuals and can be sure whether they are alive or not. Most visitors are very interested in the work – they ask back, tell us about their Sparrow observations on Lundy and back home and often leave on a not mentioning how interesting that all is.

Telling people about science is, however, far more than having casual chats in the field. To engage with the general public, researchers should aim to communicate their findings not only to their peers but also beyond. Obviously, one cannot talk about mixed models, random effects and power analysis in a newspaper but then breaking down the complex findings to some simple arguments should be possible – and that is what makes the news.

The most recent sparrow study from Lundy (Schroeder et al. (2016) “Predictably philandering females prompt poor paternal provisioning”, The American Naturalist) is a great example for this. On the very day when the paper was published , Imperial College communicated the findings of the study via a press release: “Sparrows withunfaithful ‘wives’ care less for their young”. Additionally, a video starring some of our study objects was made available on the Imperial College website and was shared via Social Media. The effort paid off; Newspapers from the ‘Washington Post’ to the ‘Daily Mail’ picked up on the catchy story. Cheating, intrigue and sex just sells very well!

Seeing our research appearing in such a wide range of media is great. And it is also very important as research is often funded by public money. If people don’t know what scientist are doing all day long, they are not willing to pay for it. Hence, scientists should make sure to communicate their research well – both in the field and beyond.

Dominic Martin, MSc student on the Lundy Sparrows 2016

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