I was invited to serve as the People’s Choice Judge for Canadian Science Publishing*’s 2021 Visualizing Science contest (which you can enter now!). In the course of launching the contest, CSP interviewed me about my take on creative approaches to visualizing science and doing science communication.
Here are the cliff notes:
I came to a career scicomm in a round-about way, only to later discover I had been doing scicomm most of my career.
My “creativity+scicomm” soap box centers around 3 principles: (1) Creativity can be practiced and enhanced. (2) Cross-training is essential. (3) Few innovations happen overnight or solo.
Despite the constraints and our conditioning in academia, we must ground our science communication and public engagement efforts in what our audience or target stakeholders value. “No amount of beautiful art or accessible color palette […] will salvage a visual communication effort that is developed in an echo chamber.”
I was fascinated and delighted to join a group of researchers who used art (collages made by community members) to better understand what citizens in the United Kingdom want agricultural landscapes to look like post-Brexit. The published article clarifies that Brits want to look at bucolic landscapes, but perceive renewable energy infrastructure as more environmentally friendly than livestock on the landscape.
I initially joined the research team to bring an arts perspective to the writing of the manuscript. As I dug in, I came to see the research approach as broadly useful. Here are a few excerpts from a UW press release about the study that effectively sum up my take:
I see it having a lot of relevance for us in Wyoming and North America broadly, as it uses a mixed-methods approach to better understand what citizens actually want to see on the landscape. We are deep into these kinds of discussions in Wyoming right now, so these kinds of public consultation studies can be valuable for us, too.
The University of Wyoming’s Grand Challenges initiative recently announced the winners of the first round of funding from this major university initiative. I am delighted to report that a project I am leading was one of the five projects selected. This press release provides a brief overview of all five projects.
In short, our project is about enhancing transdisciplinary capacity at the university, because the problems of today (and the challenges of the future) cannot be solved by a single discipline. Through “IMPACT — Innovative Methods to develop Adaptive Capacity through Transdisciplinarity,” we aim to transform UW’s approach to research, and enhance public trust in research and information. We’re taking a cross-cutting, institutionally empowered, transdisciplinary approach in which science, technology, engineering, mathematics, arts, humanities and social sciences are equal partners.
This invited article in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment clarifies the role that public information officers play in modern science communication. It is essential reading for scientists looking to share their science and for science-trained folks considering moving from research into scicomm. The full article is available for free here.
Excerpt: “To some, the word “promotion” smacks of hype and spin. It’s certainly true that PIOs choose the most interesting and important stories to share, but we’re also keenly aware that our efficacy is contingent upon the trust of the communities we represent, the media, and citizens.
Science PIOs fill a space between scientists and journalists – and increasingly, between scientists and public audiences more directly. Rather than focusing deeply on one area of science, we are constantly scanning the horizon, searching for stories that will catch the attention of our audiences and showcase the accomplishments of our employers or clients. As a result, scientists collaborating with PIOs gain considerably from the PIO’s skillset, experience, and contacts. By working with a good PIO, a researcher can position their work to have real societal impact, far beyond what they could achieve alone.”
Full citation: Invited. Merkle, B.G., M. Downs, and A. Hettinger. 2019. In the space between: Public information officers in science. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 17(8): 474-475. doi.org/10.1002/fee.2102.
This invited commentary in Nature is a pep-talk for science educators considering integrating drawing into their science teaching and assessment. The full article is available for free here.
Excerpt: “Fundamentally, creativity is a whole-brain process, and artists and scientists use the same parts of their brains to do complex, creative tasks. Ensuring that students understand the value of drawing can help motivate them to draw.
When my colleagues try to integrate drawing into their laboratory and field courses, however, they frame their motives more matter-of-factly. For example, one biology-lab coordinator noticed that students mainly interact with specimens by photographing them. She suspected that students did not gain much from taking these photos, on the basis of their exam scores.”
Full citation: Invited. Merkle, B.G. 2018. Perspective: Drawn to Science. Outlook: Science and Technology Education. Nature 562: S8-S9. doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-06832-0.