Monthly Archives: July 2017

Unanchored

Often it’s the natural world that provides us with our first taste of science. As children we are natural explorers and investigators, trying to understand: what is that mountain made from? Why is the sky blue? What are flowers for? What do bees do? What are the stars in the sky?

This curiosity can often carry over into adulthood, even if we aren’t scientists, even if we don’t spend much time outside. I recently went on a hike with a geologist and a botanist, and I must have sounded like a child myself: why are the rocks cracked this way? What’s this flower? How were these mountains formed? And when I was in the Arctic, I noticed there too that the ecologists, the natural scientists were very popular, subject to an endless litany of questions about what we were seeing, about what it meant.

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Initially science is quite exciting, as it seems to have all the answers. But the natural world is complex, full of interconnected cycles and systems, and we are still actively discovering the ways in which weather, animal populations, plant habitats, and so many other things all depend on each other. We can watch ecological cycles, and see how they change, and look back in time to see how they have changed in the past.

And from that, we understand that we are changing our planet irrevocably.

In the Arctic, we could see the glaciers receding and the sea ice which shrinks further and further each year, thanks to the warming that our CO2 emissions have caused. The Arctic is warming faster than any region on the planet, with strong ramifications for global circulation patterns and warming and acidification of the oceans. This warming will also affect ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica, triggering sea level rise and more extreme weather like floods, heat waves, and droughts which endanger the global food supply. While climate scientists are still working to understand the full depths of the changes the Anthropocene era of human activity has brought, what is clear is that the planet is warming, the oceans are becoming acidic, and the consequences are likely catastrophic.

For a long time, the natural world has been viewed as an endless bounty. Full of wildlife and vast resources, so much grander than we humans that the idea of changing or depleting nature seemed ridiculous. But humanity has a different perspective now. We have been to space, and seen the pale blue dot that contains all of civilization, floating alone in the void. And we have seen that Earth’s resources are finite, that we cannot extract fuels or minerals indefinitely, that we cannot kill off massive numbers of animals and expect them to magically come back next year.

In the Arctic, we visited an old whaling station, where so many beluga whales had been killed in the 1930s that the beach was littered with bones. Whaling, which was intensive and economically important for a long time, is now heavily controlled after many whale populations were driven nearly to extinction. We saw what we were doing to the planet, and we acted across national boundaries to protect our shared resources. Whaling quotas and bans are now strictly enforced, with the result that many whale populations are beginning to rebound. However, it has taken decades.

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Global action on climate change has not been as straightforward to implement. Different countries have different CO2 emissions profiles, and will be affected to varying degrees by global warming. Economic interests mean that many countries (and industries) are hesitant to take the first step, and even seemingly promising developments like the Paris accord are subject to the whims of unreliable governments who may decide that the next four years are more important than the next four hundred years.

We must fight this. Individual actions, like reducing your carbon footprint by examining how you travel, what you eat, and where you live, are a necessary and important start. However, they will not be sufficient when the economic and political situation still favors carbon emission, subsidizing fossil fuels, and spending toward entrenched lobbying interests rather than the public good of all people on our precious planet. Systemic change is needed, and realistically we are already too late to be able to stop climate change. What we can do now is act to minimize its damage.

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At the northernmost point we reached in the Arctic, nearly 80°N, we anchored our ship to an ice floe. The ice floe was only somewhat larger than the ship, and yet once we were attached to it, it felt like we were completely stationary. The sea stood all around us, the mountains and glaciers in the distance, and it seemed as if we had our feet planted firmly at the top of the world.

And yet, by tracking the ship on a map we could see that we had actually drifted several miles, attached to the ice, without feeling a thing! It is difficult to comprehend sometimes, that disconnect between what you perceive and the reality of things. And yet we know what we are seeing when we look at our warming planet, our melting world, and the science is telling us what it means. Humanity is anchored to this planet, and we too are drifting. We must open our eyes and act, if we hope to have any say in where we end up.

Stop doing evaluation!

Anybody who has even dipped a toe into the waters of public engagement recently will know what I mean when I talk about the dreaded ‘i’ word.

Impact.

It seems to be everywhere – in funding applications, at conferences, even (for those of us fortunate to work in higher education) in the REF case studies. Impact is the word of the day, and proving that you have it is everybody’s goal. After all, why fund something that isn’t having an appreciable effect? Why spend time and resources embedding something into your practice if it isn’t going to change hearts and minds?

The problem, of course, is how to measure this. Evaluation is impact’s much talked-about but highly misunderstood little sibling. Sure, we need to evaluate our projects, but not just any evaluation will do. This is why I have massively stepped back the evaluation I do of my programmes, all but eliminating the usual gamut of questionnaires and surveys that used to be a must-have for any robust initiative.

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Think about it this way: have you ever ever gotten a truly surprising answer to ‘did you enjoy this activity/event/project?’ Most people will have done, a few people didn’t, and that tells you… precisely nothing. Sure, if you’re developing something particularly new or experimental it might be worth checking if your audience enjoyed it, but nine times out of ten you’ll be able to tell how enjoyable something was without asking.

Same with ‘did you learn anything today?’ The facts and figures people might be able to recall and parrot back five minutes after finishing your event are all but worthless in measuring whether you had a real impact on their knowledge. I can memorise a phone number that I need to call – that doesn’t mean I learned it or that I’ll remember it tomorrow, much less in a year’s time.

True evaluation of impact is going to take a lot more effort and a lot more care than what we’re used to. We need to look at long-term changes, all the while understanding the many complex and intersecting factors at play when it comes to affecting people’s attitudes about science. Groups like the British Science Association and Wellcome have started undertaking studies into longer-term impact of STEM projects, among other things, but it will still be many years before we have the data we need to know what makes a good, impactful project.

Despite the click-baity title this isn’t a call to stop all evaluation ever. But think about the questions you’re asking and what they’re telling you. Are they really informing best practice and proving impact, or are they just a waste of your audience’s time – and yours?

So: what questions are worth asking, and what impact should we be aiming for? That will be the subject of future blogs but I invite you to continue the discussion below!