Monthly Archives: February 2020

A brief timeline of science communication in the UK – pt 1

Firstly it’s important to mention: this focuses on European/UK scicomm history and is not reflective of the journeys of other cultures and countries around the world, all of which have a rich history of engagement with science. The Journal of Science Communication had a special issue dedicated to different narratives, and it’s worth checking out: Issue 03, Special Issue: History of Science Communication, 2017

Looking back to the oldest records of science in culture, there are many examples of the democratisation of scholarly debate in places like ancient Greece which lead to an accelerated growth in scientific knowledge and practice. When everybody is invited to take part in the discussion, new ideas and fresh perspectives emerge. It also made the sharing of existing knowledge open to all without restriction. Unfortunately not all technology lent itself to openness; with the advent of the Dark Ages knowledge became more restricted, and the written word meant that it was suddenly inaccessible to people without the literacy or money to afford hand-printed books.

The Enlightenment – roughly beginning in the seventeenth century in Europe – included major advancements in both philosophical and scientific thought. Once again there was a movement towards the ‘public sphere’, which is both a philosophical notion and a practical one. Knowledge was created through dialogue and debate, and places where these discussions took place sprang up all over – salons, cafés, public lectures, journalism. Scientific discoveries of the time were often shared through these means as well as in scholarly journals, as the printing press made it possible to mass-produce treatises and books for a wider audience.

The Royal Society was formed by an independent group of scientists in the 1620s in England in order to provide a venue in which empirical science could be tested and ‘witnessed’ to give it legitimacy. This lead to vast public demonstrations and lectures, though even these were limited to individuals in civic society with the right knowledge and ‘moral standing’. The Society also became a place for the government to find advisors, allowing scientists to feed into policy (and occasionally vice versa).

In 1831 the British Science Association was formed, which had an even more openly stated mission to improve the perception – and by extension, the knowledge of – science within the UK. Much like the Society it provided a place for public discussion and debate on science, including the infamous 1860 Huxley-Wilberforce debate on the topic of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

By the 1920s the Association was sparking debates on topics like ethics, the social responsibility of scientists and the role of science in social progress. Though these topics have always been vital to the progression of science, this was one of the first times they had been discussed at large, and with such a membership.



Who Listens in the Snow?

So how do we bring everything from Homeward Bound – the women, the science, the leadership lessons – together to address complex real world leadership problems? We were very fortunate to have Musimbi Kanyoro on board as our ‘elder’, who has extensive experience from leading the Global Fund for Women and many other nonprofit human rights organisations. Her sessions were always incredibly inspiring, which you can get a sense of if you read her own blog post after coming back from Homeward Bound:

Antarctica has spoken to me…. we are such a small thing in this ocean. We can be supported, and we can be roughed up. We must realise that we can try and do things to help the vulnerabilities we see, and we must also recognise that if we don’t, we will continually destabilise the root of nature and then ruin the only possibilities we have.

-Musimbi Kanyoro
Ice and water in the Gerlache Strait.

Here we come to the heart of why we went to Antarctica: both the epic scale of what we saw and the epic changes which were so visible there show that action is needed to preserve our planet for future generations. And, being in a closed environment with other women in science for 3 weeks created, as Musimbi called it, a ‘leadership laboratory’ where we were able to learn and plan and accomplish so much more than a weeklong course in a conference center somewhere, or an online course once a week. It was an immersive environment for making change, and as the faculty frequently told us, the 13th faculty member was Antarctica. Listening to the voice of that wilderness was one of the most important things we did there, balanced with the task of making that voice more widely heard. As Wallace Stegner puts it, “instead of listening to the silence, we have shouted into the void.” That must change.

From a silent Zodiac cruise, listening.

However, it’s a hard task to bring everyone to the table. Homeward Bound aims to empower women with legacy minded leadership skills, to be collaborative and inclusive rather than self-promoting. I’ve written about how our participants came from many countries and many walks of life, and the age range spanned from 25 to 70. But there was still room for broader intersectionality in who was on board, and what is wonderful is that we discussed this openly, many times, with the leaders of Homeward Bound. Given that the program is based in Australia, it attracts many Australians, lots of English speakers from the US and Europe… but relatively fewer people from South America, Asia, and Africa. These are huge continents to have sparse representation from, and HB acknowledged the difficulty they have found in attracting broader cohorts and wanted our help in making things better. There was also an underrepresentation of LGBTQ and other minority groups who have been historically excluded, and intersectionality was an agreed upon priority for everyone but also, a work in progress.

Many clouds have to clear before we see the sun.

Even though the participants and faculty my year were the most diverse yet, I was glad that the program acknowledged the work still to be done on diversity and showed willingness to go further; to me, this reflects the challenges we all face as leaders in building diverse teams and projects. My own experiences in physics research, working in higher education, and running public engagement projects have all shown me that some forms of inclusion and equity are relatively easy, and some are harder. But we do this work because it matters, and even when we make mistakes, there is always an opportunity to show we can do better. As the brilliant Melissa McEwan described it, allyship is a process and not an identity – each action a chance to work toward our purpose. This also helps us not to be defensive when we fail, a lesson that applies to leadership and life equally.

Now that all 100 of us who went through this intense learning experience together are back home, how can we translate what we’ve learned to our everyday environments? I have found my 100 day action plan a great help (from our strategy work with Kit Jackson), as well as encouragement from the other participants and faculty members. People who experience Homeward Bound purportedly have a higher than average rate of job change or divorce after they return, and I think it’s clear why: the program asks the difficult questions, pushing you to go to the heart of who you are and why you are doing the things you are doing. Fortunately, HB provides a safe environment to explore those questions, and a community to support each other as we all try to act on our values, combating sexism in STEM as well as climate change, and making a world with better leaders for the greater good.

Trying to remember the bigger picture.

The next call for applications to be part of Homeward Bound will be open in March here. Please do feel free to get in touch with me if you are considering applying; it has been an incredibly empowering experience for me which I would wholeheartedly recommend. I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to do this, and the support of many colleagues, friends and family – it has been a transformational experience even though I suspect the transformation is still in progress!