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  • Writer's pictureIlkka Hanskin Luontoverkko

What is effective science communication made of?

Climate change and biodiversity loss have been in the news for several decades. Over the years, we’ve gathered a vast amount of scientific knowledge on these topics and their effects, and also come up with many possible solutions. Despite all the research, both crises remain unsolved. One could ask, is this due to lack of knowledge or could it be due to the ways we communicate?

I dove into the world of science communication close to three years ago as I switched from academia to working at the Finnish Science Centre Heureka. At Heureka, we are at the leading edge of science communication and education, serving diverse audiences. We work both with recreational visitors and with school groups ranging from pre-schoolers to high school students. The COVID pandemic has hit hard the entire culture and museum field, and Heureka is no exception. Nevertheless, we have jumped at the opportunity to create a completely new set of virtual workshops, science shows, camps and clubs that have allowed us to reach out to a new audience. Hopefully some of these newly developed programmes will continue even when the pandemic is over. Nevertheless, the exhibitions lie at the heart of the operation of the science centre, and at best the number of visitors can be astounding. Our latest dinosaur exhibition was seen by over 400 000 visitors, and such numbers are hard to grasp when compared to the number of downloads or citations that a scientific paper attracts. Indeed, from the point of view of our visitors, Heureka compares to amusement parks. In my opinion, the combination of a solid scientific basis and an interesting wrapping is what makes science centres special. The principles that guide Heureka include encouraging curiosity, exploration and having fun. Some time ago, I was showing a Russian visitor around Heureka. They were planning a new science centre in Russia, and as we were touring the exhibitions, I was asked if the main objective at Heureka is to learn or to have fun. I replied: both. The joy of discovery is a vital part of the learning process.

One of my favourites at Heureka is a classic scientific demonstration, the Foucault pendulum. The pendulum, invented by Léon Foucault in 1851, transforms a rather abstract phenomenon—the rotation of our planet—into movement that we can observe with our own eyes. The pendulum provides a nice opportunity to discuss the consequences of the Earth’s rotation such as the curved paths of winds and ocean currents. Ocean currents on their part explain for example why the climate on the east coast of North America is hot and humid, while at the same latitude the west coast is mild and dry. The climate affects plant and animal communities, and probably human culture too. We can ask, would Silicon Valley be located where it is if the Earth would spin in the opposite direction? Likewise, here in northern Europe, the climate would be much cooler without the warming effect of the Gulf Stream that originates in the Gulf of Mexico. Thought exercises like this demonstrate how science helps us to understand how the world functions and why things are as they are. The rotation of the Earth resembles many other phenomena that would go unnoticed due to our limited senses. Instead, we need observational data and analyses, that is, science.

Fake news, misinformation and disinformation, anti-vaccine attitudes and other forms of pseudoscience receive a lot of attention in the media, but the Finnish population in general still trusts science. According to the Science Barometer, a survey conducted every three years, the level of trust in science shows a slightly increasing trend over time. The anti-science movement therefore appears to consist of a small number of highly vocal people. However, one thing most people have in common, is our interest in nature. One positive outcome of the pandemic has been the rediscovered love towards the outdoors, and people have flocked to national parks and green spaces close to home. I’ve been involved with guided nature and bird tours since my teen years, and in my experience guided tours are the best form of science communication. As I’ve been leading guided birding trips in Finland and overseas, I’ve been impressed by how great the interest in nature can be, regardless of the country. While living in the US, I offered guided birding trips to be auctioned in fundraising events for our child’s preschool and school, and those trips were always popular. Perhaps because the setting was a bit backwards—a foreigner as the guide—we all learned a lot about nature and each other.

There is so much to learn about the life that surrounds us, and as a biologist, I’m well aware of my lack of knowledge when it comes to taxa that I haven’t studied. Exploring nature in the company of experts in other fields than my own cab be extremely rewarding, and one can truly experience the joy of learning. Ilkka Hanski was great company when exploring the outdoors, as those people tend to be, who have spent their entire lives connected to nature. Field trips with Ilkka also demonstrated how much knowledge one can gather by studying nature. I can remember Ilkka telling about the lives of dung flies with such deep insight that it became obvious that he indeed had researched those species as well.

One of the most important lessons there is to learn about nature, is the extraordinary diversity of life. When you begin to grasp the diversity of different biotopes and species, a forest is no longer just a collection of trees. Instead, our Finnish forests form a community consisting of 20 000 species, all with their own dynamic place and history in a network of interactions. Meadows aren’t just overgrown lawns or wasteland. Instead, the communities of species that inhabit grasslands coevolved with megafauna such as mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses. Mires and bogs don’t exist simply for us to be able to dig peat or pick berries, nor do they exist as to function as carbon sinks. Instead, they form a complex mosaic of habitats created by the interplay of living nature and the cycle of water and nutrients. We Finns take pride in being close to nature, but we too struggle with grasping the importance of biodiversity. We can consider a hypothetical example, a forest consisting of five species: pine trees (Pinus sylvestris), feather moss (Ptilium crista-castrensis), starflowers (Lysimachia europaea), penny bun mushrooms (Boletus edulis) and lingonberries (Vaccinium vitis-idaea). How many forest owners and outdoor lovers would find the forest pleasant and would enjoy spending time there? My guess is that quite a few. However, despite its pleasant looks, this five-species forest would be an ecological disaster. This forest would be almost completely void of diversity: interconnected networks of species depending on each other. Although a five-species forest probably wouldn’t be biologically possible, in reality we are surrounded by heavily modified landscapes with poor capability of maintaining diverse communities of species. Yet this is the nature we are used to and what we consider to be normal.

The understanding that follows from species identification skills, knowledge of natural history and studying the principles of ecology in theory and practice has appropriately been called ’nature literacy’. Nature literacy in turn can be viewed as one component of ’science capital’, a concept developed by Professor Louise Archer, consisting of the sum of our knowledge, understanding and attitudes towards science. Knowledge of the ways of nature and deeper familiarity with at least one group of organisms adds many additional layers to our existence, particularly when we can observe nature almost wherever we are, often during our daily activities. A good example of how we can develop nature literacy is the ’100 birds’ challenge (#100lintulajia), originally launched by BirdLife Finland in 2017. Finding and identifying 100 species in a year is not an easy task for a beginner, but the challenge is still within reach. Even experienced naturalist like to participate in this well-formulated challenge, which still inspires people on social media platforms and has led to many people starting a new hobby.

An interest in nature increases our respect towards nature, and the more we respect nature, the more we want to protect it. After all, we care about the things we know. In science education, we can build on these principles: aim at growing science capital without forcing, showing respect and interest, focusing on the positive, and by creating opportunities for discovery. Solving the climate crisis and biodiversity loss requires action at the personal and societal levels. Maybe higher nature literacy and science capital will give us the motivation and courage that is needed for us and our politicians to take action?

Kristjan Niitepõld

Kristjan works in the Inspiration Unit at the Finnish Science Centre Heureka. Kristjan obtained his PhD under the supervision of Ilkka Hanski at the University of Helsinki, and has studied the flight energetics, dispersal and life-history ecology of butterflies in Finland and in the US.

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