Getting tongue-tied in the task of popular science communication

When we applied for money to do the Agri/Cultures project, we were very interested in experimenting with communicating academic research in new (and exciting) ways. We were particularly interested in trying to communicate our work to the general public and knowing that our current culture is heavily visual (think TV, films, the internet), promised to deliver 3 short films as part of the project.

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In a previous post we presented the first of these short films, which provided an introduction to the project and its aims, and now we are working to finalise the other two. One of these follow up films aims to present the same information that we have written up in an academic article (currently under review), with the idea being to communicate the same message in different forms to reach different audiences. That film is almost complete and we are now just waiting for the academic article to be approved to finalise and release it.

The other short film we have in development aims to describe the scientific process involved in testing material for contamination with GMOs for people who may not be familiar with how it works. In doing so, we are trying to provide information on not only the practical steps of the process but also the time and cost involved, as well as where the significant challenges lie. Our fieldwork has revealed that to maintain separation between GM, conventional and organic agricultures requires a significant amount of testing for GM contamination all along the production chain, with some actors testing up to 7 times between purchasing seed and selling grain. We therefore felt that conveying what is required for GM detection was a relevant topic for an Agri/Cultures short film. It was also a relevant topic for another project I coordinate, biodiverSEEDy (which has involved testing maize seeds from indigenous farmers in Mexico to see if they are contaminated with GMOs) and therefore this was a chance to develop something across the two projects.

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I then took on the task of coming up with a draft script for this film on GM detection and quickly realised that although I may have certain skills when it comes to academic publishing, this in no way means that I know how to write a movie script and communicate complex scientific information and technical processes to the general public. Within the team, and together with our colleagues in the biodiverSEEDy project, we had lots of discussions and debates around issues such as: a) who is our audience (and what level of biological knowledge might they reasonably be expected to have), b) how can we attract their interest and encourage them to see the movie as relevant for them, c) how long should the movie aim to be, d) what level of detail is needed to both communicate the process accurately and hold the audience’s interest, d) how can we balance the specificities of one particular detection method with messages about the process in general. Alongside these complex discussions, we also had to decide things like what currency to use and what style of imagery to pursue. None of this was simple and everytime we felt like we were getting closer to good draft, someone was able to raise challenging questions about the usefulness or sufficiency of what we had and often that sent us back to discussing the topics above anew.

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For example, one of the most challenging issues was how to describe what a GMO (or even a gene) is. What can we expect our audience to know? How we approached this varied greatly depending on whether we thought our audience was small-scale farmers in Mexico or South Africa that may be contaminated with GMOs, or university educated civil society organisers working for environmental organisations. We also had to question what metaphor we felt was appropriate for our description. For example, a gene is classically described as a ‘building block’ or a piece of ‘code’ but these metaphors are very connected to engineering and information technology and may not necessarily capture the complexity of how we currently think about the workings of the genome. We also found it extremely difficult to satisfy the level of information that a scientist working in this field thinks it is important to communicate and know with the demand to keep the text simple, engaging and understandable. For example, do we need to name the specific chemicals used at the different stages? Do we  even need to describe what is going on in each of the stages? Or can we just say you mix your sample with a bunch of different chemicals until you get what you want (which is DNA, but then to what level do we need to explain what that is?)

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In drafting the script for this short film on GM detection, I have sometimes felt like I have tumbled down the rabbit hole and no longer know how to explain the world around me. Everything I try only raises further questions and problems and sends me round and round in circles until there seems to be no way out. Even when we thought we had finalised the script, working with the accompanying images has now started to raise new questions and we are now in the process of redrafting again. The process of drafting the movie script has been fascinating, fun and frustrating and made me realise just how little our academic training prepares us to communicate our ideas and knowledge in different ways. In this project we are working on improving this skill not only through developing our short films but also by writing this blog and as with everything, it remains a work in progress.

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