Countdown to release our interactive website

It’s been a while since I last update about the development of our interactive website.

The aim is to create an interactive tool to explore and understand some of the main traits of each of the different agri-food systems we have been studying in the last 3 years, as well as offer a way to be able to compare these systems and facilitate the identification of their main differences. It is meant to be used mainly by students and, of course, anyone else interested in the issue.

Slow but steady, we are getting there. Now we have on board a web designer and a programmer who is about to start putting the different pieces developed (i.e text, video, fotos, design) together. An important part of the content is the creation of short videos which can illustrate or add valuable information to the text content found in each of the nodes. We aim at releasing in in early January. We’ll keep you updated about this issue!

As a part of the content for the interactive website, a couple of weeks ago we interviewed a GM farmer. He was a kind man and his interview was very interesting. When asked about the benefits of GM crops, he answered that, even if GM crops around his area are claimed to be less productive and he is aware of some of the controversy regarding GM crops (i.e he actually literally said that he did not know whether GM crops were actually good for consumers), he used them because they gave him ‘tranquility’ and avoided him headaches with the potential problem of the corn borer plague. His fields were actually not exactly next door where he lived and he could not go often to see how they were doing. By sowing GM crops, he perceived that his task as a manager of the field was facilitated.

Of course, this could raise questions about whether his ‘tranquility’ is a legitimate reason to grow GM crops despite its potential implications (e.g social and ethical aspects). Or whether by sowing GM crops it meant the creation of ‘headaches’ for others (e.g organic maize farmers). Actually, when asked about this latter question, he said that luckily in his area there were no organic farmers, so that potential conflict did not exist. Most of his neighbours were, in fact, sowing the same variety as him. However, I wonder if, perhaps, there are not organic farmers because of the potential risk of contamination.

Some lessons on using short movies as scientific communication tools

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During the last months, we have invested some of our time in making two animation movies that illustrate some of the issues related to our work in The Agri/Cultures Project. The idea behind these movies is to try to explore different paths for scientific communication and help bridge the gap between the scientists and (the rest of) society.

The two short movies that will be released soon are very different from one another: one explains the complexities, costs and uncertainties associated with GM detection processes and the second one tells a story of everyday forms of resistance to GM crops in Spain.

Below you can read some of the lessons I learned during the movie-making process for scientists aiming to communicate their work to non-scientists.

  1. Try to tell a narrative story: As I mentioned in a previous post, scientists and, let’s say, visual documentarists or journalists communicate quite differently.  While the former use an abstract structured discourse to advance an argument, the latter base their work on stories and characters that navigate those stories. My advice is, as much as possible and even if it’s challenging, use storytelling in your popular communication approach. All people use stories to make sense of the world we live in and thus stories are powerful tools to communicate anything. They mobilise emotions, identities and make the audience feel engaged with the characters in specific situations of conflict.
  2. Think visually (and if you can afford it, involve an artist in the process): The challenge here is not only to tell a narrative story with scientific content, but to use visual symbols to do it (rather than text). This means that if you have written a script, it might be useful if you do the exercise of thinking how this text is going to be seen and evaluate if that actually works (e.g draw a storyboard). Also, you should keep in mind that there are already existing shared symbols and it might be convenient to use them. It is also very recommendable to involve a visual artist in your work if possible, because this is actually their field of expertise.
  3. Accept and assume that this is not a scientific product aimed at scientists. This seems very basic but I think this is actually a very difficult issue for scientists. Although it’s important to maintain a high level of visual accuracy in your story (e.g if you are explaining something about water, you might want to paint water in blue, instead of orange), you might want to conceive your short movie as a very small taste of the topic you are aiming to communicate, with a couple of key messages. This means that it’s important to prioritise the information you want to communicate (and accept you have to simplify a lot). While the movie can offer a starting point to create interesting discussions around a topic, you should accept that the movie itself won’t contain all the aspects to have a systematic scientific discussion or even presentation. This tool is more limited than a text in terms of the complexity that it can capture and its main audience won’t be scientists themselves. In practical terms, this also implies that you should avoid jargon as much as possible and simplify anything that can be simplified.
  4. Share it to a non-specialised audience before releasing it: This can help you further improve the communicative aspects of the movie. Also it allows for modifications (e.g of script, images) at early stages of the movie making process.
  5. Think of the distribution channels as an essential task of the movie-making process: This is actually something we still have not done for our 2 movies, but I think it’s essential and should ideally be thought as a part of the process. I think the key idea is to broadly think of different types of people who could benefit or be interested in seeing and sharing your movies. In our case, this will probably be our diffused networks of fellow academics, students, civil society groups working on agri/cultures, Mexican farmers and journalists.

To conclude, I’d like to mention that I think short-movie making has great potential as a pedagogical tool because it implies digging into a topic and learning to prioritise what is the essential information and how to communicate it. This might be something worth exploring further in the future.

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.