Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Q&A with Dr Helen Taylor: Why we need more science in our lives

Are we hearing enough from our scientists?

Why is it so important that our academics and researchers make an effort to share their work with us - and what fears and struggles do they face in doing so?

One of New Zealand's emerging "science communicators", Otago University post-doctoral researcher Dr Helen Taylor, recently scooped a competition in which she simplified her work in a 180-second video.

Her studies focus on drastic changes to the population sizes, genetic profiles and extinction risks of some of our most cherished threatened species.

Using a combination of field research, genetics and computer modelling, she investigates how mating between relatives and related factors is affecting male fertility and reproductive success in New Zealand birds.

Taylor, presenting at Queenstown Research Week this week, spoke with Herald science reporter Jamie Morton about the growing need to get more scientists in the spotlight.

Q. Firstly, tell us a little more about what you do.

A. My research is about what happen when populations go through a drastic decline or population bottleneck.

I look at what happens to genetic variation when a population crashes and what knock-on effects the bottleneck might have in terms of inbreeding and issues with, for example, reproduction and fertility.

Many of New Zealand's native species have experienced population bottlenecks thanks to habitat destruction and introduced predators such as stoats, possums, rats, and cats.

It's important for us to understand what kind of long term effects these bottlenecks might have on New Zealand's wildlife.

Q. You've just won the 180 Seconds of Science competition. Tell us about your entry and how you compounded your research?

A. The challenge for this competition was to make a video that explains an aspect of my research and runs for no more than three minutes.

It was important to make the video accessible to a general audience; partly because that's one of the major goals of science communication and partly because one of the prizes was being decided by public vote.

So it was really about breaking my work down into some key facts that would be interesting, easy to grasp and would work well in a visual format.

I was extremely lucky to have help from Natural History New Zealand - they leant me the amazingly talented Regan Dodd to be my camera man and editor, as well as giving us access to library footage and all kinds of equipment.

Q. You're clearly passionate about communicating science to the public - has this always been a big interest of yours?

A. Definitely.

I came into science from a slightly odd direction.

After completing my undergrad degree in natural sciences, I sort of panicked about what to do next and ended up working in public relations for about six years.

I worked on a huge variety of products, from pasta sauce to kids' toys to hotel chains.

I learned a lot about effective communication over those six years and that stayed with me when I returned to science research via a masters degree and then a PhD here in New Zealand.

Otago University researcher Dr Helen Taylor. Credit: Andrew Digby
Otago University researcher Dr Helen Taylor. Credit: Andrew Digby



Q. Why do you think science communication is so important? Are Kiwis getting enough science in their lives?

A. It's important for a number of reasons.

A lot of research funding comes, ultimately, from public money and so I think, as scientists, we have a responsibility to be able to explain to the public what exactly we're doing with that money.

I also think it's kind of demoralising to work on something if you can't make other people understand why it's exciting and important because then it's just you working away in your own little corner.

As a conservation researcher, it's particularly important to get people engaged with my work because if they don't care about this stuff enough to make changes that can help reduce our impact on the planet, we're in for some pretty big losses in terms of species extinctions.

New Zealand has some excellent science programmes - particularly on Radio New Zealand.

Our Changing World and This Way Up are great shows and presenters like Jesse Mulligan and Kim Hill regularly feature science pieces on their programmes.

There's room for more though - especially for younger people.

Q. Science communication seems to be particularly popular among younger researchers: do you see an age divide? Do we need more older and established scientists reaching out to the public?

A. My experience has been that there are good and bad science communicators at all stages a science career.

It's true, though, that younger researchers seem to be more proactive about finding new and exciting ways to get their research out there.

We have to be - it's insanely competitive for early career researchers right now and everyone's looking for a way to stand out from the crowd and compete for increasingly elusive jobs.

I do get depressed when I see an older academic recycling the same schtick they've been presenting for years - stuff that wasn't even effective communication 20 years ago.

It would also be great to see more focus on science communication for students undertaking research degrees.

I was very fortunate to have PhD supervisors who made sure everyone in our lab knew how to make the most of opportunities to communicate their research.

There's definitely not enough of that from senior academics - it's not seen as a priority.

Q. Do you think there are still many scientists out there who would rather keep their science in their labs or in scientific journals, rather than try to share it with the rest of us?

A. Maybe there are a few, but I think most researchers are quite keen for people to hear about what they're doing and, even better, to get excited about it.

Public attention can come with a lot of validation that you're doing something worthwhile.

However, I think there are also researchers who feel like they've been "burned" by trying to engage with the public in the past - be it via feeling misrepresented by the media or from being attacked by internet trolls on comment boards - and they get scared off.

I also think researchers feel like they just don't have time to deal with this kind of stuff on top of everything else they're being asked to do by their university or funders in order to justify their existence.

Until science communication skills are truly valued by academic employers, it will be difficult to get people to make this a priority.

Q. Do scientists who speak out - and gain a public profile for it - attract any criticism or ill-feeling from their peers? Is there a tall poppy syndrome in science? Or do you feel scientists are now being pushed the other way, and toward the spotlight?

A. I'm not sure.

I hope there's not a tendency to criticise, because that would be extremely churlish and unconstructive - especially if it comes from people who aren't prepared to try and communicate their science.

I haven't experienced any negative feedback for any science communication I've done... yet.

I do think there's a balance though.

If people think you're spending all your time on science communication, they may start to question whether you are actually doing any science.

Q. What are other hurdles do you think scientists face in speaking publicly?

A. Scientists are people - so they face the same challenges that everyone faces with public speaking.

Some people just don't like it - they get paralysed with fear if asked to give a talk or step in front of a camera.

There are ways to train yourself to be better at that though - you may never enjoy public speaking, but you can make it so that no one watching realises you don't enjoy it.

Scientists need more help with that maybe.

I think with science communication there's an added pressure that if you say the wrong thing because you were nervous or not quite with it, there could be this massive public backlash against you that could damage your career.

Some scientists do work on very controversial topics that have to be very carefully explained to avoid being misinterpreted.

Q. What enduring misconceptions do you feel the public have about science?

A. That it's difficult to understand.

And that it's boring or not relevant to them.

Both of these misconceptions result from poor science communication.

I truly believe that 99 per cent of research is exciting and easy for everyone to understand if you can break it down in the right way.

It takes effort, but I've always found people appreciate it.

And it's awesome when you see that lightbulb moment where someone understand what it is you're doing and gets excited about it.

Q. Which New Zealand science communicators do you most admire?

She's not a researcher, but I think Nicola Toki, the Department of Conservation threatened species ambassador, does a great job connecting with people about wildlife management in New Zealand.

I also think the Lab in a Box group are doing brilliant work getting science to school kids outside of major urban centres in NZ.

Then there are some interesting citizen science projects like University of Otago's Marine Metre Squared Project, Victoria University's Identify Animals and, of course, Nature Watch.

Projects like these are great science communication tools - what better to way to get people engaged with a project than to make them part of it?

People can follow Dr Helen Taylor's work here.

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf03 at 26 Sep 2016 07:44:35 Processing Time: 762ms