Communicating geoscience: time to do better
Geoscientists make up quite a unique community. We are commonly perceived as outdoorsy and observant (and strangely interested in decorative boulders or pavement rocks), which is not a bad generalisation, but that certainly does not capture the plurality of the field. Let us remember that our science involves getting our heads around how our rocky planet evolved to become what we see today, with the technical difficulty of only being able to directly observe a very limited part of its outer shell. With such a difficult task, it is no surprise that geoscience gathers a dream team of biology specialists, math geeks, chemistry wizards, physics experts, and so on… So it is ultimately a community made of many communities, represented by many different people with varied interests.
This mix should be enough to get anyone interested in learning more about our science. And it is often the case. I remember the intrigued looks and interjections I got when presenting myself as a geologist during my first volunteer team meeting of Pint of Science, a yearly festival happening all over the world that brings researchers to explain their work in local bars. Geoscientists quickly get used to reactions like these, since there are not that many of us out there when compared to other professions. And, to the outsider, a science that investigates things such as dinosaurs and magma can only be something awesome.
Even having a limited idea of all the different things we can do, they are totally right – we just seem to fail to explore this awesomeness.
We are commonly perceived as outdoorsy and observant (and strangely interested in decorative boulders or pavement rocks)
This goes beyond personal experiences and reaches deep-rooted problems. Our geoscience community knows well the importance of understanding our planet and learning from past processes to tackle future challenges, such as the sustainable resourcing of energy and raw materials for continued societal progress. Meanwhile, a lot of people outside of the field, especially those in decision-making positions, still do not see this strategic role of geoscience. But how to appreciate the importance of something if you do not understand it? This means that, to ensure geoscience knowledge is used in the decisions about the future of our society, one of our important tasks is to make it more accessible and understandable.
I have been learning a lot about this and the way the world perceives geoscience working on the GeoConnect³d project, which has a strong focus on communication to reach our goal of providing a comprehensible knowledge base about the geology of European subsurface for policy support. We use our project blog to talk about geoscience and draw attention to the challenges we are facing to reach our goal. And the most popular posts in our project blog are the ones that manage to explain quite technical geology-related topics by telling a good story that brings together their awesomeness and usefulness. So focusing on well-known concepts such as thermal spa waters, sparkling waters, or gravity to explain how geoscience is present in everyone’s lives seems to be a successful way to share our knowledge.
However, this is not necessarily an easy exercise. Our scientific training tells us that we need to focus on presenting results. The classic formats for talks and posters in conferences are surely effective to show them, but often fail to pass an understandable story about them. The catch is that, as results without a link to our everyday lives, geological information is hard to decipher – even between the different communities in the field! This way of communicating geoscience obviously has its purposes, but is it the best way when trying to reach people outside that specific topic, or outside the scientific community?
You can imagine my answer.
However, we keep on trying to pass our messages this way. And we keep facing a lack of awareness from society about us, and the science we do. I do not believe that our usual way of communicating with the world outside our bubble and their distrust in our science are only coincidental.
The catch is that, as results without a link to our everyday lives, geological information is hard to decipher – even between the different communities in the field!
So we have people interested (and certainly intrigued) about the wonders of geoscience, and we have the material all around us.
This mismatch made even more sense to me after watching a very inspiring presentation on storytelling in science in the series of online events I am helping to organise, the Couch of Science. Since then I started questioning a lot of the communication I do. But this is a good thing. And as I get more and more interested in science communication targeting the public outside the scientific community, I finally start realising that everyone – even the experts – appreciates a story well told.
So we have people interested (and certainly intrigued) about the wonders of geoscience, and we have the material all around us. This means it is the time to focus on developing the ability to transform all the knowledge we have into stories that people care about. Focus on sharing how different sciences are combined to read Earth’s outer shell and understand, for example, how the dance of big blocks of continental masses (beyond the well-known geographic continental boundaries) determines everything we see, from spectacular mountains and other points of touristic interest to geologic hazard in the form of volcanoes or earthquakes. Bring the highly technical information as close as we can to concepts of common understanding.
Focus on sharing how different sciences are combined to read our rocks and understand, for example, how the dance of big blocks of continental masses (beyond the well-known geographic continental boundaries) determines everything we see, from spectacular mountains and other points of touristic interest to geologic hazard in the form of volcanoes or earthquakes.
I sure know I am not the first one to have this epiphany, as there are plenty of geoscientists doing amazing work communicating complex topics such as the importance of seismological data, georesources needed for a low carbon future, or monitoring volcanic hazard, just to cite a few. But we need more, many more communicators. Ideally, we all need to be communicators.
Getting geoscience to reach more people is my new goal. Encouraging as many people as possible to care about what their planet is made of, and which processes are constantly shaping it, is the best way to get society to recognise how fundamental our science is. And this is a necessary step towards achieving the much needed science-based common actions for a better future.
Contributor: Renata Barros graduated with a BSc in geology from University of São Paulo in 2012 and obtained a PhD in petrology-geochemistry from University College Dublin in 2017. She is currently part of the GeoEnergy research group at the Geological Survey of Belgium (GSB), coordinating the H2020 GeoERA-GeoConnect³d project. Her expertise is on mineral exploration for sustainable sourcing of critical metals with a focus on battery metals, but her current research is focused on the broader topic of subsurface management in Europe. She is a science communicator actively engaged in the outreach activities of GeoConnect³d, GSB and as part of the volunteer team of the Pint of Science festival in Belgium.