Public outreach: an evolving story


Why is communicating science so important? As Anne Roe, the American psychologist, said: “Nothing in science has any value to society if it is not communicated.”

Good public outreach increases the visibility of research, can enhance the reputation of the researchers and institutions involved and boost support for future funding, collaboration or exploitation of results. And, of course, communicating science, its challenges and opportunities, is vital to inspire the next generation of researchers.

demonstration supporting science

Scientific literacy

Today, we are bombarded by a deluge of information from the internet, social and mass media. To reliably decipher what is fact from fiction relies on citizens having a level of scientific literacy: the ability to critically evaluate, apply and understand scientific knowledge and how it is produced. Without this skill, citizens will have difficulty in making fully informed decisions on issues that could profoundly affect their lives.

The COST Action ‘Building on scientific literacy in evolution towards scientifically responsible Europeans’ (EuroScitizen) focused on promoting scientific literacy using evolution as a model to improve public understanding of science.

Dr Tania Jenkins from the University of Geneva describes herself as an evolutionary ecologist turned science communicator and was Chair of the Action that is now in its final month.

We chose evolution as a model because it is so relevant to daily lives – there are applications of evolution all around us,” explains Tania. “Many people make the mistake of thinking that evolution is something that has happened, but organisms are constantly evolving and adapting. For example, over the past few years we have all heard about the rapid evolution of new variants of the Covid virus.”

Another topical and relevant issue is adaptation to climate change. “For example, European vineyards have been shaped by centuries of evolution, but will need to adapt to the changing climate – this could represent a very real threat to aspects of European cultural identity,” says Tania.

EuroScitizen attracted over 200 members from 36 countries and from a wide range of disciplines. “As well as evolutionary biologists we welcomed education scientists, science communicators, teachers and journalists from all around Europe,” explains Tania.

“We wanted to give a human face to science”

Dr Tania Jenkins, Chair of EuroScitizen

EuroScitizen assessed the level of acceptance and understanding of evolution across Europe through a survey of first year biology students. “We also looked at how evolution was approached in different EU countries, areas and ages,” adds Tania. “We looked at the role of media and non-formal education settings, such as in museums and science centres, the role of scientists themselves in the communication of their science, and also how citizen science can contribute.

This last aspect was a joint endeavour with two other COST projects ‘Increasing understanding of alien species through citizen science (Alien CSI)’ and ‘Citizen Science to promote creativity, scientific literacy, and innovation throughout Europe (CS-EU)’ and a meeting on ‘Citizen science as a tool for education and promotion of scientific literacy in evolution’ that took place in January 2020 just before the COVID pandemic hit. The outcomes were published in the prestigious Royal Society Proceedings B in 2022.

During the pandemic, EuroScitizen produced lots of dissemination material that are available on the project website. “We produced several e-books that have been translated into many languages – in particular publications for the public and teachers on the Covid virus and influenza, as well as videos and online courses,” says Tania.

The videos produced included a programme on Evolutionary Science aimed at primary schools and a series of portraits of scientists. “The portraits series was a result of the Covid pandemic,” says Tania. “Physical meetings were obviously limited but we wanted to give a human face to science, so we asked contributors to record short clips describing their work, their lives and ambitions.

The online courses developed included a course on responsible research and innovation and a series – Sci Comm4All – that gives researchers tips on how to better communicate science. EuroScitizen has also been a springboard to other things activities including an upcoming Creative Europe proposal that is addressing the issue of fake news.

Nature-based solutions

Creating a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) has been a significant outcome for the COST Action ‘Implementing nature-based solutions for creating a resourceful circular city’ (Circular City). Resource depletion, climate change and degradation of ecosystems are challenges faced by cities worldwide to which they must adapt. Cities need to become more sustainable. One route to reach this transition is to implement nature-based solutions. These can provide a range of ecosystem services that benefit the urban environment such as flood prevention, water treatment, local food production and more.

Watch the Action video on circular cities:

However, most nature-based solutions are currently implemented to serve a single purpose without a more holistic approach of circular urban economies which combines multiple services that return and (re)use resources within the city,” says Action Chair Dr Guenter Langergraber of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna (BOKU). “A circular city approach should increase the benefits obtained. Our COST Action is building a network to show that a circular system using nature-based solutions to manage resources can lead to a more resilient, sustainable and healthy urban environment.

The network of researchers, companies and stakeholders assembled under the Action is spread across Europe and neighbouring countries and brings together a diverse portfolio of disciplines.

Our aim was to use nature-based solutions in a different way with a focus on interdisciplinary planning,” explains Guenter. “To achieve a greener city but to ensure that the various solutions and processes are integrated into one holistic system that maximises sustainability and the use of natural resources within a city. The main outcome of the work is a framework of how to use different nature-based solutions to address circularity aspects in cities.

Having developed the framework, the next step was to consider how to disseminate the findings for maximum impact. “We wanted to develop a web-based guidance tool that show the results in an understandable way, so anyone in a city administration could easily find a solution,” says Guenter. “People should be able to access information via a solution- or technology-based entry point and be guided to different solutions and case studies.

Circular City has produced a number of videos available in multiple languages and the MOOC ‘Nature-Based Solutions for Creating Circular Cities’. “So far more than 500 people have taken this course in its first iteration, which ended in January,” Guenter says. “We are now updating the course based on the feedback from participants and will fully integrate the guidance tool as well. The course will be available again to everyone after the Action is closed.

Further training material is also being developed that will enable people to run their own courses to raise awareness and overcome barriers in cities. “The new material will focus on examples from real life projects,” concludes Guenter. “You could describe it as an offline version of the MOOC.”

Additional information

Read more about COST Action ‘Building on scientific literacy in e towards scientifically responsible Europeans (EuroScitizen)’

Read more about COST Action ‘Implementing nature based solutions for creating a resourceful circular city (Circular City)