This week we chat with science communicator Gretta Pecl, who has the skills needed to communicate effectively with the public, government, the media, and others outside of her field. Gretta is an Associate Professor at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at The University of Tasmania (UTAS). A self-described ecological detective (marine ecologist), much of her work focuses on finding out how our marine ecosystems might be changing, and in helping to establish what practical things we can do to make the best of climate change impacts. Gretta is passionate about science communication and engages the public in aspects of her research. She tweets as @GrettaPecl and is active on sites such as RedMap – encouraging Citizen Science.
Gretta recognises the importance of good communication and scientific research. Perfecting the art of storytelling can transform dry, technical information into compelling and relatable content that everyone wants to (and can) read, watch, listen to and share.
Your elevator statement – who are you professionally and personally?
I started off as a marine ecologist interested in how animals, populations and ecosystems work the way that they do. However, since researching effects of climate change on marine systems I’ve realised that more often than not, lack of scientific knowledge isn’t our biggest barrier to making progress and taking action – it’s effectively communicating the results we do have to people, communities and governments at various levels. I’m now very passionate about science engagement and communication.
Tell us about the role communications plays in your typical day?
The bulk of my work is still research-based, however I factor some form of communication and engagement into every project I do, and I strongly encourage my students to get involved in science communication as well. Most importantly, I see science communication as a two-way process, with listening to the perspectives and experiences of (in my case) fishers and divers and others that use or are interested in marine systems, as critically important. I run a few Facebook pages aimed at the public and help out with some Twitter accounts so most days see me interacting with the public in one way or another. Most months I would have a public, community group or school talk or event to attend and usually some interactions with the media as well. One of the projects I run often receives emails from the public with questions about particular species they have seen, wanting to know what the species identification was or if something was unusual, so I spend a lot of time with one-on-one emails as well.
When did you make the transition to say “I’m involved in science communication” rather than just science in general?
I led a report on the effects of climate change on the rock lobster fishery in Tasmania in 2008/2009 and one of my colleagues involved ran a component of the work interviewing the fishers. It turned out that 80% of the fishers didn’t think climate change existed or if they did, it wasn’t something that would affect them. It really struck me how useless our research would be in this case if the fishers, who have a role in decision-making around the fishery, didn’t understand or accept the science around climate change in general. Shortly after that I started a marine citizen science project that was aimed at ecological monitoring for climate change impacts but also then using that information to communicate back to the public (ie a two-way knowledge exchange between the public and the scientists).
Were you always passionate about combining science and communications?
Looking back, even though I started seeing science communication as an imperative in the context of climate change in the late 2000’s, I’d always been involved in writing articles for public media and giving science presentations at schools and other local events. But early on in my career I was interested in science communication because I just wanted to explain to people how cool science was and try and get across how and why our natural systems were so fascinating and important. Now though, I can’t see us making it through the next century without us somehow creating a more scientifically engaged global population.
Which communications tools can’t you live without?
What are the biggest challenges in your role?
Time. I need a stunt double.
Tell us about the most interesting thing you’ve had to communicate to the public?
How giant squid have sex.
Which writer do you most admire?
Ooooh, tough question. I like lots of different writers for different reasons. I particularly admire writers that can get kids and teenagers interested in reading.
What have been some of the biggest changes to science communications since you began your career?
I feel like over the last few years it’s gained a lot more respect from colleagues, and that institutes now see it as a much more valuable and worthwhile endeavour. A few years ago it was ‘How do you have time for THAT, shouldn’t you be focussing on important things’. But now it’s expected that everybody does something to communicate what they do in some format.
What communication quality do you look for in your colleagues?
Passion. Almost everything else can be taught, but you have to have that initial love and excitement about what you do.
What tips do you wish you’d known starting out in communications?
That you get better at it pretty quickly, you don’t have to be perfect at it and generally the public isn’t that scary and they appreciate you having a go. Use stories and experiences to connect with people – scientists learn and communicate through data, numbers and graphs etc but often the public needs a story to remember or a situation they can relate to.
Finish this sentence: ‘Communication is…’ a basic part of our job as scientists, we shouldn’t see it as optional.