Visions from nature

Ian Winfield: Advancing Scientific Communication Through Cultural Anthropology

By Sam Perrin

Scientific methods of communication with the public have been evolving ever since the first Universities were opened in the 1200s. Recent times have seen communication evolve in step with the digital age. But given our lack of progress in key areas in which scientists have long known we face problems, such as climate change, biodiversity and ocean pollution, one wonders if we’re doing our job well enough.

Ian Winfield is a freshwater ecologist at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology in Lancaster, UK. Ian has spent years working in Northern England in an effort to conserve its populations of the Arctic charr, a common environmentally-demanding fish which has seen many of its populations in the polar regions come under increasing pressure. I took the chance to sit down with Ian at the recent International Charr Symposium in Duluth, Minnesota, and we discussed his experiences using cultural anthropology to encourage ecological action outside of the scientific community.

Ian Winfield, a freshwater ecologist, has been using methods rooted in cultural anthropology to conserve freshwater ecosystems in northern England
Ian Winfield, a freshwater ecologist, has been using methods rooted in cultural anthropology to conserve freshwater ecosystems in northern England (Image Credit: Ian Winfield)

Sam Perrin (SP): What is cultural anthropology?

Ian Winfield (IW): Well I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out a definition. What I’ve settled on is that anthropology is the study of people and the understanding of people, and the cultural part is where the cultural system is your focus, as opposed to say, biological anthropology.

SP: So how can a linkage between cultural anthropology and ecology provide a really obvious benefit to conservation and restoration?

IW: I was involved in a project a few years ago at a lake called Loweswater in Western Cumbria, a fairly quiet area. It’s within a national park, but in a farmed valley. You had classic problems of eutrophication in the lake, and the local community were aware of this. They saw blue-green algal blooms, and they’d had some interactions with regulatory bodies, the environmental agency, but also various other parts of government, and they were a bit frustrated that nothing was happening. We got involved in this project with sociologists from Lancaster University. It took me to a new vocabulary that I wasn’t familiar with.

The local group weren’t interested in prosecuting any individual or anything, they wanted to explore ways that they could move together as a group. It was my first real professional interaction with sociology and cultural anthropology. It required a lot of public participation. It was a 3 year project with meetings at least once every three months in the village hall. Completely open meetings to all residents, and one of the key guiding principles that the sociologists insisted on was that everybody in the meeting would have equal billing. The experts weren’t allowed to dictate how things would happen, things had to be mutually agreed upon. It was quite challenging talking to people who had no background in freshwater ecology. They may be farmers, but without experience in natural history. That was quite interesting, and so lots of discussions were just trying to find a common vocabulary.

Interests often clash when cattle farming strats to cause eutrophication in freshwater ecosystems (Image Credit: Charles Rondeau, CC0 Public Domain)

SP: How hard was it to identify common goals?

IW: It was pretty hard. The biggest problem we had as scientists was to get across the uncertainty that comes with a scientific study. They wanted to know how quickly things would improve, if they took cows out of the area so their slurry and droppings don’t move into the lake. And there’s so much uncertainty in a question like that.

I was there as a fish ecologist. Most people know visually what a fish does and how it functions, so my side was pretty easy. But some of my colleagues were having to deal with more complicated ideas. So for example we were discussing different techniques for controlling the algae populations, which we wanted to do by reducing the nutrients. But the group was also quite interested in some information being given by another body, who sold an ultrasonic machine which got rid of algae by literally blowing it up with sound. So you’d put this thing in the lake, but the ultrasound doesn’t travel very far before it’s absorbed into the water. So you’ve got this relatively large lake with this machine sat in the middle of it. So it’s just killing algae around the machine, not right across the lake. Then the other issue was that it was just blowing up the algae, but the nutrients are staying the lake. So you’re not addressing the real problem. But it was presented as a tangible solution with an obvious result, so it was more attractive.

SP: So why do scientists need to start to embrace, or at least understand, cultural anthropology?

IW: At a very high level, I think that environmental problems are now at a level that seems really bleak. So I think that if you’re an environmental scientist now, and you don’t get involved in communicating with the public, then a major part of your job is not getting done. I’m not saying every single scientist has to do it, but you have to have some mechanism of getting your research out, whether you do it or you have a media office that’s responsible. And cultural anthropology teaches you how to recognise what’s important to the public.

SP: So we need to better understand the value of these studies to the public?

IW: Yes, and I think part of that is knowing what the public needs to know and what managers need to know, and the other part of it is that when you start to talk to the non-specialist, I think by definition you have to simplify. And that can grate to a scientist. But if you speak to people like you’re used to speaking to other scientists, you lose them. The message doesn’t get across. Then there’s the other danger of oversimplifying and making the public feel like they’re being talked down to. It’s a thin line.

SP: That uncertainty that you’ve mentioned. When we’re dealing with people who don’t have a scientific background, do you think it has inspired a little bit of distrust in science? The fact that we’re so hesitant to talk about what we know?

IW: I don’t know if it’s distrust. I know sometimes it’s frustration. The problem is if you come up with a scientific case against a political case, whether it’s a big or small politician, politicians tend to speak in absolutes about what will happen, which they can’t possibly know. Understanding economics is as difficult as understanding landscape ecology. You know the kind of ways that things have happened in the past but you’re still predicting for the future with a degree of uncertainty.

SP: Can you tell me a bit about your current project?

IW: I work within a Lake Ecosystems Group at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology in the UK. We’ve inherited a long-term scientific monitoring programme that’s been done on Windermere and several other lakes essentially unchanged since the 1940s. We use that as a base framework from which we hang other more specific projects. So for example the long term Arctic charr dynamics that I am currently working on, that comes out of these data. We’ve got the long-term continuity and smaller, more specific things that come about. More often than not they’re commissioned by environmental management organisations like our Environmental Agency.

SP: Your current work is with a species, the Arctic charr, which has cultural significance. But how do we get public to resonate with a species that isn’t as culturally important, or an entire ecosystem?

IW: In my experience in the UK, the first obstacle we’ve had to overcome is to get beyond the charismatic megafauna. If you’re in the Lake District and you talk about wildlife conservation, people automatically think of red squirrels, because they’re nice and furry. So it’s taken a lot of time and effort to get the Arctic Charr some kind of recognition, hence the recent commissioning of a public sculpture and the short film ‘Brass, Three Down’ on the cultural importance of the Arctic charr fishery of Windermere and the environmental threats that it faces. We’ve moved to some of the less charismatic species, the less visible species.

We can put a monetary term on some aspects of this, as Windermere is used as a sink for treated sewage, but it’s also sometimes used as a drinking water supply. The private water companies in the UK are a seriously big business. So they’re very keen to minimize costs. They can often do things which our regulatory bodies like the Environment Agency wouldn’t be able to make happen so quickly. They do have some kind of need to project a green image as well, and they’re very good at doing that. So that’s one potential pathway.

IJW radio interview on Windermere
Ian talking to a local radio station on Lake Windemere, where Arctic Charr populations are now more stable (Image Credit: Ian Winfield)

SP: Should we then change the way we talk to the public?

IW: I think we absolutely should. I think we have to engage a lot more. Back in the UK things are moving in that direction. Our major funders of environmental research is the Natural Environment Research Council. Nowadays, when you’re putting in a proposal, you have to answer questions about how you’re going to manage the impact of your research on the wider community, outside of science. You have to be very clear about your dissemination plans. The same Research Council also has a knowledge transfer scheme, where you have a big project for a few years, and then you can apply for a specific smaller project, the sole purpose of which is to take your specific findings and translate them into clear actions for the stakeholders.

I see a pattern in my colleagues. I’m one of the older members in our group, so a good number of our group are late twenties, early thirties, and they’re certainly very keen on communication. Other people my kind of age, you can see that they just want to publish. Some of them are a bit cynical about this ‘impact business’.

I used to sit on the editorial board of the scientific journal ‘Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems’. As a member of the editorial board we get to write an editorial every few years, and I wrote one that was specifically about bridging the gap between the scientific community and the rest of the world. We have to do it, because the taxpayer has every right to know what we’re doing. And your average taxpayer is never going to start reading a scientific journal. It’s the same with local and national government. In our environmental agencies and governing bodies, their managers don’t have time to sit down and read primary literature.

We’ve come a long way though. When I started in 1982 it was very rare that anyone would have much to do with the public. Their job was to do science and write papers and try and get things into good journals. Organisations like the Freshwater Biological Association, which at the time was the premier place for freshwater ecology, did very little at all in terms of transferring findings. A lot of it never went outside the academic world. My PhD supervisor, his world was in academic circuits, he was a university lecturer, his job was to teach students, supervise students, and to write publications. Things have now changed fundamentally.

For more information on Ian’s work, you can view the short film Brass, Three Down here

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