Spotlight on SciComm: Jenni Barclay

Prof. Jenni Barclay shares her experiences improving community understanding of volcano science and risks.
Published in Ecology & Evolution
Spotlight on SciComm: Jenni Barclay

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Name: Jenni Barclay
Position/affiliation: Professor of Volcanology, School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia
Research area: Volcanology, volcano risk reduction
Twitter: @VolcanoJenni

Dr. Barclay (front row, on the left), along with other members and student volunteers with the London Volcano group.


What first motivated your involvement in outreach and science communication? How have you decided which audiences to engage with?

My early motivation with outreach really just stemmed from a desire to share the enthusiasm I felt for how science can provide some really amazing explanations for ‘how nature works.’! In turn, these insights can help us all to value the environment; both for the contribution it makes to our everyday lives and to those really special moments we often treasure, like a great day at the beach, or scaling a hill or mountain! I also strongly believe scientific knowledge is something that should be available to everyone, no matter what stage of their life, where they come from or who they are – this is what has driven a lot of my decisions about ‘who’ to engage with.

The theme for the 2017 Earth Day is ‘Environmental & Climate Literacy’. What does ‘literacy’ mean to you? What (or who) do you imagine when you think of a ‘science-literate’ citizen?

Literacy to me means the ability to take and digest new information for yourself and use it to help you make sense of the world or the relationships between those who inhabit it. My ideal ‘science-literate’ citizen is then someone who is motivated to learn more, and has the ability to form their own opinions, with enough scientific insight to critically assess the evidence they hear about, or place that knowledge into the context of their life. Part of our job in engaging is to help provide both the motivation to learn more and provide them with the scientific insight!

Which arguments or approaches have you found most effective in communicating the realities of climate change, or other pressing environmental issue, to those in doubt?

Listening is easily the most useful approach I’ve learned! In my field, one of our key challenges is to help people prepare for future, uncertain environmental risks (in my case this is volcanic eruptions). We can only really do that well if we understand the context of the everyday risks and concerns into which the emergency will occur – and the best way to do that is by listening to the communities who face these challenges! This takes time, but has also enriched my own understanding of where the most important scientific problems are in my field. With my colleagues I am currently extremely interested in the value that ‘citizen science’ can bring to the reduction of disaster risk, partly because of the potential it brings to listen and learn more together.

For volcanic eruptions, there is also a strong relationship between the impact of the hazards and the surface topography. A lot of the scientific engagement work I do focuses on conveying that relationship, and the connections communities have to the land that might suddenly become a dangerous place to live. Another really interesting challenge is conveying the important but ‘hidden’ subsurface processes, a lot of the uncertainty in ‘what will happen next’ during a volcanic eruption arises from limitations in the way we can interpret the signals from these processes.

What has been your most rewarding experience in environmental or climate communication?

I’ve had many! I often think of direct engagement as a way to recharge enthusiasm batteries for the hard slog of scientific research – and you always learn something new yourself, or find a new way to think about a problem. Standouts for me, though, are the films we have made of people talking directly about their experiences of eruption (e.g. the videos below, and others on the YouTube Channel for our research project, STREVA, Strengthening Resilience in Volcanic Areas) and our recent bout of engagement in STREVA around building large model volcanoes and erupting them with fireworks (LondonVolcano). There has been a creative energy around both of those projects that has fueled some fascinating conversations and lots of those *fistbump* moments when people really get how the hazards work, and the challenges faced by the communities. The films have worked well directly in the communities where we do our research – and we’re now working on take our model volcano ‘home’ to St. Vincent – so if anyone out there has the offer of a berth on a ship!

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