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An objective-driven long-term initiative to communicate fundamental science to various target audiences – a case study in fruit flies

 

Communicating scientific research to the public including relevant decision makers is important in order to build trust and to sustain a political and funding landscape in which science can thrive in meaningful ways. However, science communication is not an easy task and particularly tricky in areas of fundamental research where societal benefit tends to be less immediate and require a long-term perspective (Illingworth & Prokop, 2017). In this blog post, Sanjai Patel and Andreas Prokop share their experiences from driving the Manchester Fly Facility science communication initiative. They explain how long-term objective-setting can lead to the development of multi-pronged initiatives that can reach a range of target audiences – locally, nationally and across the globe. Note that an earlier version of this post was published on The University of Manchester’s website.

 

By Sanjay Patel and Andreas Prokop, PhD, Manchester Fly Facility, University of Manchester

 

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Why we communicate fruit fly research  

The tiny fruit fly Drosophila melanogastercan be a nuisance when hovering in great numbers over our fruit bowls or litter bins in summer. But did you know that it has been the subject of intensive biological research worldwide and for over a century, decorated with 9 arguably 10 Nobel laureates (see the ‘Why fly?‘ page)? Due to its numerous experimental advantages and the fact that fundamental aspects of its biology are shared with humans, Drosophilahas been a pillar of discovery throughout this time – and its scientific potential remains as high as ever. For example, our own research has used Drosophilasuccessfully for over 30 years to address relevant questions of brain formation and degeneration (Prokop, 2016). As argued in a recent “Open Access Government” article (Prokop, 2018a), the biomedical sciences would be far behind current knowledge standards without Drosophilaresearch.

However, for reasons further explained in the above article (Prokop, 2018a), there are increasing tendencies to side-line Drosophilastudies in favour of “translational research” or basic studies in mammalian or other vertebrate model organisms. In our view, this trend is often ill-informed and would likely lead to increased research costs, the unnecessary use of animals, and a slow-down in scientific advance.

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The step-wise developments of our science communication (scicomm) initiative

We therefore decided to become pro-active in raising awareness of why funding fruit fly research is important for advancing biomedical science, and represents responsible use of funding resources. The platform for our scicomm initiative is the Manchester Fly Facility (ManFly) – set up in 2010 as a hub providing fly-specific infrastructure and know-how to Drosophilaresearchers. In July 2011, the ManFly members gathered first experiences with public engagement at a local community open day, for which we had developed a number of displays showcasing flies and fly research to the public. As detailed elsewhere (Patel & Prokop, 2017), this initial experience set in motion a development that turned ManFly into an unprecedented long-term initiative for the communication, advocacy and teaching of Drosophilaworldwide, acting alongside DrosAfrica (Martín-Bermudo et al., 2017; Vicente-Crespo, 2015)and partly also TReND in Africa (TReND in Africa). Primarily driven by the two authors of this blog, the initiative has produced over 30 outputs in the form of articles, blog posts, websites and online resources so far (all listed here), and metrics and feedback from across the globe suggest that our work is having impact (see our impact document). Most importantly, ManFly has grown step-wise into a multi-pronged initiative covering 6 different areas of engagement and a wide spectrum of target audiences; these areas and their backgrounds will be explained in the following.

 

The different areas of our scicomm activities and their underlying rationales 

(1)   Fly training: To uphold fly research as an attractive area of investigation, we need to maintain a productive research community of “drosophilists”. For this, we need to attract students and young scientists, and convince researchers working with other model organisms or in clinical research to address their questions by using flies (e.g. Chao et al., 2017). To facilitate such trends, we developed a user-friendly genetics training package for researchers, generated strategies and resources to apply this training in undergraduate courses, and provide schedules and materials of our 2ndyear undergraduate practical course to showcase how this training can be incorporated into university classes. This training is now in worldwide use, as reflected by ~93K views and ~30.8K downloads across its four dissemination platforms (Fostier et al., 2015; Prokop, 2013a; Prokop, 2013b; Roote and Prokop, 2013), and by feedback we have receivedfrom across the globe (see our impact document).

(2)   Science fair participation: To engage with families, we participate in science fairs (see a list of our activities). No doubt, science fair engagement is hard work, requiring lots of preparation time and usually having limited reach to local communities. However, if used correctly, this effort has enormous added value. We use science fairs as creative playgrounds where we can test newly developed or improved communication strategies and resources (for some of our strategies see Patel & Prokop, 2017). Most helpful feedback comes from observing reactions of visitors at the various displays, which can be used to gradually optimise the workability of arguments and activities. Thereafter, these improved strategies can be used at the next science fair, but may also live on as pillars of other communication activities such as in schools. In this way, we turn seemingly short-term local involvement on science fairs into long-term gain with potentially wider reach.

(3)   Science fair organization: To drive science fair involvement towards higher levels, we have (co-)organised science fairs. This offered unique opportunities to develop scenarios in which Drosophila could feature in more effective ways. For example focussing on neurobiology, we showcased fruit flies as drivers of discovery processes, side-by-side with displays on rodent research into neural disorders, as well as clinicians demonstrating neuro-surgery skills. Our most successful event was the “Brain Box” on 19 June 2016 in Manchester Town Hall, attracting ~5,400 visitors on a single day. The event involved Manchester’s city council, universities, hospitals, brain disease-specific patient groups/organisations, museums and a number of artists. The Brain Box website lives on as legacy, still illustrating how Drosophila was embedded in the different themes of the day.

(4)   Educational movies: Once a powerful narrative has been developed and enlightening images, anecdotes and examples have been identified, they can be applied in different contexts and using different media. We collaborated with a freshly graduated student, Branwen Messamah, to turn our elevator pitches into two short educational movies (YouTube channel). The production of these films was achieved without any use of high-tech, but through many creative brain-storming sessions, the turning round of each and every word of the script, and by minutely adapting the flow of complementary imagery to the spoken word (Patel & Prokop, 2017). The first movie has now over 16K views and is well received by scientists and teachers alike (see our impact document). It has attracted others to generate translated versions in Spanish, Indonesian and soon also Arabic (YouTube channel), clearly illustrating how published resources can develop their own impacts.

(5)   School outreach: An important target audience for fundamental research are schools. Here it is of great advantage that topics of the school curriculum tend to be much closer to fundamental research than many applied areas of science. This offers opportunities for highly effective scicomm in schools including teacher-scientist collaborations, thus reaching out to young minds and hopefully influencing the decisions they will take in their later lives. Our activities include extracurricular visits to schools (Prokop, 2018b), hosting classes in our fly facility, organising teacher seminars (Blackburn, 2018), as well as engaging in school collaborations (see list of our school events). Our school collaborations are formalised in the “droso4schools” project (Harbottle et al., 2016; Patel et al., 2017), where we place students as teaching assistants in schools to better understand school realities as well as the biology curriculum. Curriculum-relevant topics are then chosen and turned into sample lessons where Drosophilais used as a teaching tool, based on the unique conceptual understanding of biology in flies, and its many opportunities to do exciting micro-experiments in class. Sample lessons with support materials are made available online (Prokop & Patel, 2015; ~870 downloads), further supported by our “droso4schools” website (~55K views) with information suitable for teacher preparation as well as revision and homework tasks for pupils.

(6)   Marketing: Generating efficient strategies and high quality resources is only one part of the task. To spread awareness and the active use of these resources requires persistent marketing: primarily to other drosophilists and teachers, i.e. two professional groups that are often too busy to be reached, let alone influenced (Illingworth & Prokop, 2017). We try to overcome this hurdle with journal and newspaper publications, conference presentations, the writing of blogs and via social media. But many experiences over the years have alerted us to the fact that we urgently require fundamental changes to the wider scicomm landscape. We sense that there is no solid culture of co-operation across institutions, organisations and initiatives, although most of them are likely thriving for the same overarching objective: the promotion of science as an integral part of society. As Bruce Y. Lee put it in a recent Forbes article: “..the marriage between science and the rest of society has to thrive. No country has ever remained a world leader without being a scientific leader.” We need a model of communication in which researchers, societies and organisations combine their various efforts into wider collaborative scicomm networks to achieve far greater rigour and impact than could possibly be achieved in isolation (Prokop, 2017; Illingworth & Prokop, 2017). We have therefore started to engage with societies or other well-established initiatives to align our common objectives into joint and mutually beneficial strands of activity, and hope to be able to report concrete outcomes in a future blog post in the nearer future.

 

Concluding remarks

Driving 6 parallel strands of engagement combined under the umbrella of one overarching objective (promotingthe awareness and acknowledgement of Drosophila research) is an effective strategy that generates synergy and facilitates innovation: new ideas in one engagement area often cross-fertilise other activities.

However, communicating fundamental research is hard work and not a trivial task (Illingworth & Prokop, 2017). It is therefore essential to be passionate about the scicomm topic and to identify with its communication objectives. Furthermore, one needs to consider the conditions of one’s work environment and career progression: Is scicomm work appreciated by line managers? Is there enough time available when considering other duties, personal life and the state of ongoing research projects? Taking these realities into account, scicomm is not sustainable as a mere altruistic activity but it must also help us in our own developments, career-wise and in shaping the way we do our science; if that balance is right, if there is enough passion for the communicated topic, and if effective long-term objective setting is in place, scicomm can work effectively. We hope that the example of ManFly has made a convincing case to this end, and further examples can be found in our recent special issue on scicomm in the biomedical sciences (Prokop, 2017; Illingworth & Prokop, 2017).

 

Both authors work at the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health of The University of Manchester. Sanjai Patel is the manager of the Manchester Fly Facility. Andreas Prokop is professor of neurobiology and academic head of the facility.

 

 


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