Good storytellers are urgently required as science grabbles with critical challenges such as climate change, plastic pollution and feeding booming urban populations – not to mention finding a vaccine for the pandemic that grinded the globe to a halt

Three top European scientists have won accolades for their success in becoming creative communicators in a world beset with misinformation and so-called ‘fake news’.

The honours come in the form of the first winners of the European Research Council (ERC) Public Engagement with Research Awards 2020, which recognise EU-funded researchers who have gone that extra mile to explain their amazing discoveries and interact with the public in novel and inspiring ways.

The awards look even more timely now that science finds itself under the microscope with online and traditional media examining the role scientists are playing in advising politicians and other policymakers in the best ways to fight COVID-19.

Science must compete with misinformation

European Commissioner Mariya Gabriel

In congratulating the laureates of what are expected to become bi-annual awards, Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, said: “Excellent research demands excellent engagement with the public. This is especially important nowadays when science must often compete with misinformation. 

“We need the strong storytellers and creative communicators out there. I’m glad that many EU-funded researchers have gone the extra mile to communicate their amazing discoveries and interact with the public. I hope more scientists and scholars will be inspired and follow in their footsteps.”

The winners of the first ERC Public Engagement with Research Awards are Professors Erik van Sebille from the University of Utrecht, Netherlands; Konstantinos Nikolopoulos from the University of Birmingham, UK and Anna Davies from Trinity College Dublin, Ireland.

ERC Award winners (L-R) Professors Erik van Sebille, Anna Davies and Konstantinos Niikolopoulos

Busting pollution myths wins media category

Prof van Sebille’s Tackling Of Plastic in Our Seas (TOPIOS) project hosted by Universiteit Utrecht won the Press and Media Relations category for the way it actively engaged with journalists, policymakers and the public to bust some of the myths surrounding the problem of plastic pollution in the oceans.

The issue has received plenty of media attention, but the €1.48 million research project funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme aims to improve the quality of public discourse to find the best solutions to plastic pollution.

The centrepiece of the public outreach effort is a website to provide concise answers to the seven common misconceptions about ‘plastic soup’ pollution in the oceans. 

The project has already gained extensive international media coverage, including in Le Monde, Science and National Geographic and the jury commended TOPIOS’ approach for having a single, clear message, which not only had a considerable impact in the media but also engaged policymakersat an international level.

The research team led by oceanographer Erik van Sebille highlighted thatonly about 1% of all plastic that has ever gone into the ocean is still floating on the surface. The other 99% is ‘missing’ with much of it on the ocean floor. 

Knowing the whereabouts of this missing plastic is vital for making effective policies and the TOPIOS project aims to create the first three-dimensional map of all the plastic in our oceans. The project has been funded until March 2020.

Artists as scientific ambassadors wins public outreach award

Working with artists to engage audiences that are traditionally hard for scientists to reach led to Prof Konstantinos Nikolopoulos, University of Birmingham, UK, winning the Public Outreach category of the new ERC Awards.

Prof Nikolopoulos (L) with artist Ian Andrews

The €1.5 million Horizon 2020-funded ExclusiveHiggs project is exploring the interface between science and art to inform, educate and inspire artists as well as citizens and students interested in art, but not necessarily in science.

Judges said a distinctive feature of the activities was thatthe artists did not make art ‘inspired’ by science, but that the art helped to communicate scientific concepts, and in the process, the artists became the ambassadors of particle physics.

Workshops were organised during which the students involved first learnt and discussed particle physics concepts and then created art that helped to communicate some of these concepts, including  art exhibitions and dance performances.

The Jury commended the project for having a real impact on people who are not the regular audience for frontier science and praised the innovative methods used to communicate about a very abstract topic.

The ExclusiveHiggs project experimentally explores the interactions of elementary matter particles with the Higgs boson at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator.

Social media category won by food sharing project

Prof Anna Davies, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, won the Online and Social Media category for the SHARECITY project which has developed a comprehensive online and social media communication and engagement strategy to study urban food-sharing practices. 

Dublin community growing scheme. Photo by William Murphy

The €1.85 million project funded by Horizon 2020 highlights the growing unsustainability of cities, not least in respect to food consumption and examines how food sharing is increasingly being seen as one transformative mechanism for sustainable cities: reducing consumption; conserving resources, preventing waste and providing new forms of socio-economic relations. 

The project developed a comprehensive online and social media communication and engagement strategy, the central pillar of which is an interactive website, a blog and social media accounts and has engaged with a range of online and social media platforms, networks and initiatives in order to collaborate, crowdsource experiences and disseminate their findings.

The Jury commended the high quality of the public engagement with the research creating a database of food sharing activities in 100 global cities and in-depth food sharing profiles of even cities from the contrasting contexts of USA, Brazil and Germany, Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Australia.

The judges were impressed by the project’s global in scope, supported by a clear strategy, and which animated a real online community. 

According to SHARECITY, the project has the potential to reorient eating practices and open up new research horizons to substantively improve understanding of how, why and to what end people share food within cities in the 21st Century.

Share the passion for research 

Professor Fabio Zwirner, Vice President of the European Research Council, said they trust researchers to identify the path to scientific breakthroughs, adding: “The winners of our Public Engagement with Research Awards all show that this bottom-up approach also works for communication. 

“I was impressed by the number and quality of the entries in this new ERC contest and would like to congratulate the laureates, thank all those who took part in the competition, and encourage all ERC grantees to keep sharing their passion for research.”

Main image from Utrecht University’s TOPIOS plastic pollution project

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