Wasting Millions… of Stories, Insights and Experiences? An Inspiring Workshop on Academia, Environments and Engaging with the Public(s)
David Matless, a Professor of Cultural Geography at the University of Nottingham, highlighted an important story from the history of academic public engagement in his presentation at the University of East Anglia’s ‘Environment(s) in Public(s)?’ workshop on 3rd November 2014. It was a story from 1911, the year in which the renowned Arthur Tansley, a Botanist and pioneer in the science of Ecology and a lecturer at the University of Cambridge, embarked on an in-depth study of river valleys and species in the Norfolk Broads. He and his academic team purposely ignored a group which they referred to pejoratively as ‘local workers’ in their quest to understand this particular environment. This led them to exclude most of the members of the local naturalist societies and clubs, who, of course, understood their local environment very intimately indeed. The story ended happily, however, as the academics did a U-turn, eventually including the ‘local workers’ in their project, after admitting that their knowledge was both valuable and useful to their study.
This historic story is hugely relevant in the light of recent academic research funding objectives, encouraging academics to beat their own imaginative, successful and above all useful ‘pathways to impact’, ensuring that their research has a real use and benefit for wider society, and rightly so. Environmental historians are approaching this objective not as a one-way process, but as an opportunity for symbiosis. Following the albeit redrafted example of Tansley, to inform their research, many are successfully utilising the often very deep knowledge, experience and understanding of those who live, and have long lived, in particular environments, who face particular local environmental challenges as part of their daily lives. They are conducting oral history interviews and attending meetings of local history groups, wildlife charities and local sporting and outdoor pursuit clubs and societies, as well as ensuring that such research delivers benefits on the ground in the environments under their study by contributing to future policies or leaving beneficial educational or recreational legacies behind. Ruth Tittensor’s From Peat Bog to Conifer Forest: An Oral History of Whitelee, its Construction and Landscape (2009) is a good example of an environmental history which has been enriched by direct engagement and participation of experienced local people in its creation.
The two concepts of 1) locals contributing to academics’ publications and 2) academics providing pathways to beneficial impact in local communities are not mutually exclusive. Very often, the process of involving the public in academic research can produce benefits in their own right. Creating a volume of oral history interviews, which provide a snapshot of local life, the environment and locals’ projections for their future provides a legacy, which benefits the community at large as well as facilitating increased academic understanding through publication.
The purpose of the workshop held at the University of East Anglia (UEA), and hosted jointly by 3S: Science, Society and Sustainability (which is a research group at UEA), Science in Public and the Broads Authority, was to interrogate the question of whether or not academics should tailor their approach to public engagement more specifically to multiple and separate publics with which they aim to engage rather than simply to the whole public. For example, should busy farmers, a canoeing club and a Parish Council be amalgamated into one homogenous group called ‘the public’, which incorporates all non-academics, or rather given special consideration as respective publics with different needs, different capabilities for contribution and potentially different sensitivities? The argument is further complicated by the issue of different environments; even within one country, a sheep farmer living in an upland location might require a different approach to an arable farmer in East Anglia, for example. The general consensus was that more detailed consideration should be given to the particular needs and expectations of the groups we approach for public engagement through our academic studies and that it is indeed useful to imagine ‘publics’ rather than the ‘public’.
The issue of scale was also raised, in relation to climate change, highlighting the propensity for people to force change at local, regional and even national scales, compared to the general disinclination of the majority to invest in forcing global change. Globally, the goal is too big, and, as Angela Cassidy pointed out in her paper on ‘Animals, People and Places: Connecting Public Debates about how we Live in a Changing World’, using the image of a polar bear, which is remote to the majority of the world’s population, is probably far less effective than using more immediately relevant images of a flooded village or a family and their pets in distress. The workshop was grounded within quite a small scale by its focus on the environment surrounding the University of East Anglia, the city of Norwich, the rivers, farms, broads and coast of the East of England, but the questions which the workshop raised could be applied to many other different environments on a far wider scale, and they are relevant to all academics working with environments, including environmental geographers, environmental historians, ecologists, artists and environmental scientists.
Ultimately, academics can think imaginatively, not in desperation as salesmen and women under the pressure of punitive targets, and not from above as benefactors who kindly impart their infinitely superior knowledge, but rather as inspiring positive forces in local communities, who approach the publics with whom they intend to engage as equals, offering to give as much as or even more than they take. Working with practitioners, businesses, museums, engineers, councillors and charities can speed up the process of public engagement for academics, but such collaborations can also enhance such professionals’ own work by introducing exciting, interesting and beneficial elements from our academic research to their projects and schemes which would otherwise have not occurred to them. Alexandra Johnson, Curator at the London Science Museum, explained how she worked with artists to create an exhibition called ‘The Rubbish Collection’, which showcased to the public in a creative and visually attractive style all of the items of rubbish which were disposed of by the museum over a period of thirty days. Despite the widely held perception among some of the public that waste-disposal and recycling is a boring and overkilled topic, they were inspired by the exhibition because of the imaginative and visually stimulating manner in which the issue was conveyed. Environmental historians, too, can design imaginative, innovative and ultimately useful ways in which to introduce the benefit of hindsight – the mistakes, successes, issues and debates of the past – to contribute to present-day challenges.
Our own project, ‘The Power and the Water: Reconnecting Pasts with Futures’, aims to reconnect severed, but important, links between historic and present problems in the development of the UK’s energy and water infrastructure. In my own project, I have learnt as much, and in some cases even more, from attending the Clean Tyne Project’s Steering Committee or riding downriver on their debris-collection vessel, from talking to local volunteers working at the Low Light Heritage Centre, or to the volunteers of the Tyne Rivers Trust’s Riverwatch at their 10th Anniversary celebrations, or by taking a tour of Howdon wastewater treatment works with Northumbrian Water, a tour of the Port of Tyne facilities or an art walk to the Dunston Staiths. All of these experiences have provided insights into the problems faced throughout the Tyne catchment today, which inform and enrich my archival research into the problems of the Tyne’s past, which in turn can and will (very soon) inform and enrich those present day institutions’, charities’ and authorities’ approaches to improving future Tyne policies.
The workshop at UEA was a success precisely because of the diversity of its attendees. A journalist, a museum curator, an ecologist, the director of the Norfolk Broads Authority, environmental historians, scientists and geographers, chemists and members of the public. We achieved a great deal in one day through face-to-face and direct communication. It certainly boosted my own conception and attitudes towards public engagement. Academics are doing really well in their efforts to include publics in and to improve the experiences of publics through their research, but they can and should always try to do better. For every ten stories, insights and first-hand experiences we incorporate into our research, there are millions more which we have not heard and will not incorporate, and which are arguably being wasted. Perhaps technology will provide an even larger opportunity to capture and analyse this important source of information in the future, in the way that citizen science projects have been developed recently on scales which were unthinkable fifteen years ago. Until then, we are wasting millions… millions of stories, millions of insights and millions of experiences.