Bridging divisions between science and society

When it comes to the environment— ‘We need to move on from communicating with people to engaging with them, which is much deeper,’ says Rhian Salmon.

Dr Rhian Salmon

Whether the issue is vaccination, homeopathy or genetically modified organisms, scientists often find themselves at odds with the public. Scientists are the experts, yet the popular view frequently departs from the established evidence.

It’s this divide between science and society that Dr Rhian Salmon works to bridge in her research in the Wellington Faculty of Science at Victoria University of Wellington.

Dr Salmon studies how climate and polar science is communicated by the scientific community. We expect definitive answers from climate change scientists, she says, but an important part of their expertise, and the research process, is also the identification of new questions.

The issue of whether people are responsible for climate change continues to cause deep ideological rifts in society. Dr Salmon believes the only way to solve the complex environmental challenges the world faces is for scientists to have genuine conversations with a wide range of people.

“We’re now living in a post-truth world. What a scientist might tell you is just one piece of information you might add to the information you’ve heard from your sister or read on Facebook,” she says.

“We need to move on from communicating with people to engaging with them, which is much deeper. It involves listening to people, having a conversation and working together to come up with solutions.”

Dr Salmon, who is English, began her career as an atmospheric chemist. She was motivated by the thought she might one day be able to work in Antarctica, which she’d wanted to visit since she was 12.

She achieved her goal, spending three summers and a winter as a research scientist at Halley Research Station as part of a seven-year stint working for the British Antarctic Survey. Her work in Antarctica involved commissioning a new ‘clean air’ laboratory and implementing a field campaign to measure trace gases in the troposphere.

Dr Salmon says she enjoyed being in Antarctica even more than she’d expected, particularly because of the simplicity of life on the ice.

“I loved the silence and the lack of multitasking. I had one job to do, one place to live, one group of people to work with and socialise with, and three sets of clothes. When I got back to Britain, I’d stand in a chemist’s shop and see 63 bottles of shampoo, and have no idea how I was expected to choose just one.”

While she could have happily continued working in Antarctica for the rest of her career, Dr Salmon discovered a desire to learn more about science communication after presenting her team’s results at a conference and seeing protesters outside the venue accusing scientists of promoting climate change conspiracies.

“I was flabbergasted,” she says. “For our information to be useful, we relied on a basic agreement that climate change is happening. The fact these people didn’t believe in it made me realise I wanted to concentrate on the bigger picture and on finding ways of letting people know what was happening.”

Dr Salmon’s change in career focus saw her join the international programme office for International Polar Year 2007-8 as the education, outreach and communication coordinator.

In 2010, she and her husband arrived in New Zealand after spending almost a year sailing across the Pacific. “We hadn’t decided what to do next. Our plan was to get to New Zealand and have a cup of tea,” she says. When they arrived, they liked it so much they stayed.

After taking on a range of polar outreach and science communication projects, Dr Salmon joined Victoria University of Wellington as a Senior Lecturer. She and colleague Dr Rebecca Priestley co-lead the Centre for Science in Society, which looks at the relationship between science, technology and society and explores the ways people think and talk about science.

“Rebecca and I try to understand the political and social context of science in New Zealand,” she says. “All my research is about bringing together people from different disciplines and creating new forms of engagement.”

Dr Salmon established the engagement programme within the Deep South National Science Challenge, a Government-funded initiative that aims to enable New Zealanders to adapt, manage risk and thrive in a changing environment.

She also carries out research into climate change communication and a new area she refers to as the ‘reflexive scientist’, which explores new models for public engagement with science.

When Dr Salmon arrived, she was surprised to discover New Zealanders tended to think of climate change in terms of three topics: Antarctica, the Pacific and New Zealand’s agricultural industry, particularly dairy farming.

“The data suggests the mainstream news media here is closely aligned to what the scientific community says about climate change. New Zealanders’ views on climate change are more moderate and less polarised than in the United States, but there is still a community of sceptics here,” she says.

Dr Salmon, who mostly teaches online, also carries out research into blended and flexible learning, which involves tertiary students learning off-campus and online as well as in lecture theatres. In addition, she explores how teaching can continue in the event of an earthquake or other natural disaster.

Working at the University has given Dr Salmon many opportunities to engage with local government, central government and think tanks. Her strong international links have including co-teaching a workshop at two NASA science communication courses.

She says she has found the University very supportive of the Centre for Science in Society's commitment to exploring the best ways to kick-start conversations about the critical issues affecting New Zealand’s future.

“Victoria University of Wellington has allowed us to be experimental and that’s a bold thing for a university to do. I feel really proud of what we’ve created here.”