Nieuws - 12 januari 2016

Blog: Talking science with laymen

Blogger Kristina spoke with family and friends about her thesis. They don’t know much about ecology, and that is exactly why it was useful to have these conversations.

I spent my holidays at home in Lithuania, and while there I had a very educating science communication experience. Obviously, family and friends were very interested to learn about my time in Australia, but I was surprised that they also had all these interesting questions about my research. This, while very exciting, however, presented two major difficulties for me. Firstly, I had to talk about ecological restoration and various relevant ecological concepts with lay people. And, secondly, I had to discuss these things in Lithuanian!

Since all my studies have been in English I’m always having a hard time talking about ecology and environment in my mother-tongue. How exactly am I supposed to explain all the intricacies of the extremely biodiverse bushland restoration activities when I don’t know the appropriate names for cluster roots, nitrogen fixation, banksias or even the bushland itself?

A bigger problem, however, is that no one really talks about nature and environment – not to the extent of western countries at least. In Lithuania when you say that you’re studying ecology the first thing that most people think about is recycling! Or maybe “organic”, “green”, “natural” products. They don’t necessarily think about nature itself. And that – rather than the limited vocabulary – makes it quite hard to clarify why exactly what I’m studying is important.

In Lithuania when you say that you’re studying ecology the first thing that most people think about is recycling

For example, I would get asked “so why are they restoring this bushland that’s already damaged?” And that is such a key question that those of us talking and writing about environment every day rarely seriously consider. “Because of the intrinsic value of those ecosystems”, I’d say. That’s all fine and well, but do many people actually think like that, that we have to do it because nature is valuable in itself? It always seems to me that they are waiting for a better, a more reasonable answer.

Sure, I usually follow up by talking about ecological functions and benefits to human well-being. Because that’s how we are trained to talk about it. Make it about the people and they will care more, it’s said. But in my (very non-scientific) opinion, that’s kind of sad, isn’t it?

And that’s why it’s important to have these conversations. Not necessarily about the ethics or the exact research questions. I simply enjoyed talking about the marvel that is the biodiversity hotspot of south-west Western Australia. After all, learning more about the complexities of the natural world is often what makes you appreciate it more. That surely was the case for me.

Kristina is a second year student MSc Forest and Nature Conservation.