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Podcast: Geo Conversations with Anna Grayson and Iain Stewart

Words by Marissa Lo
1 November 2023

Geoscientist has launched a new podcast series, Geo Conversations. Hosted by Marissa Lo, Assistant Editor, these longer-format interviews provide in-depth discussion of topical issues affecting the geosciences.

In this episode, we discuss geoscience communication with Anna Grayson and Iain Stewart, who share insights from their careers in broadcasting. Anna Grayson is a geologist by training, writer and broadcaster by profession, and is now working as an artist. Iain Stewart is the El Hassan Research Chair for Sustainability at the Royal Scientific Society of Jordan and Professor of Geoscience Communication at the University of Plymouth, UK.

Episode Transcript

[00:10] Marissa Lo: Hello and welcome, my name is Marissa Lo, and I’m Assistant Editor at Geoscientist magazine. Today I’m joined by Anna Grayson, a geologist by training and broadcaster by trade, and Iain Stewart from the Royal Scientific Society in Jordan. Both of my guests today have significant experience in the world of geoscience communication and broadcasting that spans several decades. So, in this interview, we’ll be chatting about their experiences as geoscience communicators through the years, the challenges, and what the future looks like. So, starting with Anna, can you tell us about your background and role in geoscience communication and broadcasting?

[00:42] Anna Grayson: Hello, yes, well, I got into geology as a very small child and I suspect Iain did as well. My father was one of the radar boffins working in the Second World War on the south coast, and we used to holiday there. And it wasn’t just the fossils, I remember my father showing me a pillbox that had been sitting in the war on top of the cliff, and by the time I saw it, it was upside down on the bottom of the cliff. That really struck me: this is an interesting subject! After school I went to university and both Iain and I went to a Scottish university. I feel that’s significant because of the way geology was taught in a broader context and also getting the extra year was jolly useful to me. I couldn’t get a job as a geologist in those days because I was a girl, and it was really very bad in those days. So I ended up doing a graduate traineeship with the BBC as a studio manager, and that actually led on to a multitude of things. So I trained both on the technical side of all aspects of broadcasting, so I worked in drama, news, everything – you name it, I did it. And I went on to be a producer and then a reporter, and then I was asked to be a presenter in 1989. And I said, okay, I’ll do that for five years. I’ll try and do it for five, but I won’t do it for more than ten, because I had seen how much it impinges on people’s private lives, and I didn’t want that to happen in my private life. And funnily enough, after ten years, there was a new kid on the block, a very good new kid on the block, and the science was changing; it was less about the extractive industry and more about caring for the planet – Iain.

[02:08] Iain Stewart: Thank you for that beautiful segue there! So when I was young, I wanted to be an actor, and I think that’s important because quite a lot of the presenters, the science presenters, certainly, that I’ve met, have got some kind of creative interest, music, drama or something often tucked away, and they’re kind of frustrated performers, really. And for me, I did geography at university (geography, geology), and a PhD in that, and then went into the normal academic. But I always felt that lecturing was a performance and so I enjoyed performing. And so I guess it was not that surprising then that I’d want to elevate from performing to 30, 40, 50 undergraduates in a room to much broader. And I remember thinking why isn’t geoscience, this really interesting subject that I loved, more widely known and on television and the media? And so I started to take time away from the research to explore that and it kind of worked out. But it is an interesting and was a, kind of, challenging transition to make. And Anna’s already alluded to that, really.

[03:18] Marissa Lo: So from being involved in the world of geoscience and geoscience communication over the past few decades, how do you think public awareness and perceptions have changed?

[03:29] Iain Stewart: Yeah, it’s an interesting one. I think that the planet’s always been of interest to people and dinosaurs, disasters and dinosaurs, have always fed the public diet for interesting things. I think the changes have been twofold. I think within the television world, their focus on the planet as an entity has increased dramatically. And it’s not just my stuff, there’s all of the work the Natural History Unit in Bristol has been doing, particularly with David Attenborough, but even in the science channels, a lot of people like Chris Jackson, and it was even really early on there was a programme called Earth Stories. So the Earth has always been a really interesting feature on the kind of broadcast media. I think the changes, a lot of the changes has been actually within the academics’ response to that, to what extent they’ve taken that seriously. So when I was starting out, it was not taken very seriously, it’s not something a proper academic did. 20-25 years on, that is changing and it’s now seen much more as a central aspect of the job of an academic geoscientist. And it’s driven by lots of things. It’s driven by the fact that: how do you entice 16- and 17-year-olds to come out of school and come into a geology degree? It’s also a lot about the problems that the industry is facing in terms – particularly to vocational heartlands of oil and gas and mining, which both are struggling at the moment in terms of the toxicity, the perceived toxicity with the environment and climate, which is very fashionable and very important. So I think that the landscape has changed dramatically, but I think it’s probably more the academic landscape has changed more dramatically than the television one.

[05:07] Anna Grayson: Yeah, I think that’s true. But one thing I think I don’t agree with you on Iain, is that it’s that the planet and volcanoes and dinosaurs have always been in the public eye. I think they’ve waxed and waned. And when I was first starting out trying to get programmes accepted in the very late 80s and early 90s, it was a real struggle. And I was coming up against editors and commissioners who thought that geology was just boring grey rock studied by even more boring grey men. And that was a huge obstacle to overcome and I think we have overcome that obstacle between us. It was hard, hard work, but I think we have, and I think you’re right. I think now the landscape is changing and I think, as I’ve said, you’ve made a huge contribution yourself, much more than I have, to caring for the planet and that’s been really important. And the extractive industries, nobody’s going to listen because they’ve decided they’re bad, and that’s that. I think the media has changed. I think there is less chance of the sort of programmes and long 50 minute features that you and I have made being commissioned now. And I think you’re going to get sort of the opportunities are as a slot in another programme, so a news programme, a feature, and that the fact that Earth science feeds into other sciences and other subjects. That’s where it’s going to come up – including art, I might add.

[06:25] Iain Stewart: One of the things that I remember: geology, geoscience, Earth science has basically always, over the last kind of 20 years that I’ve been involved, has had to find its spaces to get itself to insert itself just before I get into it – and a series that I used a lot in my teaching was Earth Story, where Aubrey Manning talked about the planet. He was a professor of biology that was getting excited about the planet and plate tectonics and interviewed all of the really key players and all the big narratives. And it was interesting after that, it did quite well in terms of the popular interest and it was critically received, but it was seen as quite conservative in conventional television. And I got the feeling then that there was a sense that television was not wanting to have these academically driven, very much more, you know, driven by academics saying: “these are the things that you need to know”, almost finger wagging, into a thing where: what are people interested in? And how can you connect that to your world of geology?

[07:22] Anna Grayson: I think that’s true. And I think there was an awareness, because I did a lot of radio, and I think there was an awareness that what the public wanted to know was it had to be really amazing with a capital A, and then they prick up their ears and listen. Or it had to be: oh, hang on. That’s to do with me. I ought to listen. And so that changed. The motives were more audience-led and that’s continued.

[07:49] Marissa Lo: So you’ve touched on this a bit already, Anna, unfortunately mentioning misogyny as a big barrier. What other challenges have you faced? Or would you like to expand on that a bit?

[07:58] Anna Grayson: Misogyny was my biggest challenge and after ten years of doing the presenting job and writing and broadcasting about geology, it was a bit like lead being a cumulative poison, I really couldn’t take any more. So I was quite pleased to throw in the towel, and I did a bit of production, I did a lot of training and a lot of writing after that, but I was very glad not to be in front of a camera anymore. It was very hard and leading on from that, I think one of the problems I had from the profession was, oh, she’s a woman, therefore she’s an amateur, she doesn’t need to be paid. And I found that both an insulting idea and also very difficult because I did have to earn a living.

[08:36] Iain Stewart: I think you paved the way in a way that made it easier for me. I mean, when I started getting interested in it, it was me that was interested, and a lot of the people around me were warning me off and telling me, this will ruin your research career, and to concentrate on that. But the way ahead was to focus on something very specific, become the expert in that, and that’s what you would get your research chair. In one sense, I took their advice. I always stayed in academia. I had one strong foot in academia all the way through, because television is just as weird a world in a different way as the academic world is. Certainly, when I started, I had one advantage. I had taught and been a normal researcher for about 15 years, and I was very broad, and I would go to geomorphology conferences and Quaternary conferences and tectonics conferences, so I kind of knew my way around and people knew me. So it wasn’t that much of a surprise when I suddenly started appearing on the box. And I had quite strong supporters at major institutions. I kind of think these days when someone comes straight in from a postdoc or even a PhD student or a young lecturer and suddenly appear on the television, and as soon as they start not talking about something that’s directly related to their PhD, they encounter this: who the heck are you talking about this? You’re an X and you’re talking about Y. I study Y. Why am I not there on being that? I never really had that. And I used the network, the geoscience network, and it was really male, pale and stale, I have to say. But I tried to break away from that, and it was increasingly easy towards the end to break away from that. But I try to use them a lot as advisors, and if it was areas that I didn’t really know about, I’d make sure that the researchers would go and talk to them, so that in the end, the words I was saying were not really my words in some cases, but they were their words. So I got a lot of support. But it took a while for the actual whole academic geoscience community in the UK to come around and think that this was an important thing to be doing. And I think that’s what’s changed and people like Chris Jackson, who has received his fair share of criticism for kind of the racial aspects, et cetera, when he’s been presenting and has been very forthright in kind of speaking up and using his platform. People like Chris, I think, have carried that on even more so into the kind of public domain. So I think I had a bit of an easy – I definitely had an easier time than Anna – but I think that was partly because I was male, probably, but also partly because the plates were shifting in the media world and then the academic world towards the media as I came in.

[11:18] Marissa Lo: You’ve both mentioned you’ve done a variety of different media, from TV to radio, and that a lot of the content you did was quite audience-led. When you started in geoscience broadcasting, what was the main approach and how do you think that changed while you were working in TV?

[11:35] Anna Grayson: I think the key thing, and it’s the same today, is what Lord Reith set out with the BBC, is that you have to inform, educate and entertain. Education and information are different. So a news programme will be informing, not doing quite so much educating. Blue Peter will be educating and informing. But all three of those elements have to be there, but in different mixtures; the Venn diagram is slightly different for each programme. And it had to have a good story, there was a storytelling element to this, so you had to write these things. And writing was incredibly important, both in how you were communicating with producers and decision makers and editors, and also how you wrote scripts and let the story unfold and to make it engaging. And the use of metaphor and analogy was extremely useful and I don’t think that’s changed. I think what’s changed, I think there’s now much more of an emphasis on social media and I think that’s a very powerful tool that can’t be ignored. And as Iain has said in the science, I think there is a lot more acceptance that this is important. I don’t think in my day, people realised that, you know, rather like the dinosaurs, if they didn’t take note of what was going on around them, the science might decline. And sadly, you know, I don’t like my words to be true, but I think that has happened.

[12:51] Marissa Lo: Would you find a similar thing then, Iain, that the approach has definitely changed over the years, or how have you adapted your approach?

[12:58] Iain Stewart: So, I agree with everything that Anna said there, particularly around the storytelling elements still being there now, metaphor, imagery, being entertaining as well as educating, informing – all of that still stands. I think what I’d also emphasise is that the world of science communication started appearing as an academic subject, it appeared in universities. So the Bodmer report, which was from the kind of government report from the House of Lords, I think it was in the mid-80s, kind of said, look, universities, you’re losing the public at the moment, you’re going to have to start, academics are going to have to start talking. And that actually legitimised the idea of science engagement. Academics have always in one manner or another, whether it’s your Carl Sagans, or Heinz Wolff was the one for me. There was all these rather strange academics, strange in the sense of they were anomalies within the academic world, would find their way to broadcast media. But actually with the Bodmer report in the mid-80s then this became a reasonable thing to do in the UK and then science communication – and the interesting thing about science communication is it started up as an empirical database. So there was such a thing as good and bad communication. The fact that it had an academic rigour helped build it in certain quarters.

I think of science communication in three domains. I think that the type of stuff that myself and Anna are doing I refer to as “make and sell”. And it’s very typical of the 90% of the science communication, geoscience communication. We make science somewhere, academic paper or a conference paper or something, and we sell it to the public and we say this is amazing. It’s kind of like cod liver oil when you’re ill, you kind of say it might not taste very nice but you’ll like it in the end, just bear with it, it’s good stuff.

[14:42] Anna Grayson: The trick is making it taste nice.

[14:44] Iain Stewart: Well exactly, you sweeten it with something. And television was hugely important for me about thinking of the ways, for all the reasons that Anna said, about the ways to make it more palatable, more engaging. But then this new thing of, I call it “sense and respond”, but understanding the science of your audience, how you segment your audience, how you frame things, psychology came into it, anthropology, and things like human sciences came in. And really demonstrated that there was ways, devices that you could do. But then the third area and the area I’m interested in most now is this idea of working with communities about science. Where we’re not pushing our science, we’re actually thinking: what is the public interested in and what is the community interested in? How can science help that? And I call that “guide and co-create”. Guides a sense of leadership that science can give but the co-creation with the community. And the irony is that that’s a very different skill set, communication skill set to the “make and sell”. “Make and sell” is all about media journalism and storytelling, fine. But actually the “guide and co-create” is about empathy, it’s about trust, it’s about facilitating, and relationships with people, which again is an absolutely fundamental part of good communication. But it doesn’t tend to be taught in the kind of science communication kind of media training world, because that world of media training tends to see the media as a danger, that you’re going to get caught out by a journalist. How can you protect yourself from a journalist kind of asking you certain questions? I’ve never found that a problem. I just think that the more open you can be – that’s maybe naivety in my part – but I think that, it worries me that we see the media as the problem and that science is the solution. Or the public is the problem and the media is equally the problem because that’s the intermediary and that science is the answer. And actually, I think we need to have science serving society a lot more. And so I think, the part I’m interested now is kind of switching the balance, really, to be much more public oriented.

[16:48] Anna Grayson: I think that’s true. And I think science does need to be accountable and open to questions, you need to sort of any questions? But that’s why I think social media is a powerful tool and I’m very interested in how the Royal Society are using social media, particularly Instagram. And now I work as an artist, of course, I’m afraid I’ve given up on science, I now work as an artist. The two do come together much more often than you’d think. But Instagram is a fantastic tool and people ask you questions and you interact with people you don’t know. It doesn’t take very long and it’s a very useful tool. So yes, I agree with that. And also I think the visitor centres are developing. I mean, some have been not so good and others have been excellent. But generally speaking, where there’s free access and where there’s actual stuff, real things that people can see, they’re good. And I recently visited the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs again. After 150 years, there is still some valid science there. There’s a lesson to be learned there.

[17:51] Marissa Lo: Iain, if you had unlimited time, money, resources, what sort of projects would you invest that in to improve geoscience communication?

[18:00] Iain Stewart: I think I would percolate science communication, geoscience communication through the undergraduate degree. Because I think that there’s still a temptation, and geology is probably one of the ones that still works, that assumes that there’s a technical skill set, that to be a geologist you need to have this technical toolkit and you’re not one without it. And so what you find in the departments is that there’s a fixation with the same skills that the lecturers, the professors learnt, this idea of passing on this thing. But the reality is that we’re in danger of becoming redundant or peripheral to many of the big issues of the day. And I think we shouldn’t be. We are interdisciplinary scientists. We deal with uncertainty, which is certainly one of the big issues of the day to do with the planet and sustainability and all the rest of it. And we have amazing stories to tell. But I think the danger is that we have this thing: that we were going to teach them all the technical skills and then the assumption was that the communication would just come, or else we teach them the technical skills and then we’ll give them a module on this. And I think that’s not the right way. I think that Anna touched on this with social media. The youngsters coming in now are very savvy about communication. And I taught a master’s course, I had my master’s course on geoscience communication and they taught me loads with apps and things like that that were coming through. So they’re not frightened of it. I think that it’s the academics that are frightened of it because they’ve never had to do it. But I think you could drop it into first year as something like around issues. What are the issues that geoscientists need to communicate? And then I would say, as part of the technical skills, and arguably one of the technical skills that’s most likely to get you a job. Forget your ability to identify a particular mineral down the microscope as the key determinant of whether you’ll get the job. That’s assumed if you come out of a geology degree, the other one is can you communicate your specialism to people around you, that will be an engineer or a data scientist or something like that? I think geologists often say to me, oh, we’re rubbish at that. Well, we’ve got our own language and lexicon and yes, that presents us with problems, but geologists are very social beasts. Field work and all the rest of it means that we’re often talking away and we tell stories. When we create a geology map, we are telling a story about a place. So actually I think once we prompt us, we’re very good storytellers and I’d like to see that side of things coming out. So I would clearly instigate geoscience communication in all geology degrees at all years in order to build that spine all the way through.

[20:40] Anna Grayson: I agree with that. And in fairness to my old university, St. Andrews, we were forced to give seminars to a more general audience in our final year and that was very useful. And social media, I would like to see some money spent on an Instagram campaign and I would direct you towards the Royal Society, see what they do. And also to the Etches collection along the south coast, which is amazing, and their Instagram feed, which appeals to children of all ages from 8 to 80. And the other thing I’d want to do, speaking of the Etches collection, the one drawback there is that people have to pay. And my work with the BBC and Iain’s work, it’s always been free to the end user and that’s really important. So I would want some funding for a visitor centre, like Steve Etches, to be free. And we could do with another bigger one on the south coast that takes in all the recent specimens found by people like Chris Moore and Richard Edmonds, those sort of people. There’s a huge amount of specimens without a home and they’re all telling a story, a story that feeds into the planet, how the planet changes, how climate changes, how things aren’t static. And that would be very useful.

[21:44] Iain Stewart: But the other thing that interesting you mentioned the Etches collection and Steve Etches. I mean, he’s an amateur. And I think there is something, if he’d come at it from an academic point of view, it’d probably be a terrible museum. But he didn’t. He came at it because he was an enthusiast. I think he’s amazing. But I do think that we have got lots to learn from the so-called amateurs that are how to communicate geology, rather than the world expert on X or Y.

[22:10] Anna Grayson: Everybody can be a scientist. We’re born scientists. Yes, I agree with you there, Iain. And also, these days, anybody can make a film. I mean, when Iain and I were doing it, it was a very specialist thing. But as you say, so many young people have the skills to make a basic short film and that is a resource that should be used and young people should be encouraged to do it.

[22:32] Iain Stewart: Yeah, actually, I think that’s a really important point. And that was one I normally emphasise myself. When I started, I didn’t really have any other options. I had to find an independent company, or in my case, I found BBC Science to make these programmes and to distribute them. But these days, the internet itself is a distribution network and your mobile phone is amazing. And you can get all of this kit. You know, I say this to a lot of young researchers, a young geoscientist who say, how do I get into the media? And I say, look, if you’ve got everything at your disposal now, if you’re not already doing it, why are you not doing it? That’ll be what a television maker would say. Why are you not doing it? Why are you waiting to be discovered in some way before you can do it? So my big advice is just to get out there. Do it. You’ll make mistakes, but quietly you’ll make mistakes, you’ll get past them, and you’ll get better. And as I say, you can end up, drive it yourself. I really don’t think that was there for me, and I’m not sure if Anna thinks it was there for her. I think we needed that whole media machine and now we don’t.

[23:43] Anna Grayson: Technology has moved on. I mean, I was physically cutting tape that was analog, and now I’ve got this [holds up mobile phone], it’s so much easier. So, yes, that landscape has completely changed and that’s probably the biggest change that’s been the elephant in the room that we haven’t really talked about in this conversation, that the technology has changed so much, making it accessible to all.

[24:04] Marissa Lo: Thank you so much, Anna and Iain, for joining me. It’s been really fantastic to hear this discussion.

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