Week 6 and I can’t believe I am half-way through my three month stint as Sense about Science EU! Discussions this week have heavily centered around the differences observed between cultures so the blog shares my insights!
The office here in Brussels features a fantastic combination of nationalities: Brits, Italians, Spaniards, Dutch and Serbians just to name a few and naturally conversations about home traditions arise. A simple comment about a ‘dad joke’ being made can be enough to baffle my colleagues (who knew that was just a British thing)?!
One evening, a group from the office volunteered our time for a focus group to help the stressed out Lejla, an intern at another organisation within the office, with her thesis. As part of her thesis Lejla is studying media literacy, the ability to observe the media critically. The international background of the office meant we all had completely different perspectives on media literacy which made for a great discussion. I, personally, had little faith in media and peoples ability to criticise it, where my Dutch friend found media reporting was not a problem. As we chatted (in proper Belgian style with beer and waffles) it became evident that the faith in the media hugely varied depending on the country of origin. It appeared Dutch media outlets were pretty reliable at relaying the facts without a clear political agenda, unlike the UK media. Italian, Spanish and Serbian perspectives found the media also seemed guilty of having a particular political lean, however the extremes varied. I had already noticed the different cultures in social terms, however its now clear to me that the differences seem to span from casual societal differences in drinking and eating habits to more significant disparities such as those in political and media terms. They say variety is the spice of life and variety is certainly not deficient here in Brussels!
Hey folks! The theme of this weeks blog revolves heavily around two of my favourite things in life…food and drink. Yep, I am going to tell you all about my networking endeavours of last week.
After the baptism of fire-like networking observed in European Parliament on my third day, things had been slow on the networking front. Networking is a HUGE part of the Brussels lifestyle and it’s hard to really feel like a seasoned Brussels worker unless you’ve had a few working lunches and coffees. Never fear however, week 5 certainly delivered on the that front.
On Tuesday, I attended an evening event organised by Citizens for Europe called What the Fund?! The event involved not-for-profit groups pitching their ideas to an audience to gain some ever-important funding. A group of experts in not-for -profit funding also spoke discussing the work presented. The talks were followed by cheese and wine (how continental)! At first I felt a little awkward…stood on the outside with my plastic cup of red wine not sure which group to try and initiate conversation with. After about 10 minutes (and a few sips of wine) I managed to strike up a conversation with the winners of the funding. Succeeding in the first conversation was all I needed, leaving 20 minutes later business cards in hand.
Once I had attended my first networking event successfully, the working lunches seemed to roll in! Thursday flew by amidst meetings over coffee and discussions with the side order of a delicious burger . Now I understand why every coffee shop, restaurant and bistro is bustling at all hours of the day in Brussels. Its all part of work!
After another speedy week in the beautiful Brussels, it’s time to blog again!
The week kicked off to a controversial start when I learnt Andrew Wakefield was to be talking in European Parliament at a showing of the documentary ‘Vaxxed’. For those of you who don’t know Wakefield, he holds a strong anti-vaccination stance. In 1998 Wakefield published a study in The Lancet, a well-respected medical journal, warning of a potential link between the MMR (Measles, Mumps and Rubella) vaccination and autism. In 2010, the study was discredited as a fraudulent study and Wakefield’s medical license was revoked. Further to this, it was found the subjects of the study were also subjected to unnecessary tests, for which Wakefield did not have ethical approval. The presence of the former doctor at an event in European Parliament to present a documentary (co-written and directed by Wakefield) which further suggests a link between MMR and autism seemed outrageous.
Tweets from Sense about Science EU and Ben Goldacre challenging Michèle Rivasi on the anti- vaccination event.
As the role of Sense about Science EU is to advocate evidence-based policy, the presence of such a discredited individual in European Parliament was worrying to say the least. It’s safe to say Sense about Science were not the only party concerned about the event. In shorter terms, the scientists fought back! Michèle Rivasi, the green MEP organising the event was bombarded with tweets from a variety of individuals, ranging from scientists to parents of autistic patients, outraged that such an event was being organised. The twitter barrage coupled with media tension surrounding the events has caused the screening event to be cancelled! Evidence won out this time. There’s no doubt about it that this week was an exciting and successful (thankfully) week at sense about science…I wonder what next week will bring!
I am sat here unable to believe I have already completed my third week at Sense about Science EU. I guess its true what they say, ‘time flies when you’re having fun!’ The work in my third week included similar endeavors to that of week two so I have decided to take a different approach this week. That’s right folks, strap yourself in for much needed self-reflection!
I have to admit, spending time at Sense about Science has really challenged and changed my perspectives on many aspects of science and how to communicate it effectively. What’s really struck me is how simple it can be to engage public with the work you do. I have always been pretty involved in public engagement but have also appreciated many researchers arguing they ‘don’t have time.’ In reality though a simple tweet, a conversation with a family member or even a discussion over one of these famous Belgian beers can be considered outreach. The amount of people working on science communication out here has struck me, making one thing clear…it’s pretty damn important. The disconnect between researchers and science communication to the masses is not a new problem, or something I am only just observing, but seeing how many people are trying to close this gap is eye-opening. I now see the importance of researchers communicating to lay audiences what they have found and how it is relevant to everyday life!
I guess I should also address the old elephant in the room as well (and not the pink one featured on the award-winning delirium beer ). I will not dive too much into the huge can of worms that is ‘Brexit’ but being a Brit in Brussels at the moment means it is hard to ignore. Discussions with fellow Brits, who have lived here for years, are fascinating. Before coming to Brussels I figured brexit would mean any UK citizens living and working abroad would have to suffer death by form-filling (for working visas) or pack up and leave and return to our island. Now however, seeing how many British expats live and work out here, I am forced to reconsider. Brussels wants these UK workers just as much as they want to stay here. Also I am seeing first hand the painstaking administration processes individuals from non-EU member states have to put up with. I knew Brexit was always going to be a tough cookie to negotiate while appeasing the British but being out here has made it clear it’s going to be even harder than I first thought.
After my jam-packed first week, and a weekend of waffles, croissants and beer, I returned to the office ready for a busy second week!
Sofie was at a meeting in London on Monday so I decided to take the opportunity to swot up on some of the more technical terms associated with science policy and the EU. Even as a scientist, who is used to a lot of jargon, I was somewhat overwhelmed by the multitude of different terms related to policy making. What are the commission? How are they different to the parliament? What is lobbying? By the end of the day I was ready to crash but I felt a little more confident in understanding what was expected of me.
The week proceeded with my continual work on finding speakers for our Evidence Matters event while trying to find relevant MEPs to support the cause for Sense about Science EU. I also worked on a few potential twitter and facebook campaigns to encourage citizens, to challenge claims in policy by asking for evidence. A long few afternoons were spent searching for a claim that I could challenge and write up as an example. It was tricky, MEPs are careful about what they say and potential EU claims could be seen as explosive. Sadly, I didn’t find any claims I considered appropriate so the search continues on Monday!
The lucky people who follow this blog (if there are any…) will know that 2 and a bit years ago I successfully began a PhD at the University of Nottingham, hence the ‘Scientist in training’ sign off I often use. Now as part of my PhD training, I am expected to undertake a 3 month work placement and, being the jammy so-and-so I am, I managed to organise my placement in Brussels!
Once I had settled in somewhat (settling in included getting lost on multiple occasions…I am sure it had nothing to do with the Belgian beer) I began my work placement with Sense about Science EU. Sense about Science EU are an NGO striving to ensure all policies made by the EU, whether scientific or not, are based on evidence. The first day kicked off with a complimentary chocolate being left on my desk, not a bad start if you ask me, followed by an outline by the director what is expected of me and the work I will be doing over here. There are many different facets of Sense about Science and the work I plan to do will feed into all of these, however the dominant task at the moment is aiding the director in working on an Evidence Matters campaign and event. The UK branch has already run a similar event.
So after a brief discussion of what is expected of me I cracked on! The first week involved me approaching citizens or NGOs working with citizens to see whether they would be interested in taking part in an event like Evidence Matters. The director, Sofie, and I also bounced ideas off each other regarding what kind of citizens it would be interesting to reach out to e.g. a teenager. As well as this ‘headhunting’ role, I also attended an event in the European Parliament. The excitement of being in parliament on the day means a lot of it was a blur (yes, I am aware that’s a bit OTT). My main role was to ensure Sofie’s video she was presenting was set up so her speech could run smoothly.
Overall I had a brilliant, jam-packed first week with Sense about Science EU (and that has nothing to do with the post-work beers on the Friday)! Roll on Monday!
In September I was lucky enough to be invited to join a group of fellow environmental scientists on a trip to the beautiful Brazil! The group consisted of 3 academics and 3 very over-excited PhD students. The aim of the trip was to set up collaborative work with a University based in Belem, Federal Rural University of the Amazon (URFA.) Additional academics, who had previous links with the University of Nottingham, also attended the meetings in Belem facilitating collaboration between 3 universities in inter-disciplinary areas.
The first thing that struck me whilst in Brazil was the different approach to research. Many of the academics and post-docs couldn’t understand why we wanted to work in collaboration with them, other than the obvious trip to Brazil!! The concept on which I base my PhD project, biochar, originates from ancient Amazonian practices so working with Brazilians on the topic brought out the geek in me! The local academics loved the enthusiasm but couldn’t completely relate.
Now, when it comes to agriculture in Brazil there are a lot of social issues. You have the huge companies, such as Monsanto, dominating the market in the South and trying to penetrate the North where farming is seen on a sustenance level. The North struggle with a reduced capacity for farming due to protection of the rain-forest therefore reduced land. This means any additions or changes to the farming practice in the North need to be 100% beneficial due to the heavy reliance on local farms for food. While in Brazil my understanding of the extent to which locals depend on farming massively increased, putting into context the impact of my work.
While in Belem I was asked to present my work. After seeing the Brazilian enthusiasm for biochar I was excited to present my ideas! The language barrier made the presenting difficult but thankfully a trusty postdoc was on hand to act as translator! The academics then presented suggestions and potential oversights within our projects which, although slightly daunting, turned out extremely beneficial. After the presentations we enjoyed the sun set over the amazon with a well deserved beer.
Overall I found it extremely interesting to see how different education, farming and economic systems worked globally! It was great to see for myself the potential impact my work could be having (a long way down the line.) The key drive for sustainability in Brazil was brilliant. The country values the magnificence of the rain-forest and understands any technologies developed need to respect and maintain the forest. Brazil… it was an absolute pleasure and I have no doubt I will be back (as long as I can string together a few quid for the air fare!)