| "Communication is an investment"
Alain Hubert is a civil engineer and polar explorer. A ceaseless wanderer in the snow-covered regions of the world, and co-founder of the International Polar Foundation (IPF), he is an excellent communicator. His principle aim is to increase awareness of polar research. An interview.
Because the challenges of polar research are crucial to the future of humanity. The polar regions are the only ones in the world which can provide an accurate picture of the climatic history of our planet. No ancestors have left us sealed bottles containing historic samples of the atmosphere, but polar ice contains tiny air bubbles which can tell us when, how and why the Earth's environment has fluctuated over the centuries and millennia. We thus have access to an exceptional scientific heritage which we need to study and also to explain.
What are the highlights of communicating about research in a polar environment?
They are many. It is certainly the ideal subject, combining dreams, adventure, beauty and polar animals: everything about that world is fascinating, so people are immediately interested.
It is also a very topical subject: climate change is increasingly being mentioned by the media and the latest findings are somewhat alarming.
The impressive research results obtained so far, such as being able to go back nearly 850,000 years thanks to the information sealed in ice cores, or even more than 55 million years in sediments, are quite extraordinary!
Above all, it is a subject which affects us all. A clearer understanding of these phenomena and their causes may enable true awareness of the importance of research and, above all, the changes we need to make to our behaviour in order to take up the challenge we face today with respect to climate change.
Science is not always easy to explain clearly…
It is true that the subjects are sometimes complex and difficult to explain. But they are usually fascinating, so that the potential for communication is considerable. And if scientists are not always inclined to communicate their findings it is mainly because they are concentrating on their research.
Communication is another job altogether, even though some scientists have an excellent gift for it. A few of the major research institutes have understood this, but they remain the exception.
I see three: young people, decision-makers and the general public.
Young people, because they are aware of the threats to our planet, and polar research has a special role to play in this respect. And it is they who must be encouraged to become involved in scientific research. In that respect, polar research is an excellent catalyst because of its magical, extreme and adventurous aspects.
Political decision-makers, because it is they who must today make the environmental, and particularly climate change, pledges which are now necessary, as polar research results have made clear. More prosaically, it is also they who provide the largest share of funding for this research, a point we must not forget.
And finally, the general public, as people can put pressure on political decision-markers and also act directly by changing their own behaviour. They therefore need to be sufficiently well-informed to understand the challenges we face and to take a stand. For example, is it widely known that there is now a general consensus on the link between global warming and human activities? Is it known that current levels of CO2 are the highest they have been for at least 850,000 years? Here again, polar research can deliver its message and encourage citizens to take action.
Is it really possible to reach such a broad target group?
Although it is quite easy to imagine raising awareness amongst a few thousand political decision-makers, the problem is quite different when it comes to reaching hundreds of millions of people throughout the world, with their different languages and cultures.
We therefore require relay points, the most classic being the media: press, television, Internet, etc. But to work with them, we need a degree of know-how, to be able to showcase interesting examples and put forward attractive approaches. Journalists do not always have the time for in-depth coverage, so they look for stories to tell, people to meet or sites to visit. In my opinion, one of the keys to success is direct contact. The EU Research Directorate has recently taken several initiatives in this respect that have brought scientists and journalists together. In 2004, a symposium enabled them to meet and exchange their different views. The meeting was a great success and will be repeated in November 2005. And inviting the press to visit the Polarstern research ship was an initiative which was both original and very useful.
I see two other channels of communication we must target: teachers, because they have a crucial role to play as an interface with young people, and the NGOs – international, national and also local – because they are in direct contact with citizens and are thus able to carry out essential local work.
These organisations set up awareness programmes, create teaching tools, open museums and exhibitions and set up internet sites, etc., which aim to reach people in their homes and everyday lives, in their villages or local areas.
Representatives from innumerable small, local associations throughout Europe visit schools to talk about subjects such as energy problems, climate change and sustainable development. This type of initiative must be encouraged and increased. And research in polar regions offers a broad range of topics which can be fully integrated in these efforts.
Reference is often made to information technologies as the best means of making contact with young people. What is your opinion?
The principal advantage of information technologies is their access on-line. Being able to collaborate with other pupils or students, ask questions of specialists, consult scientific opinions, interact with teachers and compare working hypotheses are essential tools when it comes to learning in our modern society.
The broad range of media available is another advantage of information technology. Not only texts and images, but also interactive programmes to supplement a film or radio report, simulation tools which can, for example, explain the principles of modelling, or interactive questionnaires – there are endless opportunities.
But communicating is an expensive activity…
It is for this reason – and increasingly – that a specific budget must be allocated as soon as a project is proposed. Communication must form an integral part of the project and not be considered a luxury or a waste of time and money, to the detriment of research work. On the contrary, communication is now key in ensuring and increasing the funding of research. Science is a passion for those involved, but we also need to make this known and demonstrate the relevance of our research efforts, which are too often considered as being of little practical use to solving society's problems. If research is to attract more money, we need to talk about it, explain our results, demonstrate its usefulness, render it more appealing and interesting, and make sure that everyone wants to find out more. Spending funds on communication is not a waste: it is an investment for the future.