An objective-driven long-term initiative to communicate fundamental science to various target audiences — a Drosophila case study

It is increasingly important that researchers consider the impact of their research beyond academia, which may develop into impact case studies that UK universities can submit to the Research Excellence Framework (REF2021). Of the various categories, case studies in the area of public engagement are particularly tricky. In this blog post, Andreas Prokop and Sanjai Patel share their experiences from driving the Manchester Fly Facility science communication initiative. They explain how long-term objective-setting can lead to the development of multi-pronged initiatives that can reach a range of target audiences — locally, nationally and across the globe.

Why we communicate fruit fly research

The tiny fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster can be a nuisance when hovering in great numbers over our fruit bowls or litter bins in summer. But did you know that it has been the subject of intensive biological research worldwide and for over a century, decorated with 9 arguably 10 Nobel laureates (see the ‘Why fly?’ page)? Due to its numerous experimental advantages and the fact that fundamental aspects of its biology are shared with humans, Drosophila has been a pillar of discovery throughout this time — and its scientific potential remains as high as ever. For example, our own research has used Drosophila successfully for over 30 years to address relevant questions of brain formation and degeneration (Prokop, 2016). As argued in a recent “Open Access Government” article (Prokop, 2018a), the biomedical sciences would be far behind current knowledge standards without Drosophila research.

However, for reasons not further explained here, there are increasing tendencies to side-line studies in fly in favour of “translational research” or basic studies in mammalian or other vertebrate model organisms (Prokop, 2018a). In our view, this trend is often ill-informed and likely to lead to increased research costs, the unnecessary use of animals and a slow-down in scientific advance.

The step-wise developments of our science communication (scicomm) initiative

We therefore decided to become pro-active in raising awareness of why studies in fruit flies are important for biomedical advance, and represent a responsible way of spending research funds. Our initiative was born out of the Manchester Fly Facility that had been set up in 2010 as a hub for Drosophila research at our faculty, providing fly-specific infrastructure and know-how.

In July 2011, we decided to take the opportunity of a Community Open Day at our faculty to showcase flies and fly research to the public. The day was successful with visitors and had a very positive impact on the spirit of the Manchester fly community. Most importantly, it set in motion a development towards becoming the internationally most prominent initiative for the communication, advocacy and teaching of Drosophila. As is detailed in our recent publication (Patel & Prokop, 2017), our initiative grew step-wise and is now multi-pronged, based on 6 different areas of engagement: (1) researcher and university training, (2) participation in science fairs, (3) development of science exhibitions, (4) development of educational videos/materials, (5) school engagement, and (6) the marketing of resources to teachers and members of the fly community. So far, we have produced 9 journal publications, 11 online resources, 4 websites, and >10 posts for other blog sites (all listed here); a growing collection of over 40 pages of comments from across the world reflects the impact of our initiative (see our impact document). Notably, this development was driven primarily by the two authors of this blog (with many contributions over the years from members of the Manchester fly community), clearly demonstrating how much can be achieved if using a long-term strategy towards a goal you feel passionate about.

The different areas of our scicomm activities and their underlying rationales

(1) To uphold fly research as an attractive area of investigation, we need to maintain a productive research community of “drosophilists”. For this, we need to attract students and young scientists, and we need to convince researchers working with other model organisms to address their questions by using flies. To facilitate such trends, we developed a user-friendly genetics training package that is now in worldwide use (>20K downloads; Roote & Prokop, 2013; Prokop, 2013a). Furthermore, we developed strategies and resources for using this training in undergraduate courses (Fostier et al., 2015), and showcase how this works in practice by providing schedules and materials of our 2nd year practical course which incorporates this training (~9.5K downloads; Prokop, 2013b).

(2) To engage with families, we participate in science fairs (see a list of our activities). No doubt, science fair engagement is hard work, requiring lots of preparation time and usually having limited reach to local communities. However, if used correctly, this effort has enormous added value. We use science fairs as creative playgrounds where we can test newly developed or improved communication strategies and resources (for some of our strategies see Patel & Prokop, 2017): observing reactions of visitors at your stand is most helpful feedback to gradually optimise the workability of arguments and activities. Many of these arguments and resources live on as pillars of other communication activities, thus turning seemingly short-term involvement on science fairs into long-term gain.

(3) To drive science fair involvement towards higher levels, we (co-)organised science fairs. This offered unique opportunities to develop scenarios in which Drosophila could feature in more effective ways. For example focussing on neurobiology, we showcased fruit flies as drivers of fundamental discovery, side-by-side with displays on rodent research into neural disorders, as well as clinicians demonstrating neuro-surgery skills. Our most successful event was the “Brain Box” event on 19 June 2016 in Manchester Town Hall which involved Manchester’s city council, universities, hospitals, brain disease-specific patient groups/organisations, museums and a number of artists; it attracted ~5,400 visitors on a single day (see the Brain Box website).

(4) Once a powerful narrative has been developed and enlightening images, anecdotes and examples are identified, they can be applied in different contexts and using different media. We collaborated with a freshly graduated student, Branwen Messamah, to turn our elevator pitches into two small educational movies. The production of these films was achieved without any use of high-tech, but through many creative brain-storming sessions, the turning round of each and every word of the script, and by minutely adapting the flow of complementary imagery to the spoken word (Patel & Prokop, 2017). The first movie has now over 16K views and is well received by scientists and teachers alike (see our impact document). It has attracted others to generate translated versions in Spanish, Indonesian and soon also Arabic (see our YouTube channel). This example nicely illustrates how published resources can develop their own impact.

(5) An important target audience for fundamental research are schools. Reaching young minds to influence their later decisions is one important aspect. The other argument is that the school curriculum tends to be much closer to fundamental research than many applied areas, and this offers opportunities for highly effective scicomm in schools. Our activities include extracurricular visits to schools (Prokop, 2018b), hosting classes in our fly facility, organising teacher seminars, as well as engaging in school collaborations (see list of our school events).

Our school collaborations are formalised in the “droso4schools” initiative, which is explained in great detail elsewhere (Harbottle et al., 2016; Patel et al., 2017). Our implementation strategy is to place students as teaching assistants in schools to better understand school realities as well as the biology curriculum. Curriculum-relevant topics are then chosen and turned into sample lessons where Drosophila is used as a teaching tool, based on the unique conceptual understanding of biology in flies, and its many opportunities to do exciting micro-experiments in class. Sample lessons with support materials are then made available online (Prokop & Patel, 2015; ~870 downloads), further supported by our “droso4schools” website (~55K views) with information suitable for teacher preparation as well as revision and homework tasks of pupils.

(6) Generating efficient strategies and high quality resources is only one part of the task. To spread the news and use of these resources requires persistent marketing: primarily to other drosophilists and teachers, i.e. two professional groups that are often too busy to be reached, let alone influenced (Illingworth & Prokop, 2017).

We try to overcome this hurdle with journal and newspaper publications, conference presentations, the writing of blogs and via social media. But many experiences over the years have alerted us to the fact that we urgently require fundamental changes to the wider scicomm landscape. There simply is too little co-operation across institutions, organisations and initiatives, although most of them are likely thriving for the same overarching objective: the promotion of science as an integral part of society. As Bruce Y. Lee put it in a recent Forbes article: “..the marriage between science and the rest of society has to thrive. No country has ever remained a world leader without being a scientific leader.” We need a model of communication in which researchers, societies and organisations combine their various efforts into wider collaborative scicomm networks to achieve far greater rigour and impact than could possibly be achieved in isolation (Prokop, 2017; Illingworth & Prokop, 2017). We therefore actively seek such links with societies or other well-established initiatives, such as DrosAfrica (Martín-Bermudo et al., 2017), TReND in Africa, NC3Rs, The Node (Vicente et al., 2017) and the British Society for Developmental Biology (which triggered a parallel scicomm initiative: Maartens et al., 2018; Prokop, 2018c; Prokop, 2018d).

Concluding remarks

Driving 6 parallel strands of engagement under the umbrella of one overarching objective (promoting the awareness and acknowledgement of Drosophila research), certainly involves a lot of effort. But it enormously facilitates improvement and innovation, in that new ideas in one engagement area often cross-fertilise other activities. However, communicating fundamental research is not a trivial task (Illingworth & Prokop, 2017). It is therefore essential to be passionate about the scicomm topic and to identify with its communication objectives — but also to consider the conditions of one’s work environment and career progression: Do my line managers appreciate my scicomm work? What is the state of my science? Have I got the necessary time at hand? In the end, scicomm is not a mere altruistic activity, but it should help us in our own developments, career-wise but also in shaping the way we do our science.

Both authors work at the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health of The University of Manchester. Sanjai Patel is the manager of the Manchester Fly Facility, Andreas Prokop is professor of neurobiology and academic head of the facility.