Nappy Science Gang

Two years ago I had a baby. Have you ever had a baby? To me it felt like the world had stopped and then shifted on its axis. When he was a few weeks old I remember walking down the street, shell-shocked, and seeing other people with small babies and being incredulous. “What? Other people are doing it too? Loads of people are doing this all the time?”

It seemed like the sort of super-human effort they give you an OBE and ticker-tape parades for. Like walking to the north pole. Or curing cancer. It didn’t seem possible that loads of people do it every day, without most people even noticing.

And in the weird head-readjustment, life-turned-upside-down, sleep-deprivation-hell of the first few months, I think a lot of people find they need some irrational crutch to cling on to. Mine was developing a cloth nappy addiction.

I know that sounds ridiculous, (‘They are just there to catch poo! How could anyone get attached to nappies?’), but believe me, there are thousands of women like me. We have discussion threads about why nappies are so addictive, on nappy discussion groups. Yes, there are nappy discussion groups.

I think, for me, it was something to cling to while adjusting to parenthood. Buying cute nappies I could do. And I felt prepared and equipped. Even though I didn’t have a clue what I was doing in any other area of parenthood. Also, I was buying them second-hand on eBay and on nappy selling groups on Facebook, so you’d be keeping an eye out for things you wanted, and get a little dopamine hit when you find one. And another hit if you won it. And another hit when it arrived in the post. (When you’ve got a non-sleeping two month old, you take your dopamine hits where you can find them).

All this is a long-winded way of explaining how I came to be a denizen of the cloth nappy world. After a bit of course, my project manager head and my public engagement head started thinking about nappies too. My researcher head got really annoyed by the conflicting advice online about how to care for cloth nappies. And my giving-myself-loads-of-work head had the idea of Nappy Science Gang.

So, here we are. The Wellcome Trust have given me a grant to run it. It will be the first public engagement project working with cloth nappies. As far as I’m aware, it will be the first citizen science project where the users set the research priorities, design their own protocols (with advice from scientists) and then run their own experiments. We’ll find out some useful science for cloth nappy users (a growing group as the environmental imperatives become clearer), and we’ll tackle a lot of persistent urban myths, with scientific thinking and evidence.

Which all goes to show, you can come up with interesting public engagement projects about anything, if you think about it enough.

Rivers, babies, stuff like that…

I realised today that I have been atrocious at keeping this blog updated. My last post was well over a year ago. What else happened almost a year ago? Oh yeah, that’s right, I had a baby. A photo of the side of a red campervan (it's a converted LDV convoy), with a one year old baby looking out of the side window with a mischievous look on his face. The baby is blond and very cute, but I may be biased...

Why did no-one tell me how much work babies are? Oh, yeah, that’s right, everybody told me, I just didn’t listen.

In the last year I have cared 24/7 for a tiny, completely dependent human. Having a baby is like an earthquake in your life. I still can’t quite believe people everywhere do this all the time. Where are our medals?!

I’ve also walked down the River Tweed, with my partner Ross, and the baby. (Although, to be honest, I didn’t feel the baby pulled his weight.) I’ve organised two Science Days for Nottingham City Council. I’ve written three debate kits for I’m a Scientist. We’ve lived in Turkey for two months, and then travelled round the UK in a campervan for four months. No wonder I’m knackered.

Forgive this self-regarding post. But I wanted to put something up so that anyone who came across my blog could see what I’ve been up to. I hope you’re all well. I’m relieved to see that the UK public engagement world seems to have carried on fine without me…

Update on the storytelling and sci comm panel at Science in Public conference

I’m chairing a panel on storytelling in science communication at the Science in Public conference in July, as I posted a few months ago. We’ve now picked the panellists, so I thought I should give you a quick update. Here’s all the key details.

Panel members

Session structure

  • Intros, each panellist tells a story (5 mins) and then briefly outlines their project and what they think live storytelling brings (2 mins). (35 mins)
  • Q+A – audience questions to panellists. (25 mins)
  • Audience storysharing session – audience in small groups exchange personal stories. (30 mins)

Conference info

  • Science in Public conference
  • Dates: 22nd-23rd July
  • Location: Nottingham University
  • Hashtag: #SiP13
  • Registration now open at a cost of £55 early bird rate until 15th June for the 2-day conference, with a one day rate available. There will also be a conference dinner on campus on the Monday evening.

I’m HEAVILY pregnant (seriously, I look like I’ve got a beachball shoved up my jumper) with the baby due on 1st July, and I’m still going to make it to the conference. So really, you’ve got no excuse, have you?;-)

A panel on storytelling in science communication

The Science in Public conference takes place at Nottingham Uni, 22-23rd July.

I’ve really enjoyed the conference in previous years – it’s a good mix (for me) of stuff about practical examples of public engagement with science, and abstract theorising about same. It’s very diverse in what it covers – last year I remember sessions about science coverage on the BBC, sex in exhibitions at the British Museum, dialogues on stem cells, and loads more.

I’ve always had stimulating conversations, and come away with loads of new thoughts in my head, which is pretty much what I ask of a conference.

They’ve just announced their panels for this year, and issued a Call for Papers.

They are asking people to apply to one of the panels. But there are also open panels, in case you wanted to talk about something that doesn’t fit any existing ones, so go have a look:-).

I’m chairing a panel, on storytelling and public engagement with science. More details below.

If you’re interested in being on this panel, get in touch. Or if you know someone else you think would be relevant, please let them know about it.

To be perfectly honest, I thought the way it worked was I’d put in my panel suggestion, and then if it was picked, it would be my job to find speakers for it. But it turns out you can all apply. I’ve never organised a panel at a conference before, so I’ve no idea if that’s normal, but it’s great that it’s open. I just hope people will apply…

Apparently I get to choose what papers to accept for this panel (ooooh, the power!), so I’m putting a bit more info here about what I’d envisaged. That’s not to say you can’t change my mind! I’m happy to have an informal chat (phone/email/twitter/whatever you prefer) if you’re interested.

My one requirement is that you have to tell a story.

Here’s the abstract I submitted about the panel:-

Title: Are you sitting comfortably? The untapped potential of oral storytelling in public engagement with science.

Format: Three or four panellists from projects involving storytelling and public engagement with science. Each panellist will sing for their supper by telling a story – a proper story – and only then briefly outlining their project and what they think storytelling brings. The audience then break into small groups and tell each other stories, which they’ll then feed back to the whole group, an opportunity to experience and reflect on storytelling and storysharing.

“A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens – second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter. Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence.”

Storytelling is arguably the oldest artform. Originally it was oral, live, and inexorably social. It functioned as entertainment, as a cultural collective memory, and as a tool to transmit knowledge, values and social norms. Nowadays we have a plethora of other media jostling for our attention, but we still all listen to stories and tell stories every day.

In recent years there’s been a resurgence of live storytelling, with storytelling festivals, clubs and a National Storytelling Week. But this isn’t something that’s been explicitly explored much in science communication or public engagement. (There is a lot of discussion of the importance of telling stories – in the sense of using narrative – but that’s a more general point.)

This panel explores and illustrates what stories can bring, by bringing together people to talk about different projects which used live storytelling.

To expand on that a little more:-

I’m a bit obsessed with storytelling – live storytelling – as regular readers may have noticed from my Tales from the River project. So the panel is not about using narrative in writing about science, or TV, or whatever. Those are useful things to discuss, and narrative in general is great, but I wanted to focus in a bit more, and talk about live storytelling.

The first time I ever went to see a live storyteller – it was at the Guid Craic Club in Edinburgh – I spent the first five minutes wishing I hadn’t come. I’d dragged my friend along against her will. It was in the upstairs room of a pub, with tatty wallpaper and sticky carpets. Some old guy stood up to ask everyone to be quiet, and I thought, “Oh no, this is going to be excruciatingly dull, and there’s too few people here for us to leave surreptitiously.”

Then the old guy started speaking. And within minutes, the room and the wallpaper and the sticky carpets were miles away, and I was crossing a highland loch in a boat…

That is what an amazing storyteller can do. And it’s truly an artform. The earliest stories were this – told, in person, in words, with voice and body and heart – it’s the root of where story comes from. It’s the bedrock, the wellspring, the fount of all story. It annoys me beyond measure that The Story conference (which is great and fascinating in many ways) bills itself as ‘about stories and story-telling’ but completely ignores the whole storytelling scene. But I digress…

A great storyteller can fire the imagination, creating worlds in your mind’s eye. But you don’t have to be a truly amazing storyteller, like the best ones I’ve seen, to get some value out of live storytelling. (Which is lucky, cos I’m nothing like that good.) But telling stories in person has an immediacy, a humanity, an intimacy. Parents and grandparents tell stories to children. Teenagers tell ghost stories, drinking cider round a camp fire. Miserable dates or lost luggage are reclaimed as anecdotes to amuse our friends.

So, enough waffling, here are some of the things I think are special about storytelling. If there are projects you’d like to talk about that illustrate any of these angles (or others I haven’t mentioned) then get in touch. Your project will most likely have been public engagement with science in some way, but it doesn’t have to be, if you think it might shed some light or give people some ideas.


Everyone has a story. If you ask people to talk about their first memory of X, or their favourite story about Y, then everyone is on the same level. Which makes it easier then for scientists and members of the public to talk, people to people.


Stories usually involve human things we can relate to – we’ve all been embarrassed or frightened or grumpy. Sharing stories helps us see people from other groups – like scientists – as like us.


When you tell a story, especially about something that’s happened to you, you’re often speaking from the real you (if you get what I mean). It stops people talking in bullet points and lectures and facts – I don’t just mean scientists, but audience blowhards too:-).


Stories are more involving, easier to listen to, more memorable, than lists of facts.


Telling a story about a day out from your childhood is something different to recounting facts like where the old cinema used to be. There’s a reason that reminiscence sessions are popular with old people, and those who work with them. There’s a reason oral history captures something that other sources don’t.

Similarly, with things like narrative-based medicine, there’s something different in recounting the story of why you’ve come to the doctors that is qualitatively different from recounting a list of symptoms. And potentially richer in information.

Childhood associations

Most of us have memories of being told stories as children, and the associations we have with that are often positive, reassuring, calming. I’ve seen talks on the use of storytelling in psychiatric hospitals, describing how some patients who responded to little else were calmed by stories, start listening and want to hear the end.


Telling our own stories allows us to make sense of things that have happened to us. Sometimes we use that to play around with how we feel about them or what sense to make of them.

And finally…

I could go on, but I think these are starting to overlap. You get the idea, I think. As I said, do get in touch if you want to discuss this. Otherwise, just send something in. It says on the conference site that you should send abstracts of 250-300 words, but I don’t mind if you send something shorter or longer. Or even if you send me a drawing or a YouTube clip of you telling me a story, or whatever random thing you like instead. Obviously it will be best if I can tell what you’re planning to talk about, but…

Constructive internet dialogue, is it possible?

Years ago I read an article in New Scientist about road rage. A psychologist said part of the problem was people in cars are depersonalised. You don’t think of the other driver as a person, you think of them as a car. You can’t see their face, read their body language, hear their voice.

By contrast, if you bump into someone as you are walking down the street, there are all sorts of signals – from apologetic body language, to saying, “Sorry!” – that help to defuse the situation.

In a car, there’s none of that. The other driver doesn’t look like a real, breathing person, they look like an object in your way. Just you, and your irritation, feel real to you.

I’ve often thought something similar happens on the internet.

Once upon a time we thought the internet was a big shining hope. Wow, look at that, people from all over the world can talk to each other! Talking is good, so more talking is better, right? Let a new era of peace, love and human understanding reign!

OK, so maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. But in the ’90s there was an optimism about what the internet could do for democracy and for humankind. That it could be a space for conversations that couldn’t or wouldn’t happen easily in real life. That people talking and sharing would naturally come to understand each other better.

But what do we actually see when we look around the internet? We see blowhards shouting at each other on newspaper comment threads and nobody listening, nobody learning anything, nobody understanding each other better. We see flame wars, trolling, polarisation.

Not to say there’s no constructive dialogue on the internet, but it often seems like the exception. Far more often a difference of opinion seems to spiral off into anger, insults and viciousness.

I think a big part of that is, a bit like with road rage, it’s much easier to be rude and unreasonable on the internet than it would be in real life. Words on a screen become a place to vent your frustrations. The other people you’re talking to don’t seem that real. With the added factor that it’s technically public – encouraging some to show off and posture for the imagined invisible audience.

I do see some constructive conversations. I see a lot more situations where constructive online conversations could be useful but aren’t happening – from people of different backgrounds falling out on twitter, to contested areas of science like GM. If we could work out what makes constructive conversations happen in one place, and not another, wouldn’t that be handy?

Maybe sometimes people just want to fall out and let off steam, and we shouldn’t worry too much twitter spats. But it would be useful to know – for democracy, for consultations, for civil society – how we can have public conversations online, about issues that matter, in constructive ways.

I’ve been asking people this question for a while now, and no-one seems to have any answers. We know some stuff about creating constructive dialogue in real life (and it’s still a lot harder than it looks), but I don’t know of any real research on online dialogue. And I speak as someone who’s spent ten years involved in running online dialogue events.

I’ve got some thoughts, and I think our events were usually pretty constructive, partly because of the way we set them up, which we developed by trial and error over the years. To be honest though, those events nearly all involved school students talking to either scientists, or local councillors. Which is a fairly specific situation. Not everything I’ve learned can be applied elsewhere.

For example, I can tell you that live chats tend to be more polite when the teacher is in the classroom. But, sadly, I can’t send a teacher round to look over the shoulder of every bitter misogynist about to take potshots at Mary Beard.

However, here are a few thoughts I’ve had:-

  • I think an ongoing relationship makes a huge difference. 

I’ve seen constructive conversations emerge online, even from fraught or snarky beginnings, when people have an ongoing relationship. Even if it’s just as twitter pals. Where people place some value on a continuing relationship, they are more likely to make an effort to acknowledge valid points, compromise and accommodate. 

Whereas, of course, a drive-by commenter is like the car driver you’ll never see again. It’s easy to flick them metaphorical Vs and shout ‘WANKER!’ after their departing back.

It’s not practical to expect an ongoing relationship from all newspaper commenters or dialogue participants. But are there ways we can use this effect? Give people status within a community for constructive behaviour, a bit like stack overflow?

  • I think photo avatars make a difference.

They remind us we’re talking to real human beings. Are there other little nudges we could use to humanise people?

  • I think effective and proactive moderators or facilitators make a difference.

But that’s resource intensive. Communities can self-moderate, or have volunteer moderators, but I’m not sure I’d hold up reddit as a great example of a constructive online space…

  • I think ground rules make a difference. 

Other people must have more thoughts on this. I imagine there’s a great deal of tacit knowledge out there – in people like me, in online community managers, moderators and all sorts of forum administrators. I suspect there’s also many bits and pieces of relevant research in all sorts of disciplines – in psychology, in sociology, in IT, in politics – but no-one’s pulled all this stuff together.

So I’ve got some questions:-

  1. Does anyone know of any research on this? Do we know of ways that we can set up online spaces that make constructive conversations more likely? Is anyone actually studying it? Is anyone asking all the people I mentioned above what they know? And then is anyone putting this all together to try to design effective online dialogue spaces and testing them out?
  2. Even if there isn’t any research, what are your thoughts on this? What do you think makes some online conversations or spaces more constructive than others?
  3. If there isn’t any research (that we know of), does anyone want to fund me to do a PhD investigating this question? Because it seems like it would be a damn useful thing to find out.

River of stories

If you’re interested in random interesting projects, this is me belatedly announcing we’ve now got a website for Tales from the River.

The project has been on a back-burner recently, as I’ve been doing a lot of work on I’m a Scientist’s GM Food event. That’s a bit of a departure for I’m a Scientist so it’s involved a lot of hard work, and a lot of learning.

(I’m really excited, and fascinated, by the GM Food event, by the way. I think it’s got the potential to see some really interesting, joined-up conversations. It’s the first I’m a Scientist event that’s open to all – not just school students – so go and have a browse, or ask a question. It’s intended to be a place for constructive, multi-perspective discussion, something we thought the topic of GM could do with…)

But enough of the I’m a Scientist hard-sell (I’m a real laugh at parties…), Tales from the River is still going ahead. We’ll be doing it in September. Walking all 187 miles of the River Trent, over three weeks, and doing storytelling sessions, followed by discussions and story-sharing, at every stop along the way.

If you are a person, or organisation, based along the route, who’s interested in us doing a session for you, or who can offer us a meal or lodging, then get in touch.