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Cillian and the team at the Oxford Natural History Museum

We asked Cillian Gartlan about his work with Oxford Sparks to make the Pandemics: The Unanswered Questions documentary. Cillian and a wider team from the Pandemic Sciences Institute spoke with members of the public about issues including the likelihood of future pandemics, the reasons why some viruses affect humans differently to bats, and how covid vaccines were developed so quickly. 

Q: Why is it important for scientists to do public engagement projects like this?

A: As scientists, much of our funding comes from public bodies and I believe it’s therefore very important that we effectively communicate our findings to the wider public. When our research impacts something related to everyday life, such as public health in our context, I think we should make even more of an effort to do public engagement projects. Two-way public engagement projects like ours can be beneficial for both the scientists involved and the non-scientists we interact with, as we have something to learn from the questions that people ask us. Non-scientists can help us think about problems in different ways and can shed light on aspects of our science that have not been communicated well to the wider public. I think in our pandemic research context, it is really important to understand where the gaps are in public health messaging and therefore where we may need to increase our science communication efforts.

Q: How did you plan the project and the documentary?

A: The wider project was planned out by myself and the other DPhil students involved, along with Janet Stott, who is a Reuben College fellow in public engagement as well as the public engagement lead at Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History. We had discussions with non-scientists in the museum on different days and targeted different age groups in order to get a broader idea of the kinds of questions people still had related to pandemics, viruses and vaccines. Once we decided that we would also like to make a documentary to share our discussions of some of the most popular questions we heard, we worked with Charlotte Bird and Rob Key at Oxford Sparks to make this possible.

Q: How much did the video cost to make? How did you fund this?

A: The ‘micro-documentary’ video with Oxford Sparks, which lasts up to about 10 minutes or so, costs £1,600. This includes their planning of the script with you, as well as filming, direction, editing and publication online all done by their team. They also alternatively offer short-form videos for social media ( I am a DPhil student at Reuben College, so I applied for Reuben College’s PER grant, which awarded us £1,000. As we wanted to produce the video with Oxford Sparks on top of buying some props for public engagement, we successfully sought matched funding from Oxford’s Pandemic Sciences Institute, which our lab is part of.

Q: How did Oxford Sparks help you?

A: We were very impressed with all the thought that Oxford Sparks put into making our micro-documentary. They helped a lot with planning the direction and shots and were very professional and time-efficient on our filming days. Overall, they helped turn our rough ideas on how this would look into a professional short-form documentary.

Q: How did you find volunteers to take part in the interviews?

A: We were helped by both Janet Stott at the museum and Oxford Sparks, who each knew people through their programs or previous projects that had lived experiences related to the pandemic. We knew that these volunteers would provide interesting perspectives when discussing these ‘unanswered questions’ that our film focused on.

Q: Have you got any more public engagement projects planned for the future?

A: Most of us involved in the documentary are finishing our DPhils in the near future so are not doing as much public engagement at the moment. In the past I’ve been lucky to be part of many public engagement projects, including the ‘Science Together Oxford’ programme and through Reuben College. Before coming to Oxford, I’d also been involved in public engagement projects in Ireland, largely through Science Gallery Dublin. I certainly hope to do more public engagement in the future! 

Q: Is scientific misinformation a new problem or are we just more aware of it than we used to be?

A: Scientific misinformation is certainly not a new problem. In our field, for example, vaccine misinformation can be traced back to as early as the first vaccinations! However I do think that in modern times, social media platforms have helped to amplify misinformation, so I believe it’s important that we counter this by sharing our scientific knowledge and engage in meaningful discussions with non-scientists who may have concerns or questions related to work we carry out. ‘Bot’ accounts on social media that spread misinformation appear to be quite prominent, so when engaging with individual accounts online I think it’s important to keep this in mind and focus our efforts appropriately on discussions with real people who are open to conversation.

Q: Do you have any tips for engaging with the public on difficult questions such as vaccine hesitancy?

A: I think it’s important to remember that the majority of people you will encounter (at in-person events at least, I think there is a skew online) who have questions about vaccines are coming from a good place and are genuinely curious. On social media we can become convinced that people fall into two black-and-white categories of pro- or anti-vaccine. In reality, people have more nuanced views and will enjoy having a discussion with an expert. It’s best to avoid using jargon and to avoid assumptions about someone’s prior knowledge or reasons for asking particular questions. Many people we spoke to were very happy to talk to us once they realised that we would be friendly and non-judgemental. I think as academics who are often funded by public bodies, it can be important to mention this, because sometimes people may conflate your expression of views related to vaccines as tied with financial interests you have in the success of particular vaccines. I felt that people were more receptive to discussions when we were open about the fact that we were researching vaccines independently of financial interests and were just genuinely very passionate about vaccinology and how it relates to protecting us against disease!

For more information about working with Oxford Sparks visit Oxford Sparks: Get Involved.