Engaging geography

iii. press coverage

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December 2008

Members of the organising committee were interviewed for an online article How fast does geographical knowledge fly? published on 21/01/2009 on the Geographical magazine website. See the published article here and the correspondence that went in to the story below:


On 15 Dec 2008, at 16:07, Olivia Edward wrote:

Hi Ian

I’m the staff writer at Geographical magazine and also contribute to the website blog: http://www.geographical.co.uk/Blog/index.html

I’m keen to write an entry about how long it takes knowledge to reach the public.

I recently wrote an article on Maltese archaeology and one of the interesting subjects that came up was how long it took academic knowledge to filter through to the public. One of the archaeologists I spoke to there thought it took about a decade.

It therefore made me wonder how long it took academic geographical knowledge to transfer from the academic realm to the public realm and, having come across your name through the Engaging Geography seminar series website, I thought you might be a good person to ask.

If you had a moment I therefore wondered if you could answer the following questions:

How long do you think it takes for new geographical knowledge generated by academic research to filter through to the general public?

What’s stopping it happening faster?

And what are geographers doing to try and speed up the process?

And do let me know if you think there’s anything else I should include. And whether I can refer to you as co-organiser of the Engaging Geography seminar series (as the subject matter seems to be very relevant)?

I’m really interested in the gap between academics involved in geography and the general public. It’s not until I began working on this magazine that I realised how absolutely fascinating geography was and how much really exciting research there is taking place But I can still sense that the public often aren’t aware of what modern-day geography really involves or covers.

Looking forward to hearing back from you and thanks for any help you can give me on this.

Warmest wishes,

Olivia Edward
Staff Writer
1 Victoria Villas
Richmond, Surrey


Tel: 020 8332 8433



From: Ian Cook [mailto:i.j.cook@exeter.ac.uk]
Sent: 15 December 2008 16:57
To: Olivia Edward
Cc: Kye Askins
Subject: Re: How Long Does it Take New Knowledge to Reach the General Public?

Hi Olivia

This would be a good discussion point for everyone on Engaging Geographies seminar list. Are you coming to the event in January?

I can’t think of a single geographical idea that I work with that has filtered through to the ‘general public’. You might have better luck if you’ve written to Chris Turney, as as global warming seems to be a better example! But, as far as human geography is concerned – and particularly in the area where I work, which is commodity following, trying to appreciate the unseen relationships between the producers and consumers of everyday goods  – it seems that the ideas inside and outside of academia have developed in parallel. For example, the BBC has recently shown a couple of documentaries which I would have commissioned as geography projects: Jamelia finding out where and whose head her hair extensions came from, and a series in which fashion conscious UK consumers worked in the sweatshops where their clothes were made. As far as I know, there is no direct connection between the academic and popular work in this area. Which is odd.

There are ways to speed up a process, though. I’ve tried to make my research more accessible to anyone with access to the web by a) writing in a style that works for both academic and non-academic audiences; and b) making drafts of that work freely available online. I still need to get the latter sorted since my move to Exeter last year, but it did seem to work in that I would get the odd email from someone who had found my work that way and, when I did web searches for it, I found the odd blogger mentioning it. I got most excited when I met an Eden Project botanist at a conference, sent him something I’d written about papaya and banana geographies, and found out he was going to use it in a revamp of the tropical fruit display. When I investigated exactly what effect it had had, however, it wasn’t quite what I expected. It wasn’t really recognisable as it was one of many influences on that revamp. The filtering process was also a diluting process. Ideas don’t get filtered to the general public in an unaltered way, and its difficult to talk about a ‘general public’ anyway. The series is based on an understanding of multiple publics, which include the media, our students, teachers, participants on our research, etc. Ideas filter through to multiple publics in different ways. The kind of work that I do seems to have caught on with GCSE geography teachers, and their students – see the GA’s Young People’s Geographies project, for example: http://www.youngpeoplesgeographies.co.uk/ – and I do get the odd email from artists and filmmakers, who seem to have come across what I’ve written  because it refers to films and art work…

One of the other things that is often said is that the geography that does get out into the pubic realm often isn’t referred to as Geography. That concern is behind the ‘Give geography its place’ campaign, which Dan Raven-Ellison can be contacted about: see http://givegeographyitsplace.blogspot.com/2006/11/geographical-bbc-today-programme.html

From:     kye.askins@northumbria.ac.uk
Subject:     RE: How Long Does it Take New Knowlege to Reach the General Public?
Date:     23 December 2008 13:42:14 GMT
To:     olivia@geographical.co.uk


Sorry for the delay in reply…

I’d certainly agree with everything Ian said – issues around ‘knowledge making’ and ‘publics’ aren’t simple. Key within my own work are three main approaches/understandings:

1) I do a lot of ‘teaching and learning’, so a core public I work with is my students … certainly they tell me that they discuss the course and subjects we cover with family, friends, work colleagues, etc., but getting a handle on which kinds of information are circling where is impossible …

2) The research that I do is through a variety of ‘voluntary’ positions I have, is long term and ethnographic, and ‘participatory’ in that the groups are fully invited and involved in shaping the research questions, the ways we undertake the project (together as much as possible) and the ‘outputs’ … in this sense I’m fully transparent about my position within geography, as a geographer, and what geography has to say about the issues people are participating in ‘research about’ … these publics then are both ‘getting’ knowledge from academia but also constructing geographical knowledges that are more widely circulated through outputs, but also cross back into my teaching activities … communities/people themselves are knowledgeable about geographical/spatial issues – though they often wouldn’t and don’t describe their knowledge as geography.

3)  I agree that writing in accessible language and using non-traditional academic forums for outputs of academic research/thinking/and teaching (eg internet, magazines, policy work, leaflets, blogs etc etc) are important in breaking down the ‘Us’/’Them’ divide.

The gulf between especially media and geographers is odd indeed – or that virtually nothing comes under the geography umbrella: Bruce Parry’s ‘Tribe’ and more recently his trip down the Amazon river have dealt with issues around contested place and identity construction which are central to much of human geography, and certainly I work on issues of ethnicity and race that resonate closely with subjects covered in his programmes – yet ‘geography’ isn’t mentioned … I echo Ian’s comment re checking out the ‘give geog its place’ campaign … certainly the seminar series hopes to think carefully about much of what Ian and I have mentioned in these e-mails, and you would be very welcome to come along – I’ve attached an application form for the first seminar in Jan just in case. We hope to have lots of these conversations there and take forward some key issues across the series …

How long for knowledge to reach general public is akin to the how long is a piece of string, I guess!


From: Chris Turney <c.turney@exeter.ac.uk>
Date: 23 December 2008 6:18:05 PM
To: Olivia Edward <olivia@geographical.co.uk>
Subject: Re: How Long Does it Take for New Knowledge to Reach the General Public?

Hi Olivia,

Great to hear from you.  I’m sorry for the delay. …  This sounds a fascinating piece; I’d be happy to contribute.

From your own experience, how long do you think it takes for new geographical knowledge generated by academic research to filter through to the general public?

This is a great question.  It’s hard to measure but if we look at climate change, you could argue that a decade WAS a reasonable estimate of the time it took for the science to reach the public.  A guestimate of this can be seen over the 1980s and 1990s when our understanding of the problem was robust enough to warrant the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988 but the issue didn’t rise high enough in the public consciousness until they started to demand some form of action by their governments in 1997 (when the Kyoto Agreement was negotiated).  Now the penny has dropped (particularly with something as important as climate change), there is a greater thirst for knowledge from amongst the public.  Geography has a great role to play here.  The different links that can be made across Geography really help to link the science to people: how will the changes impact different populations? How can populations reduce the impact of climate change?  A lot of this sort of research is now effectively getting out to the public, particularly through newspapers and TV. Once you’re competing on the front pages of a newspaper with semi-naked people in the Big Brother house, you know there’s a greater awareness.  This does create a problem in itself, however.  Because of competing stories trying to get their head above the parapet (such as semi-naked Big Brother people), you are often restricted to just a few headlines which makes it extremely difficult to communicate the actual science.  I don’t think we have consistently managed to successfully communicate the urgency of dealing with climate change and what can be done.  We can still make a difference but the window is closing fast.

What’s stopping it happening faster?

How to explain the actual science and get action on the ground is very difficult.  It needs to be a national (or preferably international) campaign, hitting all avenues of reaching the public.  This could range from TV adverts and programs through to online talks and blogs.  We can all do more, but the scale of the issue requires a mass communication blitz that requires government buy in.

And are geographers doing enough to speed up the process?

We could do more.  The old idea that climate change would only influence some abstract grandchildren in the distant future is long gone.  Climate change is happening here and now.  As geographers we should be getting out to the public more, explaining what, why and when climate change will affect society and the world we live in.  There’s a whole host of different ways to reach the public.  Public talks are one arena where we can do more; engaging with people at different levels of the debate.  But the thing is we need to reach out to people who wouldn’t automatically go looking for info on climate change.  One possibility is to exploit the latest technological developments.  I have a popular science site where I write a blog and post short movie and audio clips. These sort of opportunities to communicate allow us to reach a far greater number of people than before.


Written by Ian Cook et al

February 20, 2009 at 2:15 pm

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