How to speak for the bugs | Interview with Dr. Adam Hart

We met with Professor of Science Communication from the University of Gloucestershire, Dr. Adam Hart, to talk about citizen science, social spiders, lazy bees, and so much more of what’s happening in the world of creepy-crawlies!

How to speak for the bugs | Interview with Dr. Adam Hart
"'Cause if you can convert someone that hates spiders into thinking, "Well, okay, maybe that's something that deserves respect", we might have a bit of hope, converting people into sort of bigger environmental concerns, which are obviously a bigger environmental concern right now."” – Dr. Adam Hart

Influential biologist Dr. Adam Hart discusses citizen science, popular science communication, social spiders, “Game of Thrones” ants, lazy bees, and what’s happening in the world of creepy-crawlies. Professor of science communication in the School of Natural and Social Sciences at the University of Gloucestershire, Dr. Hart talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

See Dr. Hart’s Academic Influence profile

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Interview with Biologist, Dr. Adam Hart

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

00:18Role as a professor of Science Communication

Jed Macosko: Hi, this is Dr. Jed Macosko, at AcademicInfluence.com in Wake Forest University. And today we have a very special guest, Professor Adam Hart, coming to us from the UK. So Professor Hart, it’s good to see you.

Now, can you tell us a little bit about your role as a public spokesperson for science at the university? Tell us a little bit about that.

Adam Hart: Yeah. So I’m Professor of Science Communication at the University of Gloucestershire, and that’s kind of an interesting role, because actually, most of it, a lot of my job is to do with teaching undergraduates and postgraduates and involved with research, but quite a chunk of it is also involved in acting as a bridge, I suppose.

Science communication is almost a bridge between publishing scientists, who are reading each other’s work, but not necessarily getting it out there so much, and the public, which can include all sorts of people, including scientists a lot of the time, politicians and so on. We sort of need that bridge between the producers of science, if you like, and the people that are consuming it or needing it.

And science communication forms that bridge. And I do quite a lot of work involved in it. Well, all kinds of areas from broadcasting, writing, but also linking that into research.

So some of the research I do uses what’s called Citizen Science. So we make use of the public and their enthusiasm for science to help us gather data on certain projects, and that gives us a really nice sort of avenue for getting the public, in my case, enthused about things like insects and particularly, spiders.

And actually, generally, I seem to work on things that people don’t like very much and that gives me a nice sort of way of trying to sort of get their message across a little bit too, and enthuse people about the science.

01:58Spiders

Jed: Well, I wanna know a little bit more about this role you play and other people like you at other universities. But tell me, spiders.

Now, how did you get into spiders?

I thought you were studying social insects, and I don’t see spiders as one of those. So tell us a little more about that.

Adam: Well, there are actually some fairly social spiders. They’re a sort of nightmare for people that don’t like spiders because you get hundreds of them living together in these big communal webs. You can find them down in South America.

But actually my spider interest started because of Citizen Science. So I was really interested in these nuptial flights that you find, we call him flying ants here. I’m not sure if that’s the term across the world.

But at certain times of the year, ants will start erupting out of the pavement, the wing dance, the reproductives, and they go up in the sky and lots of birds get a very nice lunch out of it. And that’s what…

So that’s…new colonies, and we don’t really know that much about them, actually. We don’t know very much about the timing of them, why they all seem to erupt at once, what the cues are and the triggers and so on. So I started quite a large scale Citizen Science project here in 2012, looking at those emergences and getting people to send us data back.

And that was a really successful project in terms of getting people engaged. And the partners I was working with, the Royal Society of Biology, sort of said, “Yeah, this is really cool. Let’s do something like this again next year. We’ll keep this running, but can we do something that happens in the autumn that can coincide with National Biology Week so we can kind of link all these things together?”

And that’s kind of a big ask. We need a natural phenomenon that’s gonna happen during one week. It’s not really the way the world works, but actually, it turns out in the UK, there’s this thing that’s become quite a big thing on social media, which is spider season.

And what we find here is that around about end of September time, October, autumn, basically, you get lots of people getting very excited or very terrified about these large house spiders, as we call them, crawling around. And they’re generally males looking for mates. And reading around, it turns out we don’t know very much about their emergences across the country, whether it sort of tracks across, how it relates to the season and everything.

So we started doing a Citizen Science project based on that, which sort of exploded that year a little bit. I think it was a slow news cycle when our press release hit, so we ended up actually on the front page of one of the UK newspapers, and my phone went crazy for about a week.

And we got sort of 10, 20,000 people ended up sending us in data, but an order of magnitude more than that, engaged with us through the app and everything. And most of that was about sort of saying to people, “Look, maybe you don’t like spiders so much. I kinda get that a bit, but they’ve got this tremendous ecological value. They’re actually incredible predators. They’re brilliant for pest control, they do all these cool things.”

And it provided a nice… It was great for us to get some scientific data, but it provided this nice sort of launch pad for us to sort of get a toe hold in and say to people, “Look, maybe we can change your mind a little bit about spiders.” And I guess the hope is if you can convert someone that hates spiders into thinking, “Well, okay, maybe that’s something that deserves respect,” we might have a bit of hope converting people into sort of bigger environmental concerns, which are obviously a bigger environmental concern right now.

05:05Communicators of science

Jed: Yeah. Getting over that first fear of spiders and seeing them as part of this great creation we live in is the first step to taking care of the environment, cleaning things up. Yeah, that’s brilliant.

So back to this issue of the communicators of science, are there other universities that have a professor with that same kind of title?

I feel like I’ve heard Richard Dawkins having a title similar to that, and he’s another influencer on our list.

Adam: Yeah, there’s quite a few, actually. You’ll see people being called professors of public engagement, for example, professors of science communication. We also have the term outreach, which is used quite a lot, although that tends to be used more for sort of schools-based activities, actually, but all of these things overlap.

And yeah, we’re seeing increasingly that sort of position within science departments, because partly, I think, everyone’s seen the value of doing this sort of work and of acting as a bridge between science that a particular university is producing or a particular group is producing and the rest of the world, if you like.

But also, of course, within research, there’s an increasing pressure, I think, on scientists to produce work with impact. We’re being told we’ve got to do impactful research. And part of that is having some sort of outreach, some sort of spread and reach and sort of influence in terms of what we do. And I think that’s where science communication can help. It can help to get your work out there.

It can help to have people aware of it. So we are increasingly seeing people taking this more seriously. There’s a number of Master’s courses now, postgraduate courses in the United Kingdom that look specifically at science communication.

And we’re seeing lots more roles actually for, not just scientist communicators, which I suppose is what I am because I do the science and I communicate it, but also for just freelance science communicators, people going around festivals, schools, huge appetite, actually, for people that can come in and do cool science, the sort of stuff that makes school kids go, “Actually, you know what? Science is pretty cool.”

Well, schools can get science communicators in, so we’re seeing now more and more courses that are looking to train people with the sorts of skills that can be applied to that.

07:16Thank the ants

Jed: That’s fascinating.

So how did you personally get involved in this sort of profession, this subset of other professors that are doing research?

"It's like watching Game of Thrones, basically, watching these ants. They're falling over each other constantly. There's a little group of them, a little hierarchy that are always challenging the reproductive breeder and trying to take over and she's always punishing them."” – Dr. Adam Hart

Adam: Well, it’s a sort of serendipitous story, really. I was working in a lab in Sheffield, and there was a French guy there. He had done this fabulous research on the world’s largest ant, Dinoponera quadriceps, massive, great big thing, beautiful looking ant. And they live in fairly small colonies, about 30 or 40 of them sometimes. And they happen to have the most amazing social structure.

It’s like watching Game of Thrones, basically, watching these ants. They’re falling over each other constantly. There’s a little group of them, a little hierarchy that are always challenging the reproductive breeder and trying to take over and she’s always punishing them. And it’s just this bizarre sort of thing going on.

And he’d done a really good bit of work looking at a particular aspect of their biology that the press loved. It was because the queen, if you like, the reproductive in here, was able to mark… If one of the other ants overstepped the mark a little bit, and sort of tried to take over, she would mark them with this very special pheromone that’s only used for this job, and that would cause the other ants to kill this sort of pretender.

So the throne, sort of marked for death, there’s a little mafia, so the links, it’s all about family group and stuff. So it was perfect for the press. But he didn’t feel very confident talking in English on radio.

He did quite a few interviews, but he didn’t wanna do anything live so he asked me if I would do it. And I said, “Yeah, that’s fine.” I was working on these ants too, and I was aware of the work. And I went on to a local radio station here to talk about this research. The first time I’ve done it, I can remember I was… I can remember doing it. I was very, very nervous, sat in my office, but started chatting to the DJ. He was really, really good, and I ended up being on that show for about a hour and a half, in between all the sort of news and records, ’cause he kept asking me about insects, and then he would ask me about something else, and then he’d talk about mosquitoes or something.

And we got to the end of it, and he just said, “Will you come in every month and do a bug slot?” I said, “Yeah, that’d be brilliant.” It was live radio, you’ll say yes to anything, right? And I sort of hung up and I thought, “That was cool. I really enjoyed that.”

And that was the beginning of wanting to communicate more, I think, or realizing that it was something I enjoyed. And then sort of around that time I started working with a lot of schools as well, locally, and that was just a really enjoyable experience too. And that sort of just started building into a portfolio of communication activities, which I maintained and then become… And so it grew, basically.

Jed: And so it grew, but at some point, they must have given you the title of Science Communicator at your university.

How did that all happen?

Adam: Yeah, so I applied for a professorship. I applied for a promotion, which is based on your peer esterm factors and your publication record and all of that. But once you sort of cross that hurdle and they say, “Yes, you can have a personal chair,” you get to call yourself what you want, really.

[laughter]

"But I think that that side of science, that communication, that outreach work is very, very important. And I kinda felt at the time that having that as part of my title was sort of a nice way of getting that into the foreground and linking through into other areas."” – Dr. Adam Hart

And so I thought I would become Professor of Science Communication because I felt that it would give that side of what I do. It would foreground it a little bit, and it would make it important that that’s what we do, because actually, when it comes to a lot of things, it’s the research that you produce, it’s the other things, if you like, that you’re judged on.

But I think that that side of science, that communication, that outreach work is very, very important. And I kinda felt at the time that having that as part of my title was sort of a nice way of getting that into the foreground and linking through into other areas.

So I teach on a Master’s course, for example, that is a very scientific course, it’s Applied Ecology, but I teach something that’s to do with citizen science and public engagement and so on.

And it’s a nice way of getting that sort of thread, the importance of communication into lots of areas of science, of university life, and this general sort of, the way that we think about these things.

11:08Coming up with a name

Jed: Fascinating.

Now, when you were choosing the name for your chair that you had earned through your good scholarship, did you look to other names of other individuals, like I had mentioned, Richard Dawkins? He seemed to have a similar title at one point, I think. How did that all work out?

Adam: Yeah. Dawkins had an endowed chair at Oxford, which is a sort of public engagement and public understanding position. I forget who holds that now.

Jed: Public understanding of science, that’s right, that’s right.

Adam: Yeah. It’s a strange thing, actually. About that time, there was this sort of big kind of conversation going on within science communication. Is it science communication, is it public understanding, which was seen as a very sort of top-down, quite sort of old school approach. Is it to do with outreach, which then started to be seen as a bit fluffy, and then there were all these sort of camps.

Yeah, the usual sort of thing where people are… Yeah, fighting over everything and you sort of stand back and go, “Hang on a minute. We’re all doing the same thing.”

So yeah, I did go through a few sort of thought movements, but I think science communication is broad enough because it encapsulates the whole thing. It doesn’t… I can do entomological communication, but actually, I end up talking about all kinds of things.

I was talking about black holes this morning. So science communication, I think, is a broad enough base. It gives me the freedom really to talk about anything that particularly interests me so I think that’s… Yeah, probably that was a major motivation.

Jed: Yeah. One of the other influencers on our top list is E.O. Wilson at Harvard, and I’m sure that you have studied him. Was he…

Adam: Indeed.

Jed: Somebody that you looked to as you started dipping into social insects and sleeping in or having a lion, as you say, every morning and not going out and looking at the birds, but studying the social insects instead?

Adam: Yes. EO Wilson’s fantastic. I’ve never met him. I have spoken to him on the phone once, actually, which was a real thrill. But yeah, he’s just this incredible, incredible sort of giant of a man in several respects within this field. But of course, also within other fields because you realize he’s thinking about all kinds of things

Either by geography, ecology. He’s looking at how all this stuff links up. But yeah, in terms of social insects, The Insect Societies, his book, back in the ’70s, yeah, I’ve got my well-thumbed copy of that. I’ve got hold of EO Wilson’s, The Ants. These are absolutely… That’s a Pulitzer Prize winning book, these are influential works.

And in fact, when I started doing my main PhD sort of work, which was looking at this idea of task partitioning, sort of passing material through chains of different individuals, I was using leaf-cutting ants.

And it was a real kind of thrill to me actually, that the papers on which most of what I was doing was sort of building actually, sort of go back through the kind of line to a couple of really influential papers from Wilson in the 1980s, where he basically… It’s almost like he decided he was gonna get on top of leaf-cutting ants and organization. And he’s just got these beautiful couple of papers where everything’s outlined.

And there’s just… I still go back to them now for these sort of really useful kind of things. And yeah, that was really, really good. And obviously, he’s gone on to write lots of different books on all kinds of areas, bringing together the way we think about the planets, well beyond just ants, but there’s always room for ants in those books, but really looking at things and around and looking at much bigger, bigger issues. And I think, yeah, he’s a really influential scientist.

14:40Words of wisdom

Jed: Well, we interviewed Niles Eldredge earlier about punctuated equilibrium. And he was recalling his first visit at Columbia University in New York. And above the door of the Paleontology and Geology building was, “Ask the rocks, and they will tell you.” Which is, I guess… He told me it was a verse out of the Bible from the book of Job. And of course, there is a verse in Proverbs, I think, about, “Go to the ant and learn wisdom.”

So have you, EO Wilson and your colleagues in these social insects, have you learned something that you can say is wisdom that we as humans can learn from?

Adam: Yeah, “Go thee to the ant, thou sluggard, consider her ways and be wise.” Yeah, Solomon, early form of social biomimetics, where he realized that they had something to teach us.

He also says, “Go thee to the ants, consider her ways.” So you also realize that those ants were female, which I think is, yeah, clever guy, apparently, old Solomon. He’s known for it, isn’t he?

But yeah, the ants can provide us with all kinds of interesting parallels, but also some lessons. Lots of businesses use ant-inspired algorithms to organize themselves because ants self-organize and they do it by following very simple rules, and they’re able to solve really quite complex problems.

And I met… I did a film for the BBC about eight years ago now, I guess, where I went to visit a company in Houston, that uses an ant-inspired algorithm to work out its delivery structure, and it saved such a lot of money.

It’s fundamental to their business, absolutely incredible how they’re using these sorts of inspired algorithms to solve those problems. But I think we don’t just need to look at kind of computing sciences.

"And what we now know, and this is where I think we can learn something, not doing something can sometimes be as important as doing something."” – Dr. Adam Hart

I think a really… There’s a really amazing thing, when you put someone in front of an ant colony or an observation beehive, say you’ve got honey bees in sort of those glass-fronted tanks, and you just leave them for 10, 15 minutes, and then you come back.

Two things will happen. The first is that they are, generally speaking, absolutely transfixed, and they have about 1,000 questions, because you can’t help but look at them and take it in.

But the second thing is they’ll go, “It’s funny, really, a lot of them aren’t doing anything.” ’Cause we have this idea, as busy as a bee, but actually, they’re not busy all the time.

And what we now know, and this is where I think we can learn something, not doing something can sometimes be as important as doing something. And what evolution has sort of enforced upon the bees is that, “Listen, if you’ve got nothing to do, don’t do anything.”

You’re wasting energy. The colony has to replace that energy somehow, there’s an extra foraging trip for someone where they might get killed. Don’t run around wasting energy. If you’ve not got a job to do, sit still.

Also, if you’re sitting still somewhere, you’re not running around, getting in anyone else’s way. You’re not spreading diseases and parasites.

"Very often we run around doing things needlessly, and actually, sometimes we need to stop and think and think, "Maybe what we should do is sit quietly and have a think&quoy."” – …

And so when ants and bees don’t have anything to do, they don’t do anything. And that struck me as quite an important lesson. Very often we run around doing things needlessly, and actually, sometimes we need to stop and think and think, “Maybe what we should do is sit quietly and have a think.”

So yeah, that’s my personal lesson from the ants. Sometimes it’s adaptive to do nothing. But yeah, certainly from the business perspective and a more useful financial perspective, you can…

Well, we can certainly draw a lot of inspiration from them. And I’m sure we’ll continue to do that actually because the more we look at these species, the greater we appreciate their biology and then the more questions we can answer and the more questions, of course, we then end up asking. So yeah, we’ll continue to learn from them for many years to come, I’m sure.

18:14Sign off

Jed: Well, thank you so much, that is a great place to end our interview, to turn this off and to go sit in our easy chair with our cat that sleeps 18 hours a day and doesn’t do much, [chuckle] and have a think, as you said.

Think about the world, think about how we can make this place a better place, whether it’s not killing a spider, letting it live and do its job or taking care of climate change and the pollution that the humans have put into the world. So thank you for all these wonderful thoughts that you’ve given us today, Professor Hart.

Adam: Thank you.