Science-narrative integration in the DRY project

One of the key aims of the DRY project is to achieve an iterative feedback loop between storytelling and science, with each informing the other. The hope is that stories collected through narrative interviews and digital storytelling workshops feed into the development of the drought science, and the drought science is used as a prompt for storytelling to yield science-informed narratives. The project team is interested in how drought science is interpreted and the ways it is complimentary or contradictory to local, observational and lay knowledge and perceptions. We are also interested in the ways in which the drought science may be integrated into or resisted by local knowledge and perceptions as a result of this.

Project members have worked with the drought scientists on the team to develop a variety of science resources for communicating about different aspects of drought with stakeholders at a range of technical competency. There are many barriers in engaging stakeholders around the topic of drought, and it has not always been possible to have a scientist present at community-held events. Resources have therefore been developed for presentation and use by researchers from diverse disciplinary backgrounds.


Report on drought tolerant crop experiments

Report on drought tolerant crop experiments

One useful resource has been a short video made with James, one of the team’s hydrologists. The video discusses the four stages of drought (meteorological, hydrological, agricultural and socio-economic), gives a simple definition of drought and briefly introduces the computer modelling being used for the hydrology work in each catchment. Stakeholders have been struck by the different stages of drought. This type of definition has also helped researchers to be able to give a response to community members who perceive the UK as a wet country and therefore not at risk of drought. By being able to give examples of agricultural and hydrological drought, and identify that often the public are only aware of socio-economic drought, for example, through hosepipe bans, researchers are able to broaden the conversation and raise awareness of drought impacts in the UK. This often triggers memories that had previously been overlooked or blocked by an initial reactive response about rain and/or flooding in the UK.


Frome SPI 12m

Example of simple graph representing above and below average rainfall

The other resources that have worked well with stakeholders who have no prior scientific experience are simple graphs produced by colleagues at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH). These graphs illustrate rainfall and river flow data in each of the catchments. They are good visual examples of when rain and rivers have been low or exceeded the average levels (based on the data set from 1961 to 2012). We have presented these materials at a number of community-based workshops across our seven catchments. The audiences have ranged from allotment holders, to local history groups, to citizen scientists. These audiences really engage with the materials and find the local component very interesting. The goal of each workshop has been to collect drought narratives, with the hope that some of these would be informed by or speak back to the science presented. We have found that without specific guidance, community groups find the resource useful as a memory prompt, identifying years on the graph that show below average data and matching their memories to these. We have yet to find that workshop members respond about the science itself or integrate it into their own local expertise within the context of the workshop and the narratives/feedback that they share. It may be that the timeframe of such events does not allow for full assimilation and reflection on the data and how it fits with personal and local narratives.


With our catchment-level Local Advisory Groups (which included members who have some degree of remit for dealing with drought and water management in their day-to-day organisational roles) we have shared a video about agricultural experiments being conducted as part of the project around drought-tolerant crops. This type of resource has prompted responses from the group about local farmers, projects or organisations that are also trialling different crops. Some critique and questions around the nature of the experiments has occurred, with stakeholders expressing interest in the later findings. This type of resource is very tangible and stakeholders can quickly translate it into real application in the catchments, whereas some of the more abstract, hypothetical, hydrological modelling of different possible futures, such as the Future Flows work, shared with the same groups has met with more cautious responses, given that communicating drought is a big enough challenge at the best of times. The response to this material across the LAGs was very variable depending on prior scientific expertise.


An alternative and more indirect method for communicating about drought and eliciting stories has been through the involvement of citizen scientist volunteers on ecological experiments. Volunteers have been invited to work alongside ecologists on a field experiment that simulates a 1-in-100 drought on grassland plants, which aims to make visible the indirect impacts of droughts that can be hidden to the general public. Volunteers are taught to identify and measure specific plants, as well as counting wildflowers and pollinating insects on repeat visits throughout the year. Through this exposure to ecological research on drought, and their own experiential learning in the field, we hoped to indirectly prompt storytelling and personal reflections around drought and water scarcity. This more intense involvement in science has so far elicited conversations around the scientific method in general rather than personal responses to drought, unless directly asked about drought memories and experience. Planned narrative interviews may capture the more personal stories and reflections.

Using science resources in workshops to prompt narratives

Using science resources in workshops to prompt narratives

We recently trialled inviting and taking local people to visit one of the field experiments, with researchers on hand to explain the science. Participants toured the experiment site and walked by the local reservoir discussing drought impact on grasslands, the implications for farmers and local people, and historical management of water locally. This was followed up by an afternoon workshop where participants were invited to share their stories. Despite the intensity of the science input, none of the captured stories appears to speak back from the science: instead, they all reflected on historical droughts and personal drought/flood memories. This may be due to the disconnect of bringing visitors from local towns and cities to a rural experiment site and the difficulty of connecting the implications of drought in agricultural land to their own lived (urban) experience.


DRY Project researchers are continuing to work on narrating the science and on collecting science-informed narratives through developing audience-appropriate materials. As this is an iterative process, we continually reflect on what works best and how to explain and target the science in the most accessible way to the widest audience. We will continue to refine our science communication, learning with and from our community members as we share stories and memories. We are further developing how we explain complex

visualisations in a narrative and accessible way and are looking at the potential of animations to engage audiences with scientific information.

By Liz Roberts and Patty Ramirez



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