Science and society; public engagement in science

For many scientists today, developing ideas for projects that build public excitement and interest around science remains one of the most challenging, and rewarding, areas of their professional life.

So what is the secret of public engagement? Why is it so difficult and are we certain we want to take part in it anyway?

Too many times in the past we have seen the results of a scientific community failing to communicate effectively with the general public. Genetically modified foods, fracking, cloning; the list of episodes of significant scientific discovery that were met with public suspicion and protest is a long one. Nobody wins in this process, but it is ultimately the scientific community itself which suffers the most. When the public doesn’t understand and is not supportive of new advances and breakthroughs they become subject to review, regulation and usually experience a cut in funding, which is often redirected to more publicly palatable projects.

The traditional outlook of the scientist has been that we do the creation; we research, experiment and eventually achieve a breakthrough, making something that was previously impossible possible, or unknown, known. Scientists often take the view that it is not for us to argue the value of a breakthrough to society nor defend the ethics of it. However, this is precisely the position modern scientists find themselves in. They must now seek permission from society to undertake increasingly sophisticated projects. They must enter into a dialogue with the public in order to educate it, and in turn learn and respond to public opinion.

From large-scale initiatives funded by public bodies such as the Wellcome Trust or the Science and Technology Facilities Council to television programmes, representation in the arts, media or education, science needs a place at every table in order to stimulate discussion on topical issues and new developments. It is only through this kind of engagement with the public that scientists can hope to influence policy development and public opinion.

With this in mind, here are a few tips to help you break down the barriers between your projects and the people beyond it.

Think about the target audience for any communication that you plan. The public is not one homogeneous group but rather collections of smaller, more distinct groups. Consider which of these sub-groups you will be talking to and what their needs are. Include the kind of information they will need and frame it in a way they will be comfortable with, rather than taking a ‘one size fits all’ approach to your communication style.

Remember the value widening your audience base. It’s easy to preach to the converted, but it won’t get you as far as entering into a dialogue with a more challenging group will. In doing this you’re likely to meet with resistance, but don’t be put off. Instead, see it as an opportunity to learn and a necessary hurdle to overcome in achieving your public communication goals.

Never forget that communication is a two-way process. Broadcasting your message is only helpful to a certain degree, beyond which it’s necessary to listen to feedback and make any adjustments necessary to the message you’re sending out. This is your opportunity to respond to the concerns of the public and it’s very often an occasion where you will learn from them, as well as you best opportunity to persuade.

Focus on your topic or project area and be very specific about its objectives and remit. Don’t try to represent the whole of the scientific community and be careful not to go off on a tangent in your communications. Stick to your key messages, keep them concise and to the point.

Set yourself some goals at the start of the engagement programme and try to include realistic, achievable and measurable targets. Make your goals specific and include metrics, rather than vague aspirations to ‘improve attitudes’ or similar. Remember, you won’t change the world, so break your objectives down to something you can manage. Think about how you will define success at the end of the programme and how you could measure it. This will help you plan future campaigns and also secure any funding you might need for bigger engagement projects.

Finally, don’t view public engagement as just ‘nice to have’ or something you can tack on at the end of a project. You should view communication as an integral part of your research and make provision for it in your work and budgeting. You’ll actually find it’s much easier, and more effective, to manage if you plan an outreach dimension into your project from the outset, rather than having to build in a communication strategy at the end of project that wasn’t planned with engagement in mind.