As big data, high performance computing and cognitive technologies start to appear in more newspaper articles, TV shows and pop up on social media hashtags, it seems to me to be more important than ever to start talking about our science and technology and the impact it makes on society.
Before I start to write the main content of this blog post, I should confess that although my background is in biomedical science, I prefer talking about science rather than actually doing it. So much so that I decided to study towards an MSc in Science Communication. This means that I spend a lot of time thinking about science and its relationship with society by reading about insights from history and the media as well as about innovation and policy research. At the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), I really enjoy working closely with those at the forefront of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths), facilitating relationships between academia, industry and publics by highlighting how our work impacts businesses and the UK economy. Essentially, I enjoy answering the “So what?!” question about research.
Having worked in public engagement over the last 5 years, I am going to address some of the common misconceptions I’ve heard along the way.
The public are all the same
As we are all members of “the public” it is natural for us to assume we know who the public are, what they do and what motivates them. It is very easy for us to fall in to the trap of assuming that the general public is a homogeneous mass largely consisting of the average Joe Bloggs. To really drill down in to who the public are, we need to consider them as an audience with different opinions, values and beliefs and acquaint ourselves with them as group. Many of us are guilty of also making an assumption that “the public” are uninformed. While sometimes, it is true that in several cases you will be communicating with a less-specialist audience, it does not mean that the audience are ignorant. How science is portrayed in the media, experiences of science education at school and the influences of family and friends all play a role in how science is perceived in society. We must do our best to remind ourselves that we can learn from others in different fields, of different ages and from different backgrounds but we also need to consider why we’re trying to make people care about science in the first place. In my opinion, STEM plays a pivotal role in policy making, the UK economy and our access to or benefits from, new technologies or medicines. Making the process of scientific enquiry and scrutiny more transparent to new audiences empowers others to be part of the decision-making process, navigating subjects that matter to them with more confidence.
Engagement is just another buzzword
To me this couldn’t be any further from the truth. The National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) defines what engagement means to them below:
“Public engagement describes the myriad of ways in which the activity and benefits of higher education and research can be shared with the public. Engagement is by definition a two-way process, involving interaction and listening, with the goal of generating mutual benefit.”
Engagement fosters transparency and builds relationships of trust which are both STFC core values and is a way for us to share our knowledge for the benefit of others. Engagement is a tool to ensure our processes are clear and that our commitments are communicated effectively. Engagement is two-way, essentially it’s a conversation. It enables us to challenge assumptions while opening ourselves up to new insights and establishes trust. Engagement is not about trying to sustain the notion that scientists are holed up in their ivory towers, instead it is about acknowledging that science is now, more than ever, part of our culture.
“I haven’t got enough time/it detracts from time spent on doing ‘real science’.”
When people think of public engagement, they might think of large scale activities, lengthy school projects or long-term commitments that seem impossible to maintain with a large workload. It should be highlighted that there are so many ways to get involved in public engagement, some involve not even having to leave your desk. You could contribute digitally to a public engagement project, write a blog post or make a video about your work. Share your expertise and collaborate with others. If, like us at STFC, you are fortunate enough to have access to public engagement team and better still; an organisational public engagement strategy, you can work with them, detailing your time constraints while being safe in the knowledge that engagement is something your organisation takes seriously. Sharing your work with a more generalist audience will force you to express your ideas with added clarity and access to diverse audiences will be a refreshing change compared to the usual academic conferences or presentations to your peers. By raising awareness of your work, it puts your field, department and organisation out in to the public sphere, helping with recruiting future specialists and combating the STEM skills gap.
“I’m not a researcher/manager/scientist/technician”
We can all enable public engagement. When working for an organisation, we are part of a much larger picture. We can help test ideas, promote the work of our colleagues or share our unique perspective. This is important to do regardless of our position within a company. It not only acts to highlight different career paths in STEM, it uses your unique experiences as a real-life, tangible example of a person working in STEM. This is something that is becoming increasingly important as a driving force behind closing the STEM skills gap in the UK and highlights the opportunities available to support the next generation of our workforce.
“What’s in it for me?”
Putting it simply, public engagement opens up your world to others. It provides plenty of opportunity for collaborating with new people, sharing ideas and benefiting from fresh insight. Engagement can add value to your work by always bearing the impact and original objective in mind. It ensures that the voices of the end user or those who may directly benefit are at the forefront of your mind, it can sharpen focus and help organisations to remain relevant. Public engagement can give you a voice as part of or on behalf of your organisation, it can help to establish you as an opinion leader, it can get your work out in to the world through new channels and can even prompt you to think about your work from new angles. Some researchers are concerned that participating in public engagement shines an unnecessary spotlight on their work and that engagement is undervalued by their peers. I would suggest that actually, it helps to demonstrate the bigger picture. This is particularly important in the work of the Hartree Centre as we exist to help transform the competitiveness of UK industry by accelerating the adoption of data-centric computing, big data and cognitive technologies, therefore we have a role to play in shaping the economic climate.
In my opinion, good public engagement is about sharing with others what makes you get out of bed in the morning to come to work, what motivates and inspires you. It should never be uni-directional, instead, we should make it a priority to involve others. Hearing alternative viewpoints and being open to different perspectives allows us to continue the conversation and establish science’s place in society.