A few weeks ago I attended a workshop on public engagement by Steve Cross at our University. While not knowing what to expect at first, I came back from the workshop motivated and impressed with the amount of time, energy, and infrastructure put into encouraging scientists to engage the public here in the UK. I also found myself for the first time actually thinking about what public engagement really is, thanks to the resources and exercises Steve provided in the workshop. The workshop helped me form a concrete understanding of public engagement and the steps needed to make it successful. For this week’s post, I’ll touch on some of the highlights of the workshop, provide some resources n public engagement, and hopefully inspire some of you to take on the challenge of getting involved in some engagement activities this summer.
Universities here in the UK are putting a lot of time and energy into public engagement. Not only are there diverse approaches and a large volume of activities, but there is also formally agreed-upon definitions and structures. At first it might seem a bit overblown: why do we need flow charts and 5-year institute plans when public engagement is just about talking to the public about your research. Right? As it turns out, public engagement is much more complicated than just telling people what you’re research is-at least if the goal of the interaction is to actually become involved in conversations and even collaborate with members of the public.
So what exactly is public engagement? You can find the answer to this and many other questions on the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement website, which also has a wealth of information about how you can get your own engagement activities up and running. On their ‘what is public engagement’ page, you can find the definition:
"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."
I’ve highlighted the part of the definition that’s key to understand how to put on engaging activities and events. This is why it’s not good enough to just put your papers or your findings out there for the public to see. If you can’t hear back from them, see things from their perspective, or get ideas on what it means and where things can go next, then can you really call it engagement? Below is a simple diagram I developed based on the workshop and the definition above, showing how ideas should go back and forth during public engagement activities, and how collaboration comes only when information has been transmitted and received on both ends. Obviously you have to start somewhere in the dialogue, which is generally in transmitting your ideas to the public, but the key is to engage in such a way as to provide an opening for them to transmit back to you.
Why should we do public engagement?
During the workshop we were asked to come up with reasons for why public engagement was worthwhile. We came up with quite a long list, and you can find other answers here as well. Highlights from our list include:
Personal: Feels good to take part in these types of activities
Educational: For both parties, learning can take place whenever there is an exchange of ideas
Moral: Research uses taxpayer money so there should be an obligation to give back to the community that enabled us to do the research in the first place
Business: If it’s required or encouraged, then at some point you’ll need to do it to get grants
Academic: It’s a place to get new ideas and collaborations while increasing your personal profile
While this all sounds well and good, there are certainly limitations in the way that research is done at the moment that may make it hard to find the time or the infrastructure for these types of activities. For starters, you need to align your aims with those of your research group, institute, or university in order to get a bigger organization on your side, instead of just doing something on your own. For many, it’s likely difficult to find the spare time when public engagement is not explicitly part of your job. In a survey from 2006, 64% of scientists said that the need to spend time on research kept them from doing public engagement-and 20% even said that peers who did this type of work were looked down upon by their colleagues because they were wasting time which could have gone to more papers.
How to engage the public
Since you only have a small amount of spare time in the day to do non-research ‘work’, you’ll want to be efficient about it. In the workshop, Steve gave us a great model for how to think about public engagement activities. His mantra is to avoid focusing on the activity (e.g. ‘it would be really nice to do seminars with Q&A for non-scientists every other Thursday), but instead to think of the aim of the public engagement as well as who the audience will be. Identify your audience and an activity to address a specific set of goals and aims.
Steve also provided a great template for thinking about the two-way aspects of the activity. Once you’ve established the aims and the audience, you can think about how your activity provides specific outcomes for both parties involved. For example, in the ‘skills’ outcome, if you can only fill in something in one box (e.g., just the audience or just the researchers gain some skill after the activity), then what can you do to try to provide some training or enhance the knowledge of the other group?
When working on a project for our own institute’s public engagement group, I found the diagram extremely helpful-and it made me realize the project had other outcomes I hadn’t considered when when I was drafting the idea. It’s also a nice way to visualize exactly what you’re giving to your audience, and to see the possibilities for enabling and empowering people with your activity, which can certainly be a motivator on its own. Another take-home that I got from this workshop is that you don’t have to make huge changes all at once. You can do small things to empower groups one event at a time. Even if the level of empowerment is just a few take-home facts, a small amount of knowledge added up over time can amount to a lot.
Who is the public?
While talking about public engagement, it may seem trivial to take a step back and define what ‘the public’ actually is. During the workshop, it quickly became apparent that the public is not a single entity, nor one that can be talked to or interacted consistently. The public is a diverse, heterogeneous set of people with varying interests, experiences, and backgrounds. Part of the workshop involved brainstorming specific audiences for events and thinking about who would actually turn up to a public engagement event. For example, events held at museums will have a different group of people depending on the time of the week and the day. If you’re there on a Saturday afternoon versus a Monday morning versus a Thursday museum late-night event, the primary groups at each of those will be different, so the approaches used at each event to engage with people should also be different.
It soon became clear that when thinking of the audience before drafting an activity that we can’t assume the audience is ‘everyone’, and as part of the workshop we were given an exercise about tailoring approaches based on the demographic and their interests. Our group had to construct a persona of a young couple on holiday who came to the museum and saw our science outreach activity, and we had to imagine the their attributes in terms of their interests, free-time activities, media consumed, brands, favorite foods/film/books/games, emotional needs, and life stage. The exercise felt like being an advertising executive, but breaking things down in this way helped us see the barriers as well as the ‘ins’ to a person’s perspectives that could help drive a message home. It helped us see how we could meet people where they are and made us appreciate how events are promoted to target certain groups and who might see and share things based on where they’re advertised.
Making science communication count: get out there!
Public engagement is not limited by public interest, and it still seems that the public has the impression that scientists put too little effort to tell the public about their work. Even in 2016, when scientists are embracing social media and new outlets for communication, there might still be a residual ivory tower mindest that is holding us back from sharing our research. Given that the public is hungry for science, we as scientists should work to give it to them! You can start off by finding events already happening in either your research community, university, or city-whether there’s a museum you can volunteer at or a school that’s looking for a scientist to talk to primary school students about ecology, there’s always a way to find events to connect yourself with. Think about what you already enjoy doing, whether it be writing, working with kids, organizing or participating in debates, or making creative and colorful visuals, and look for ways to incorporate your talents and interests to events and activities already happening. Then when you’ve had your feet wet, think about why you want to make a change in something, who you want to reach, and what you can do to get there.
Carl Sagan is a hero of science communication: his books and TV series provided a forum for people to learn about science, and he sought to make nebulous topics understandable and interesting for everyone, not just for scientists. Science Friday recently posted an interview in honor of his birthday, which inspired me to explore one of his non-fiction pieces which he mentioned in the interview in greater detail. I am a huge fan of his book ‘Contact’, which I devoured two years ago and consider it one of my science fiction favorites. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been reading his book published in 1995, ‘The Demon-Haunted World,’ with the running subtitle ’Science as a candle in a dark world.’ To provide some perspectives on the topics he addressed in this book while still giving you motivation to actually read it yourself, I’ll highlight some of his points that stuck the most with me and connect them to what I see as the current struggles between science and society.
Science should be a cautious mix of skepticism and wonder
Sagan mentions his parents as a source of inspiration for his own career in science. Not because they themselves were scientists, but because they helped instill in him both a sense of wonder about the world and the complementary skepticism needed to distinguish the true from the untrue. Sagan comes back to these two qualities quite often in his book and relates them as the crucial factor for being a good scientist. You must have a passion to learn about the universe, the wonder and the inspiration that keeps you going through mundane scientific tasks or during the times when it feels like nothing is working. At the same time, you need the skepticism to keep your hypotheses in check, to be able to look at results with a sharp and critical eye, and to prevent yourself from becoming too dreamy-eyed about an idea when new evidence shows up against it.
This sense of wonder seems to come naturally to many of us, especially as kids when they start learning about the world, and this natural wonder is the reason why many of us got involved with science in the first place. Being excited to learn about the universe we all inhabit is the driving force behind many endeavors—but it’s the skepticism and the thorough approach that distinguishes science from purely creative endeavors. Scientists and engineers must balance a seemingly contrasting set of ideals and methods: we must be imaginative enough to bring new ideas and perspectives together, but at the same time disciplined enough to know when the logic of an argument doesn’t hold up.
The methods of science are more important that the answers
Science is very different from other fields because its passion and its core lie in framing testable questions and conducting definitive experiments. While this problem-solving nature is instinctive to the human condition, we still have to be careful in terms of how we set about asking questions and what we do when we get back the answers. A fundamental theme that Sagan stresses is that scientific theories can and should shift when new results reveal a new understanding. This can give some people the impression that scientists are constantly changing their minds and therefore aren’t trustworthy. This can be addressed by better explaining the concept of the scientific method and how theories come and go as new knowledge arises.
At the same time, scientists can have a habit of getting overly attached to a hypothesis or an idea, especially if it’s something that they’ve received grant money for pursuing further. Sagan stresses just how important it is for a scientist to be willing to change their ideas when support in the form of data becomes available. As such, scientists should always be striving for new ideas and, regardless of whether their initial ideas were right or not, should aim to leave behind a legacy that can be built upon and amended as needed.
Skepticism as a key tenant of science and of life
Sagan’s perspectives as an astronomer led him to many interesting encounters with UFO abductees and astrologists. Regardless of what field you’re in, there is probably some related form of pseudoscience that develops from people’s general fears, misinterpretation of science, and a resistance to asking testable questions. Sagan believed that skepticism provided the best way to dispel the haunting demons of pseudoscience. His idea was to provide better training to help students develop their own skills in skepticism, or as he terms it their ‘baloney detection kit.’ Sagan describes his kit in great detail and again brings it back to the scientific method: you start with the results presented to you, whether they be raw data or observations, then try to explain what you see with a testable hypothesis (the key here being testable). Sagan suggested that this skepticism could be instilled in earlier years by having academic scientists more involved in public education settings, and to make it clearer that science is not just about results but also the questions and experiments you use to get there.
A look at the ‘demon-haunted world’ 20 years later
In today’s world, science is at the forefront of daily news websites, and journal articles are published more quickly and made available more widely than ever before. Newspapers have science columns and science journalists, and there is a reason for that: science can bring in some juicy, dramatic stories. Between predictions about global warming, new cures for cancers, and water on Mars, there are a lot of attention-worthy stories in science today. It’s for this reason that good science and accurately talking about the scientific method, as well as the implications of findings, is so important. Ideas like ‘vaccines cause autism’ are hard to erase from the public mind, even after a paper gets retracted, so having both scientists and lay people being at the forefront of solid science and accurate interpretations of studies is crucial.
In my own line of work as an environmental toxicologist, I see demons coming to life not in the form of UFOs and star signs but in the obsession with ‘chemicals.’ There is certainly no doubt that the industrial has severely impacted our environment: pesticides that kill more than just bugs, rivers that catch on fire due to toxic waste, and oil spills that last for 87 days. Because of these very impactful stories, discussions on the use of chemicals and where they end up in the environment can quickly become polarized, especially if they involve impacts on human health. While these dialogues are crucial, the issues can often become overly simplified as a battle between the bad industry company and the good little guy who is unjustly exposed to these evil chemicals.
There are plenty of examples of sensationalism and misinterpretation of science in the area of health, with other science bloggers keen to bring to light logical errors on 'poisoning' exposés, which included statements such as ‘there is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever’ (not even water, apparently!). In these heated discussions, it becomes quite easy to craft a story of injustice and to point fingers at the big corporations that are ‘poisoning’ us or our environments with chemicals and then to say that we’re being stepped on. In reality, these problems often have a myriad of stakeholders and there’s no bad guy versus good guy, its just different groups with different needs and perspectives. While there will likely continue to be misinterpretations and over simplification of the issues plaguing our world, the goal of science in these debates is to help clarify the ever-present gray area and act as the mediator in these discussions.
Sagan strives in his writings and TV shows to help everyone learn about science and how it works, because our success in the future is dependent on science, mathematics, and technology. However, with as much pressure that rests on these fields to deliver solutions, these topics remain poorly understood by many of the people that they impact. As scientists, we have numerous skills that go beyond pipetting: we are good at thinking, working in teams, solving problems, communicating, and teaching. We can put these skills to good use not only to advance scientific progress but also to share science with society.
In this book, Sagan not only provides a guide for lay people to understand science but also provides inspiration for scientists to continue his saga of science outreach. Through positive collaborations and more engaging and open forms of communication, we can work towards Sagan’s vision of using science to keep the world’s demons at bay, and to usher in a society that has the same passion for understanding the natural world as the scientists who work towards that goal every single day.
Science communication blogs and social media accounts are easy to find these days, now that scientists are realizing the importance of making their research available to more people than just their academic peers. We can blog and tweet as much as we want, but as with biology there’s only so much you can prove with lab work: at some point, you have to put on your waders and head out into the field. This week I realized that my interest in science education and communication wasn't enough; I had to go out there into the real world and see how things work. So last Saturday I left the safety and comfort of my blog posts to help with some science outreach firsthand.
The University of Liverpool recently launched a series of ‘Meet the Scientists’ events at the World Museum in Liverpool, which are aimed at engaging children and their parents with researchers at the University while learning about the science that they do. The latest one was held last weekend (November 21st) and I volunteered to help out. I hadn’t been to the World Museum Liverpool before and arrived a bit early to see the set-up for the event. Before my shift at the feedback booth, I had time to talk to the scientists running the displays. I was impressed by the time and care that everyone put into coming up with an engaging way to both interest and teach people of all ages. The focus was on conveying a message about science in a way that everyone could understand. There were impressive visual analogies, such as the pool noodle/balloon combinations to help show what cells look like and what gives them structure (the structure coming from the pool noodles, of course). The simple activity of coloring in cartoon mosquitoes was tied to a lesson on how malaria is transmitted. When I asked 6-year old child what he learned at the malaria booth, he replied that malaria comes from the germs carried by the mosquitoes, not the bite itself (crucial information on this widespread tropical disease, and probably something that many adult wouldn't know!).
One of my favorite displays was on cancer treatments, which on first glance would be a rather difficult topic to explain to kids. The way it was presented was really fantastic—cancer hits specific parts of the body (indicated by colored cups) but scientists can figure out and use specific, targeted ways to treat it (e.g. putting colored balls into its corresponding cup). It was creative, accurate, and positive, with the goal of talking about a nebulous, potentially scary topic in a way that kids could understand and see how cancer treatments can be helpful.
After doing a tour of the set-up, my task for the day was to collect feedback from the kids and talk to them about what they liked, where they were from, and to hand out a souvenir ‘Meet the Scientists’ petri dish for everyone. For a sunny and cold Saturday the museum was a busy place, and our stands seemed to be full for most of the day. All the kids were engaged with the University scientists at each display and we received positive marks from nearly everyone, apart from one three-year old who was adamant that he did not enjoy the day (I guess you really can’t please everyone). In addition to the petri dishes, kids took home quizzes, fun facts, and a piqued interest in science and medicine. I also enjoyed talking to parents and seeing what they thought, with most of them having a similarly good impression of the event as much as their kids did. I also enjoyed asking kids what they wanted to be when they grew up. Not everyone wants to be a scientist, but I love seeing kids interested in learning new things even if it’s not their most favorite thing. One 6-year old named Isaac gave us some great feedback and wants to come again. When I asked his dream job, he replied that he’d like to be a ship captain. His reply highlights the fact that science isn’t just for scientists: science accepts anyone who is willing and excited to learn. Just because a kid doesn’t dream of a job in biology, chemistry, or medicine doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be encouraged to approach science, or any subject, with curiosity and desire to learn.
In between talking to kids I also talked to my fellow scientists, including some older museum visitors who also had careers in science. As we mused about how lab machines always break at 6pm just before they finish analyzing some crucial samples, or how we sometimes spend 7 hours a day in the lab pipetting, we realized that the running joke was that the science we do now was nothing like the science we were shown as kids ourselves. Our childhood memories included fancy museum displays, television programs on wildlife ecology, astronomy, and chemistry, and repeatedly hearing the message that with science you really could do anything. Then upon starting postgraduate study we abruptly learn the reality of what life as a career scientist is like: long days in the lab, field sampling trips where it rains and you only get half the samples you set out for, tedious chores and meetings and writing papers and all the countless little things it takes to make the breakthroughs that lead to those museum displays and the television programs. How is it that the reality of science seems so different than what we were shown originally? More importantly, can we ever see science like a kid again?
I set out to answer this question by going back to the museum on Sunday after the event, this time to explore the museum firsthand, inspired by the kids I had seen the day before while trying to look at it from a kid’s perspective. I had been to a few other museums in Liverpool, but not yet the World Museum Liverpool, and to be honest I haven’t been a regular attendee of natural history museums for quite some time. Since starting grad school I was more attracted to art or human history museums, as if I was searching for a break from my day job, with art or history providing more things to learn and less overlap with my day-to-day work. I decided to end my natural history museum dry spell and headed back, ready to see science with fresh eyes and with the contagious excitement I had received from a museum full of kids who had spent their Saturday afternoon learning about biology.
My first stop at the World Museum Liverpool was an unexpected and very detailed exhibit dedicated to horology, although in hindsight not that unexpected, since Liverpool was a hub for clock and chronometer makers to be used on the many ships that came in and out of its port. I mused over the beautiful pieces and studied the displays of their inner workings, so complex yet tiny enough to fit inside your pocket, and for the chronometers with even more detailed inner workings so they would maintain regularity even after long periods of use out at sea. I realized how easy it is to forget the complexity it took to accurately tell time before cell phones and digital watches were everywhere, and the amount of time and work it took into making something that could just tell time (no other apps involved). These pieces weren't just the work of expert artists: the people that made watches clearly needed to be people who were extremely knowledgeable and trained in physics and precision machinery.
On the same floor as the horology display was a small exhibit on outer space, highlighting some pieces from the University of Liverpool’s collection of old telescopes and sun dials. These were coupled with examples of more modern tools, with displays explaining how astronomers used slow-capture imagery to understand the contents of galaxies, accompanied by gorgeously detailed modern images, as if to show how far technology has come and how our eye on the universe has expanded tremendously just in the last century.
Downstairs in the dinosaur and geology displays, I had a flashback to a trip I took last month to the Utah Natural History Museum and their impressive dinosaur displays there. Not to speak poorly of the World Museum Liverpool, but Utah does have the advantage of having quite a large number of paleontological sites within its borders. In the Utah museum there was a ‘real-live’ paleontology lab, where you could watch scientists wearing dust masks carefully and meticulously clean bone fragments. I thought about those paleontologists this weekend as I roamed through numerous displays of fossils, bone fragments, and fossilized dinosaur poop. What we get to see on display are the shiny, organised, categorised, cleaned-up pieces of history, but when looking at a skeleton that’s 150 million years old it’s easy to forget the back-breaking and tedious work that went into finding the fossil, getting it out of the ground and cleaning the dirt off. As much as my work has tedious parts to it, seeing a picture of a huge fossil ground in Utah, with what appeared to be endless piles of bones from who knows how many animals, confirmed that paleontologists must be a patient and persistent lot, who go through it all with the hope that they can piece together what life looked like so many millions of years ago.
Holding true to my biologist nature and environmental scientist training, my favorite part of last Sunday spent at the Liverpool World Museum was about animals. I was enthralled with the beautifully arranged display drawers full of butterflies and plants. I thought about the scientists who put these all together, their pride of having a complete set of species from a region or to have a rare specimen, and with what patience and care it took to pin each one so as not to damage or tear the delicate wings or petals. It was also a unique experience to see a large collection of skulls, from great white shark to sperm whale to hippopotamus, up close enough so that you could get a close look and really marvel at the power these animals have. While I’m not a huge fan of insects, I enjoyed the museum’s displays that showed how ants work together, what they eat in the wild, and how they live and reproduce. I enjoyed seeing kids in this exhibit not afraid or grossed out by the bugs but instead curious and interested to learn more about this small but numerous group of animals.
The last stop of the Sunday at the World Museum was the aquarium, which will always be a personal favorite of mine. I didn’t know that the museum had a small aquarium, so I was excited to see some displays not only of tropical species but examples of fish from the North Sea and ecosystems close to Liverpool. There was also a nice taxidermy display on ecological communities, highlighting animals at risk for extinction and explaining the need for biodiversity and good community structure for a healthy world. I couldn’t help but think back to happy childhood summer days spent with my grandparents at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo while watching rays swim and holding my fingers up to an octopus’ tentacle from across the glass. I thought back on my first visit to the zoo aquarium when I was 8, the excitement of that day and of seeing penguins and octopus and sharks so close at hand, of hearing of the plight of oceans and the rest of our beautiful world as a kid and being inspired to do something about it. Even now at 28 and with a PhD to my name, I still feel those natural childlike fascinations and the pull towards doing something good for the planet through science.
After the weekend at the museum, Monday morning came with some retrospections on my own career. The day-to-day life of a scientist doesn’t always make you feel like you're in a position to save the world, but instead can leave you with a feeling that you’re mired in the mundane tasks of science, not its glorious breakthroughs. Whilst that feeling can be hard to get rid of, going to the museum helped me realise something: the mundane tasks, whether they are dusting bones, pipetting yeast, or counting ants, are what need to be done to help create the scientific body of knowledge that the textbooks and museum exhibits rely on. What feels mundane on many days is just the work we need to do to progress, albeit sometimes more slowly than we had hoped. It’s not that we were lied to about what life as a scientist was like, we were just shown the end of the story but not the journey it took to get there.
In terms of how move forward and not to dwell on the occasional misrepresentation of science, take time to reflect back on our own childhood ambitions and remember what got us started on a trail towards science. Ask yourself: what experiences led us to a career in science? What were the questions that got us wondering what else there was to the world and how it works? Who inspired us to dream big and to strive to make an impact beyond money and fame? Remembering what drives our curiosities and inspires us on a natural, child-like level can help re-invigorate our motivation and to get us through the doldrums that we need to progress science as a whole.
With the next ‘Meet the scientists’ event coming up in January, I’m already musing on ways to show kids what science looks and why we do it, to show the story from start to finish. I think it is important to tell kids that science is not just about the neat and tidy textbook knowledge, but also about the experiments it takes to get there, and that good questions are the key to good science. Ultimately, although we have museums and books full of facts, there is still so much we don’t know and still so many things left to discover about how the world works - and that’s why we’re scientists!