How can we, as scientists, change some of the more negative perceptions, whilst maintaining the positive ones?
Scientists must do more to be visible and to explain their research in an accessible way, making sure that we clearly describe the everyday relevance of our research and how it impacts on our intended audience. Frankly we scientists are odd because the science alone sustains our interest and “floats our boats”; after all, that’s why we’re scientists. “Normal” people often see science as a joyless, hard-to-understand and even sometimes a scary proposition. It is up to us – the scientists – to accurately communicate both our research discoveries and also, more importantly, our enthusiasm for our subjects and how they could affect people’s lives.
Public engagement – a term that’s bandied about, rightly described as essential, but where to start? We have some experience in this area (get in touch for a chat), so we’re happy to offer free some advice:
1. Pick a specific audience FIRST, that you either have experience working with or with whom you wish to work.
2. Determine what the key messages are that you’d like the audience to know but *most importantly* assess whether the audience will have any interest in what you have to say. Be prepared to change everything depending on feedback received.
3. The best way to get a handle on point 2 is to speak to proposed audience members and ask them if they could be involved. Don’t “take” engagement to people – that can be patronising – get in touch with relevant community groups and charities, seek their advice and involve them.
4 As an addendum to point 3, you’ll now be realising you need a clear picture on *why* you wish to engage this particular audience. Sticking engagement in the REF or enhancing a grant application won’t cut the mustard!
5. Be authentic and approach engagement with the same professionalism that you approach your research.
6. Think about how you’re going to evaluate the project before you begin. Seek help from those skilled in this area.
7. Only now are you ready to put together a bid for funding, involving a sub-set of the audience that you wish to engage with. Now you can decide *what* you want to share as part of your engagement project.
8. Now you’re ready to approach creative partners to build an awesome workshop, show, talk – whatever.
9. Finally, don’t give your ideas away – keep control of the project and ensure you retain ownership of your engagement work. Be wary of creating websites, based on project outcomes, over which you have no control. We’ve seen too many enthusiastic scientists have their research mis-communicated or appropriated for another’s personal objectives.
Many people approach this backwards, looking outwards from their own research, engaging with creative partners, and filled with the excitement of wishing to engage others in the very thing that motivates them at work. You might forget that audiences are individual people, with their own interests, worries, work and family pressures and are not just sitting around waiting on you to engage them or “inspire” them with the wonder of science.
You’re paid to carry out research, publish, teach as well as the admin and committees … How to fit this all in?
1. Build it into your grant application and make engagement integral to your research.
2. Pay a commercial science communicator to do some/all of points 1-8 for you.
3. Sometimes a mix of 1 and 2 will protect your precious time for research, keep costs down, and brings in outside expertise.