It seems like a little while ago, but I did promise proper coverage the Science Communication Conference 2011, a joint venture between the British Science Association and the Wellcome Trust. As a bursary recipient, I was asked to report on the “Introduction to Public Engagement” session (for us “rookies”), and thought I would share it with you here as well! (This is the factual version; the next few instalments on sessions of my choice will include more personal views, which you are welcome to debate.)
Why would you want to engage the public? Who does it anyway? And how? The introductory session to the Science Communication Conference 2011 was lead by Simon Burall, director of Involve, with the aim of presenting the ideas behind public engagement of science to the yet uninitiated. Starting with the question: why engage the public in science? The short answer was tweeted by enthusiast DavidWaldock as such: “Six reasons to engage: governance, social cohesion, improve services, learning, ownership (good for [David Cameron's] Big Society(!)), law & regulations“. It seems to main reason to go into public engagement is the urge to change something in the system, usually policies. This is something not necessarily known to policy-makers, making it important to tell them “why we do what we do” at the beginning of collaborations.
Also in the beginning, engagement happens at different, discrete levels, with local, national and international forming the basic brackets. The number of people reached at each level is inversely proportional to the size of the bracket, despite today’s plethora of methods used to reach the public. These include education, new media, science festivals, public debates and online forums. The dis-proportionality could be because most science communication is still imaged as the passing of information from scientists to the public. This image accords with “Arnstein’s Ladder” (picture from forestry.gov.uk, 1969), showing the movement of information descending the authority levels from “expert” to “public”. While this is acceptable, as “[informing] has to be the basis of public engagement” (Burall), today’s communicators are attempting to encourage information to climb up the ladder instead, symbolic of “people power”. While maintaining to inform as a key term in public engagement, we are also adding collaborate, involve, consult, and ultimately, empower [the public] to the science communicator’s glossary. This outlook can also be applied beyond the field, to aspects of health, youth services, criminal justice, environmental planning etc.
Bearing in mind the range of applications “people power” has, we need to remember that we are most rarely working alone; when working with others, be it educational institutions, charitable organisations or financial stakeholders, it is important to figure out what you are trying to achieve, and what changes you hope to make. This is the time to make a list of: the purpose (why), context (where), people to involve (who), media (how), and finally your project (what). In this light, we were introduced to the Three Corners of Engagement (on a triangle): Transmit – to inspire, inform, change, educate, build capacity and involvement or influence decisions of others (such as the public). Receive – use experiences to transmit or build your own capacity for decisions. Collaborate – Collaborate, consider, create or decide something together. The collaboration clause is what takes us from “deficit”, or one-way, to the “dialogue”, two-way, method of engagement. On the Arnstein Ladder, this represents a spiral passing through all the terms in the ladder continuously, as opposed to going either one way.
Finally, the levels of benefit of public engagement were explored. Engagement itself can be an end, a means to an end, or an external requirement, such as a pre-requisite of grant, so there are many ways for different groups of people to profit from science communication efforts. However, unlike traditional communication methods, such as schools, modern engagement depends heavily on quality: a good school is better than a mediocre school, which is better than no school at all. Mediocre (or poor) engagement can damage the relationship between science and the public, with consequences such as lack of trust and bad communication practices. Quality of engagement is, in turn, often related to the quantity of resources, which was further explored in the Q&A session, with advice from Burall, such as: “You need to resource your public engagement activity properly, or don’t do it…“(lualnu10, twitter), and “Instead of spending 5% of your grant on public engagement, pool budgets for larger, coordinated, strategy engagement“ (DavidWaldock, twitter) The consensus being that engagement should not be approached merely as an attachment to research, but an opportunity to bring about positive changes to the many key players, including government, scientists, schools, universities, specialist organisations, and of course the public.
The session finished with some “lessons learned” from previous engagement activities…
- Do not try to engage unless you mean it.
- Resource properly; if there is no money, go back to the drawing board and re-allocate funds.
- Support your staff, develop their skills.
- Understand the participants in your project, both transmitters and receivers.
- Communicate clearly.
- “The easier it is to get people into a room [to debate], the more tension there is likely to be.”; sometimes the problem is not engaging the public, but how to deal with the resulting tension. (S. Burall)
… and a final question: “How do we engage the public [in scientific decisions to be taken] if they do not understand?” Where we were recommended to the following organisations who provide support or advice to science communicators wishing to make a change.