Strategic Engagement

Times Higher Education, September 15, 2016 | Go to article overview

Strategic Engagement


Science communication efforts need shared, long-term aims, argue Sam Illingworth and Andreas Prokop

If newspapers, TV programmes and bookshop display stands are anything to go by, science in the UK is more popular and well communicated than ever before.

Even back in 2006, before the impact agenda became institutionalised, a Royal Society report indicated that 74 per cent of UK scientists working in academia had undertaken a public engagement activity in the previous year, up 18 per cent since 2000. However, according to the 2014 Public Attitudes to Science survey (its most recent iteration), 40 per cent of UK adults feel that scientists are poor at communicating, and only 45 per cent are aware of scientific research. So all that effort by scientists does not seem to have paid off to the degree that they might have hoped.

Probing better public awareness of - and engagement in - science is the aim of the inquiry by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee into the state of UK science communication. We suggest that while scientists are keen to participate in public engagement, we tend to do so piecemeal, without a long-term vision and a clear strategy to develop momentum and legacy. For example, when giving inspiring talks and performing eye-catching visual experiments in schools, one often wonders whether the awe of the moment will last long in the audience's memory and cause their attitude towards science to change.

This said, there are already very good examples of science communication embracing long-term strategies and clear objective-setting. For example, our own droso4schools project aims to turn experiences from school visits into curriculum-relevant lessons and teacher resources. Numerous citizen science projects run by Zooniverse are all long-term initiatives with the common objective of providing "opportunities for people around the world to contribute to real discoveries".

Similarly, The Brain Box, a science fair event that we recently organised with Manchester City Council and contributors from across the city, was designed with the clear objective of raising awareness of brain-related research and to encourage younger participants to consider study in neuroscience. More than 60 activity stands and arts presentations were arranged into eight themes. …

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