Author Archives: erindubitably

A brief timeline of science communication in the UK – pt 2

Following on from Part 1

While the public sentiment around science has varied widely over the years, there was a significant dip in public trust after the Second World War. The development of nuclear technology, while initially viewed positively, soon led to political tensions and public sentiment becoming more critical of the scientists involved. This affected funding decisions and hampered research across many scientific disciplines.

In 1985 the British Science Association published The Public Understanding of Science (also known as the Bodmer Report), outlining the case for building public trust in science by making it more accessible to a wider audience.

“Science and technology play a major role in most aspects of our daily lives both at home and at work. Our industry and thus our national prosperity depend on them. Almost all public policy issues have scientific or technological implications. Everybody, therefore, needs some understanding of science, its accomplishments and its limitations.”

Bodmer Report

From here, the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science formed, ushering in a new approach to science communication. It was no longer focused on the ‘deficit model’ – i.e. that the public were lacking in knowledge and that gaining it would make them care more about science in the abstract. Instead there became a wider conversation about the role of science in the lives of the public, and the benefits to society in having more scientifically engaged citizens.

This brings us to the recent past – roughly 2000 onward. For a time there was a proliferation of effort trying to enthuse the public about scientific research, but there was still an imbalance – and a missed opportunity. This is highlighted in a now-infamous study in which nuclear scientists were studying the effects of Chernobyl fallout on Cumbrian sheep. Because they ignored the lay knowledge of the farmers (either deliberately or ignorantly) they missed out in receiving important data on the behaviour of the sheep and environmental factors, and eventually their experimental models failed. If they had worked with the farmers to share expertise it is likely they would have been much more successful.

The citizen science boom of the 2000s ties into this somewhat, though it treats lay audiences more like computers than active participants in the research.

By recognising the expertise within lay audiences and inviting them to contribute to the research process it is thought that the ensuing results will be much richer and more meaningful. This approach is known as the co-creation of research and is a standard that is upheld by many today (such as Wellcome and UKRI) as the ‘gold standard’ in science communication.

What will the next 10 years look like in science communication? With challenges like the climate crisis, global pandemic and antimicrobial resistance ahead of us it’s more important than ever that we communicative effectively with, and work productively with, all audiences and stakeholders. Let’s hope we’re up for the job.

A brief timeline of science communication in the UK – pt 1

Firstly it’s important to mention: this focuses on European/UK scicomm history and is not reflective of the journeys of other cultures and countries around the world, all of which have a rich history of engagement with science. The Journal of Science Communication had a special issue dedicated to different narratives, and it’s worth checking out: Issue 03, Special Issue: History of Science Communication, 2017

Looking back to the oldest records of science in culture, there are many examples of the democratisation of scholarly debate in places like ancient Greece which lead to an accelerated growth in scientific knowledge and practice. When everybody is invited to take part in the discussion, new ideas and fresh perspectives emerge. It also made the sharing of existing knowledge open to all without restriction. Unfortunately not all technology lent itself to openness; with the advent of the Dark Ages knowledge became more restricted, and the written word meant that it was suddenly inaccessible to people without the literacy or money to afford hand-printed books.

The Enlightenment – roughly beginning in the seventeenth century in Europe – included major advancements in both philosophical and scientific thought. Once again there was a movement towards the ‘public sphere’, which is both a philosophical notion and a practical one. Knowledge was created through dialogue and debate, and places where these discussions took place sprang up all over – salons, cafés, public lectures, journalism. Scientific discoveries of the time were often shared through these means as well as in scholarly journals, as the printing press made it possible to mass-produce treatises and books for a wider audience.

The Royal Society was formed by an independent group of scientists in the 1620s in England in order to provide a venue in which empirical science could be tested and ‘witnessed’ to give it legitimacy. This lead to vast public demonstrations and lectures, though even these were limited to individuals in civic society with the right knowledge and ‘moral standing’. The Society also became a place for the government to find advisors, allowing scientists to feed into policy (and occasionally vice versa).

In 1831 the British Science Association was formed, which had an even more openly stated mission to improve the perception – and by extension, the knowledge of – science within the UK. Much like the Society it provided a place for public discussion and debate on science, including the infamous 1860 Huxley-Wilberforce debate on the topic of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

By the 1920s the Association was sparking debates on topics like ethics, the social responsibility of scientists and the role of science in social progress. Though these topics have always been vital to the progression of science, this was one of the first times they had been discussed at large, and with such a membership.

 

 

Good partnerships take time

The Royal Society’s Partnership Scheme is a funding opportunity for UK schools to work in partnership with a practicing STEM professional. Intended to fund projects with an investigative bent and a clear goal to benefit pupils it sounds pretty ideal, doesn’t it?

However, part of the project eligibility criteria states:

Projects must demonstrate an appropriate level of innovation and therefore not be part of continuous project schemes and established outreach programmes.

At first glance this might seem reasonable – innovation is good, right? But the implications that established projects can’t be innovative is actually quite confusing. What’s more, it’s criteria like this that leaves so many otherwise great projects floundering after the first year, unable to ‘bed in’ and establish themselves as anything other than a flash in the pan.

Further down in the judging criteria it states simply that they are looking for ‘sustainability’. Clearly these projects need to have a plan to exist beyond the initial set-up for them to be of use to the communities they’re intended for. And yet without funding to continue the good work a project’s cost must be absorbed by the partners or it will die.

You can’t even re-apply to the Partnership Grant to continue your scheme without changing it somehow. If your investigation takes longer than you thought, engages the students so much that they want to continue with it or requires additional time because of internal or external factors, too bad.

Previous recipients of a Partnership Grant may apply for further funding, as long as the new application is made one year or more after the previous application. All applicants must ensure that the new project is not a simple extension of the previous one and must involve a new investigation.

One of my most exciting and successful partnerships has been growing since 2013. While the project itself has maintained the same aims and content we have been able to slowly build from engaging one after-school club to two primary school classes and finally to our ultimate goal of working with five primary school classes and their feeder secondary school beginning next year. Without the scope to slowly grow this partnership and learn as we went along we never would have reached this point, and I’m sure that’s true of many successful partnerships. The STEM professionals need time to prove themselves trustworthy and capable, and their community partners need to embed the projects within their many other commitments and pulls on their time.

Funders need to understand that partnership working and high quality projects take time. Refusing to consider applications from established projects hurts both those projects and the ones that are successfully funded, for they are soon to become the established programmes now ineligible for further money. Let’s have a culture of support that recognises the need for long-term projects and puts its money where its mouth is when it talks about sustainability.

Stop doing evaluation!

Anybody who has even dipped a toe into the waters of public engagement recently will know what I mean when I talk about the dreaded ‘i’ word.

Impact.

It seems to be everywhere – in funding applications, at conferences, even (for those of us fortunate to work in higher education) in the REF case studies. Impact is the word of the day, and proving that you have it is everybody’s goal. After all, why fund something that isn’t having an appreciable effect? Why spend time and resources embedding something into your practice if it isn’t going to change hearts and minds?

The problem, of course, is how to measure this. Evaluation is impact’s much talked-about but highly misunderstood little sibling. Sure, we need to evaluate our projects, but not just any evaluation will do. This is why I have massively stepped back the evaluation I do of my programmes, all but eliminating the usual gamut of questionnaires and surveys that used to be a must-have for any robust initiative.

Performance Evaluation Form Feedback

Think about it this way: have you ever ever gotten a truly surprising answer to ‘did you enjoy this activity/event/project?’ Most people will have done, a few people didn’t, and that tells you… precisely nothing. Sure, if you’re developing something particularly new or experimental it might be worth checking if your audience enjoyed it, but nine times out of ten you’ll be able to tell how enjoyable something was without asking.

Same with ‘did you learn anything today?’ The facts and figures people might be able to recall and parrot back five minutes after finishing your event are all but worthless in measuring whether you had a real impact on their knowledge. I can memorise a phone number that I need to call – that doesn’t mean I learned it or that I’ll remember it tomorrow, much less in a year’s time.

True evaluation of impact is going to take a lot more effort and a lot more care than what we’re used to. We need to look at long-term changes, all the while understanding the many complex and intersecting factors at play when it comes to affecting people’s attitudes about science. Groups like the British Science Association and Wellcome have started undertaking studies into longer-term impact of STEM projects, among other things, but it will still be many years before we have the data we need to know what makes a good, impactful project.

Despite the click-baity title this isn’t a call to stop all evaluation ever. But think about the questions you’re asking and what they’re telling you. Are they really informing best practice and proving impact, or are they just a waste of your audience’s time – and yours?

So: what questions are worth asking, and what impact should we be aiming for? That will be the subject of future blogs but I invite you to continue the discussion below!

Why do public engagement? Diamond Nine activity

This week I had the pleasure of attending the BIG ‘How to train researchers’ event at Newcastle University. It was an excellent and thought-provoking day and I took away a lot of useful tidbits and ideas.

As our focus was on improving how we support researchers to do public engagement one of my favourite sessions was the ‘activities circus’ where we were able to visit various brave souls who had activities or exercises they have tried and tested for our perusal. One of the ones I enjoyed was the ‘Diamond Nine’ of public engagement – a hands-on tool for facilitating discussion around researchers’ reasons for doing public engagement.

I was so inspired I’m incorporating it into my next training session; I’m looking forward to finding out what the researchers prioritise and hoping that the conversations will spur some introspection on their part!

I’ve included a print-out of the activity and instructions below – if you give it a try let me know what you think!

PDF: Why Do Public Engagement Diamond Nine

The Best Question I’ve Ever Been Asked

The man in the audience was shifty-eyed. I thought my talk about swamp-dwelling leeches, while slightly gruesome, had been going well but he seemed to have other things on his mind. I liked enthusing people about the diversity and creative adaptations of the species that made the swamp their home. I finished up, eliciting the usual ‘eww’s and ‘cool’s, and my audience crowded around the table to see the artifacts I had brought along. The alligator skull was a perennial favourite, and it took several minutes for the crowd to disperse. The shifty-eyed man remained, however, along with a friend. He approached.

“Excuse me, I was just wondering… is there such thing as a real Pokémon?”

“I’m sorry?” I got a lot of strange and interesting questions working as an education assistant at a zoo, but that one was new to me. “A what?”

“A real live Pokémon. You know, like in the game.”

“I… er…” Working in outreach makes you good at thinking on your toes, and I’m happy to say I didn’t stare at him in bemusement for more than a second. Maybe two. “You know, it’s certainly not something I’ve heard of existing in the real world.”

“But aren’t you a zoologist? Don’t you know about things like this?”

“I do, but I’ve never heard of a real live Pokémon. I don’t know if such a thing exists.”

“Well,” he said, eyes darting from side to side before he leaned closer, “I think it does, because I was listening to the news earlier and they said Paris Hilton had been bitten by some sort of Pokémon. So I just wondered if you knew about that.”

“I haven’t heard anything about it,” I said, quite honestly. “But that’s interesting. I’ll have to go look it up!”

He seemed satisfied at this even if I couldn’t confirm for certain, and left not long after. After sharing the story with some coworkers we decided we definitely had to look up what had befallen Paris Hilton.

It turns out she had been bitten by her pet kinkajou. I suppose it does sound an awful lot like Pikachu…

Psychologists highlight academic terms to avoid

Fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid: a list of inaccurate, misleading, misused, ambiguous, and logically confused words and phrases

Six decades ago, two prominent psychiatrists bemoaned the tendency of writers to use “jargon to blur implausible concepts and to convey the impression that something real is being disclosed” (Cleckley and Thigpen, 1955, p. 335). We hope that our article offers a friendly, albeit greatly belated, corrective in this regard.