Talking to members of the public about your research is rewarding and satisfying.
It’s also challenging to explain why taxpayer money is spent on researching the interaction of protein complex R in the YYIOH signalling pathway in non-canonical RT-5.3 cells. Not all science is inherantly exciting, especially to young audiences.
Nevertheless, engaging with the public and explaining the benefits of science if vital for the research community and for society. Here are 5 reasons why.
- Reach people who don’t encounter science
A basic knowledge of science can lead to better informed people and can empower people to make better life choices. However, some people have limited knowledge or exposure to science and either through poor education or through little contact with scientists throughout their lives.
Reaching out to these people can have a profound effect and can combat mis/disinformation and harmful conspiracy theories. Just knowing and meeting a scientist in person can change people’s perceptions and worldview.
This is where many scientific institutions miss an opportunity. Public engagement events like science fairs are usually held affluent, white majority communities where most of the population is highly educated. However, if they were held in were less wealthy and less white dominated areas then public engagement would reach the people who need it the most.
- Show that science and scientists is useful and relatable
Science can seem impenetrable to the public. Arcane knowledge locked behind paywalls and full of incomprehensible words and complex graphs. Performed by learned academics in prestigious institutions.
In reality science is much more down to earth and relatable. There is science all around us and by helping people notice that, we show the ubiquity of science. Heredity, evolution, diseases and many other basic concepts are easy and relatable examples that are fun to discuss and apply in everyday life.
- Improve your communication skills
Verbal communication is a vital skill and what better way to learn than explaining your science to a non-scientist?
Einstein himself valued being able to explain things simply. “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”
- The reputation of science and scientists is important
While scientists may be more trustworthy than other professions, it is still flawed. Major events like the Tuskegee study, Andrew Wakefield and the Macchiarini scandal reduce public trust in science and the scientific process.
In the wake of Covid-19, science had to step up and show its worth, but it was not without doubters, opponents and missteps. The scientific process of publishing, collaborating, critiquing and finding consensus hailed new vaccines at an astonishing rate. Public engagement can help show that science, although imperfect, is a trustworthy and a force for good.
- Children are the scientists of the future
Science must inspire young people to be the scientists of the future. This isn’t just the duty of schoolteachers and documentaries but of scientists themselves. This future talent should also be diverse to capture the heterogeneity of the population at large. Only this way can we make science inclusive and representative.
Scientists and their institutions have a duty to engage the public. Not just in carefully scripted PR events but by proactively reaching people who ignore or reject science.
The concept of “Science Capital” and how this can help public engagement strategies. https://www.sciencecentres.org.uk/resources/science-capital/science-capital-introduction/
Public engagement of Science as described by the American Association for the Advancement of Science https://www.aaas.org/resources/communication-toolkit/what-public-engagement
The events of the Tuskegee study https://www.cdc.gov/tuskegee/timeline.htm
Andrew Wakefield’s biography and lessons learnt. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02989-9
Paolo Macchiarini convicted https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-61836856