In their capacity as Soapbox co-founders, Nathalie and Seirian were invited to give evidence to the UK Government’s Science and Technology Committee on Science Communication. This is the third evidence session on the government’s ongoing enquiry into science communication in the UK. The session focused on science communication as a profession, the difference between science communication and public engagement looking at cultural perspectives and evaluation. The session also examined the use of popular science and the role of government and the media in influencing engagement. Seirian reports on the highlights of the session.
If you ever find yourself visiting Portcullis House to attend a UK Government Select Committee Inquiry, BRING YOUR OWN COFFEE! I arrived to find my Soapbox co-founder, Nathalie Pettorelli, entrenched in a caffeine-low canyon: the House of Commons visitors’ room ‘coffee machine’ delivered a pathetic watery-sludge as an excuse for coffee, which couldn’t wash down a mars bar (all the nutrition you need to take on a panel of MPs, apparently!). Luckily, Nathalie had warned me, and accordingly I battled through Portcullis House security, armed with a couple of highly illegal lattes and spicy bean wraps from Café Nero round the corner.
We recharged on my smuggled Nero-delights, and took to the Thatcher Room to meet the UK Government’s Science and Technology Committee. We were joined by the fabulous Dr Penny Fidler (Chief Executive, UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres) and seasoned select-committee panelist Tracey Brown, (Director, Sense about Science). Our panel was to be cross-questioned by the Committee on approach, success and challenges facing UK scientists and science communicators in contributing to the public understanding of science. We were encouraged to make recommendations to the Committee on how the Government can help improve this.
The Committee were a formidable line up of 11 MPs. The chair, Dr Tania Mathias, appeared well-informed, switched-on and receptive to our responses, encouraging a good dialogue between us all.
So, what was our message? Here are some of the highlights.
UK scientists communicate their science widely to the UK public; government support is needed to assure effectiveness and evaluate impact
We (the panellists) presented a united front of evidence on how the UK is improving in science communication: more scientists are engaging, and it is no longer just a few ‘usual suspects’ and ‘science celebrities’ who engage the public. We are also engaging wider audiences by exploiting a broad range of media, including radio, blogs, TV, social media, and outreach. But there are still some key challenges facing scientists in effectively engaging the public.
Firstly, the public wants clear answers. Yet, scientists are trained to be cautious and non-committal. Both Tracey Browne and Penny Fidler were able to provide evidence on how their respective organisations facilitate and train scientists to communicate their work: research on the more contentious science topics (e.g. climate change, GM crops) and sensitive issues (e.g. cancer, childhood vaccinations) need to be very carefully communicated. There is an art in achieving an optimum balance between assuring integrity of the science/scientist, but providing the public with a clear and simple explanation, which our Panellists’ organisations do very well. The concept that progress in science is largely incremental and not sensational is important to share with both the public and the government. There is considerable pressure from the media to over-egg the slow-cooking science pot: this leads to public misconceptions, and can alienate the public, fueling their distrust of science and scientists. Soapbox Science helps address these problems: the public has direct dialogue with scientists, removing the media-middle-man; face-to-face interactions with a scientist help build public trust.
A second problem is that sci-comm activities are simply not valued by the science community and not included in current government measures of scientific success; there needs to be better recognition of scientists’ efforts in sci-comm. The Government has the power to make this happen by improving recognition of sci-comm activities in their assessments of university excellence (e.g. REF). Paul Manners (Director, National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement), and Matt Goode (Director of Communications and Public Engagement, Research Councils UK) picked up on this in the subsequent Panel Inquiry, where they discussed the recommendations made by Lord Stern on his independent review of university research funding allocation in the UK. We are encouraged by this report, as it would mean that the efforts of our Soapbox Science speakers are likely to be suitably recognised as important science ‘impact’ in the next Government assessment of UK universities research excellence. The Stern recommendation is very welcome. But, as Paul Manners highlighted in the subsequent Panel Inquiry, the challenge now is working out how to report on the impact on the public – what is a tangible way of measuring this?
A third challenge is the lack of funding: there are relatively few grants for science outreach initiatives that offer enough funds to employ dedicated staff that can help produce high quality, long-term programmes to promote the work of active scientists. A notable exception is the Science and Technology Facilities Council Public Engagement Awards, which currently fund Soapbox Science. We urge the Government’s Science and Technology Committee to consider channeling more funding into providing large grants to help scientists develop more effective, long-term science outreach programmes. This should also provide resources and training for scientists to properly evaluate the impact of activities on the public perception and understanding of UK science, and also the impact on the scientists who invest effort in outreach.
Science is for the masses not the elite: efforts to achieve wider participation in science would benefit from high-level government intervention in the education system and resources for long-term evaluation
Soapbox Science aims to achieve wider participation in the public understanding of science, bringing local scientists to local communities, and people who would not normally seek out a science event. We were pleased to report how our events achieve this, reaching audiences that would not have actively sought out a science festival. We pride ourselves on filling a niche left vacant by the many science festivals that take place annually in the UK: events such as the Cheltenham Science Festival, The Royal Society’s Summer Exhibition, and the Big Bang Fair are all top hitters in the sci-fest junkie’s schedule. But we’d like to reach members of the public who do not have the means, inclination or capacity to attend one of these festivals.
Penny Fidler explained how the UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres also achieves impact in diverse groups: they use a lovely ‘golden ticket’ strategy to tempt families and schools from deprived areas around the UK to their science centres. She gave an impressive account of how they successful entice their target audiences to learn about science, meet scientists, and try out their hands-on activities to promote informal learning. Tracey Browne’s charity ‘Sense About Science’ also plays an important role in achieving wider participation too, directing questions from the public to a scientist for expert answers on some of the most contentious issues in modern science.
We, the panel, recommended the promotion of both formal and informal learning. It is crucial that science communicators and scientists actively target diverse cultures and sectors of society. Both depth and breadth of knowledge are important to engage the public. Celebrity-science and TV shows can help hook the public without bombarding them with too much detail. If celebrities or TV-science can engender a love of science that is ‘sticky’ enough, then the role of the teacher (in schools and universities) in nurturing breadth in understanding of science will be easier. The ultimate goal is to propagate a life-long love of science. We recommended that scientists would be better able to contribute to science education if the national curriculum were ‘relaxed’, to allow teachers the time and space to accommodate visits from local scientists. The importance of first-hand interactions with a scientist, and hands-on experience with science equipment and experiments cannot be overstated in setting seed for a child’s ambition to be a scientist.
Measuring the impact of sci-comm activities is challenging; longitudinal studies are imperative. Government support for standardised evaluation programmes that deliver long-term robust and repeatable data is recommended. Dr Penny Fidler very aptly described the ‘Holy Grail’ of sci-comm as the ability to measure the impact of a sci-comm experience on a child of 7 when they are 17. This ‘Holy Grail’ clearly struck a chord with the Science and Technology Committee. Let’s hope this filters down to policy and spending, and that we see some serious resources made available to captialise on our nation’s sci-comm efforts.
Science communication is an important vehicle for challenging the stereotypic image of a scientist; government support and promotion of sci-comm activities can therefore help challenge cultural barriers and social norms.
The committee were interested to know how gender inequalities in science could be more effectively tackled. Matt Warman (MP) suggested that main stream TV might be better used to improve the image of women in society: should gender quotas be imposed on the cast of Eastenders? Carol Monaghan (Scottish National Party, MP) enthused about us being the first all female panel she had seen in the Science and Technology committee. Not sure whether to be pleased or sad about this! The BIS report on Public Attitudes of Science (2014) identified UK women as a demographic group that lack confidence in science. Despite this, the same report showed that women were likely to be the instigator in the family of a trip to a science event. These findings highlight the importance of targeting women, both as role-models for science careers, but also as communicators: women like to talk to women.
Unconscious bias can impede good science engagement. Unconscious bias is a problem in all areas of science, and many other career paths: it is a product of our culture. Think you’re not biased? Try this test. High profile science communicators tend to be male. The lower profile ‘donkey work’ of sci-comm, however, tends to be more popular among women. Women tend to be the ones that volunteer to take part as bit-parts at science festivals. The science community is working hard to reverse this: Sense About Science’ and the Science and Discovery Centres actively invite and train women to do high-profile sci-comm work. Addressing gender balance among high profile sci-comm is important as it helps challenge the gender stereotype of who a scientist is.
Soapbox Science directly addresses the need for women in sci-comm, and helps tackle the issue of diversity by promoting females scientists. Soapbox cannot change culture over-night, but it can challenge it today. Change is slow. It is important to provide accessible female role models for a career in science to encourage a new generation of equality in science. It is equally important to influence the social network of these young people: if their peers and family see science as an acceptable career for a girl, then that child is more likely to fulfil her aspirations.
The dialogue about gender equality in science is alive and open. This is progress. Soapbox Science is a case-in-point for how the interface between gender and sci-comm initiatives can be extremely powerful: Soapbox Science is becoming a mainstay activity in the Action Plans of science department Athena SWAN proposals. The Government can do more by recognising the important role of science communication in tackling inequality in science, and helping raise the profile of such initiatives.
The Panel Inquiry covered a lot more ground. Watch the full inquiry online at Parliament TV. The above are the issues that lie closest to the ethos of Soapbox Science. We are grateful to the Science and Technology Committee for inviting us to contribute. It was fun! We hope the Committee embrace the recommendations we made. My final recommendation to the UK Government? Get a decent coffee machine!
Dr Seirian Sumner co-founded Soapbox Science with Dr Nathalie Pettorelli in 2011. She is a Reader in Social Evolution, University of Bristol. Twitter: @WaspWoman