Guest post: If science were a play would its audience be the ‘public’?
In December 2010, the Trust co-convened a conference on Science and Citizenship, exploring the role of science communication and engagement in society. Juliette Mutheu reports.
One of my fondest memories of the London Film Festival is hearing the thoughts of the directors and producers in the Q&A sessions that often followed a film. Such sessions provide the public with an understanding and appreciation of a topic, be it in cinema, theatre or politics, not to mention bringing the topic closer home when addressing its relevance in society. This led me to wonder what would happen if scientists took part in similar sessions with members of the public following the publication of a major discovery. Such sessions may help to redress the perception of science as something too complex to be understood by non-scientists.
Last month, the British Council, the British Science Association, the Commonwealth Foundation, SciDev.Net and the Wellcome Trust organised a Science and Citizenship event at the Wellcome Trust Conference Centre in London. Science communication experts from all over the world were invited to revisit the 2000 House of Lords Science and Technology report, celebrate the Commonwealth Foundation’s 2010 theme of Science, Technology and Society, reflect on the status of science communication today and hopefully generate a global science communication agenda for the future.
Across the world science communication is taking shape and it’s becoming increasingly necessary for those doing scientific research to engage the public with their work. The event presented several good examples along the lines of the House of Lords report’s four major themes: communicating uncertainty and risk, engaging the public, science education in schools and science and media. Japan’s Takeshi Kimura talked about Japanese consumers requiring consumer science literacy and industry realising that risk communication cannot be left to governments alone. El Zoheiry Hamid of Egypt discussed the RDI programme’s diverse science communication activities and its supporting framework for universities and research centres to establish public engagement units. On education, Ian Kennedy of New Zealand noted that while the science curriculum in New Zealand is good the way it is taught depends on factors such as assessment and perceived university requirements. Finally, Omer Cebeci presented the work of the Turkish research council, TUBITAK, which publishes popular monthly science magazines that have become reference source materials for school children, teachers and media.
The event had its shortcomings: all the contributions were from men, contrary to the view that many well-known science communicators are women. Although I had the opportunity to follow the likes of Elizabeth Pisani and Nadia El-Awady’s footsteps in presenting my experience of science communication in Kenya (where I help to run the Kenya Science Cafes), I would have loved to hear from the experiences of other female science communicators in attendance, such as Professor Kathy Sykes from the University of Bristol, Angella Atero from the Uganda National Council of Science and Technology and Chloe Sheppard from Research Councils UK. Similarly, there was neither much coverage on citizenship nor discussions on why we need to engage the public and what we want to achieve with all the information about science. A colleague felt that while most science communicators at the conference thought in terms of informing and engaging the public, they were hesitant to call their methods science ‘PR’ or even ‘marketing.’ Nonetheless, my colleagues and I were impressed with the numerous examples of science communication activities in other countries.
I took three things from the event. First, the emphasis and need for science communication is increasing globally. Second, developing countries are following quickly in the UK’s footsteps but are defining their own communication strategies adapted to engaging their public. Third, we need a global science communication network that offers ongoing support and collaboration, promoting best practice from around the world, while also allowing for innovation and creativity. It makes no sense to work alone when a foundation of best practices exist.
Three years ago, I decided to change career from science research to public engagement. I remember reading the House of Lords report and wondering what an African version of the report might look like. Today, I am impressed and delighted by the science communication activities taking place in Africa, and around the world.
Juliette Mutheu is a training fellow in science communication at the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme in Nairobi, Kenya. She is currently undertaking an MSc. in science communication at Imperial College London.