The power of public engagement with science
Taking the plunge into public engagement can be a bit like joining a party in a new neighbourhood. Hold back, hug the wall, and avoid eye contact and your evening will be wasted. Introduce yourself graciously, listen to the people you are talking with, relax into the event, and soon you’ll be having conversations you never expected. In short, you’ll get back what you put in.
Why do it at all, though? Talk to scientists who have done it and the motives, and the benefits they saw, vary. Professor Geraint Rees of UCL’s Institute of Neuroscience, simply sees it as a natural thing to do. “I’m a great believer that science doesn’t exist unless it is communicated. Engaging with the public is an extension of normal scholarly activity.” Professor David Tollervey, Director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Biology in Edinburgh works from the belief that “it is a Good Thing, and should be encouraged for the health of society and science”.
Both see benefits for their own work. For Rees, because public engagement “forces you to communicate in a clear way, and really think about what you are trying to say. You get feedback. People come up with surprising ideas. It all contributes to my overall research direction”.
Tollervey agrees. “When you are describing your work in a way that makes sense to other people it can give you a different sense of priorities.”
There are also more direct benefits in some fields. In public health, for example, according to Dr David Osrin of UCL’s Institute for Global Health, “Good research answers a question, but it may not answer the right one. We can’t do our research without public engagement that helps us to frame the right questions”.
Professor Shah Ebrahim, a Wellcome Trust strategic award holder at the London School of Hygeine and Tropical Medicine explains that Public health research depends on public participation in long-term cohort studies and in randomised trials. Where he works, in India, “It involves long term partnerships between researchers and local communities. Without engagement I cannot do my research… it is an essential component not an optional ‘extra’”.
More broadly, Tollervey thinks it is good for learning how to present yourself. Especially when the presentation involves performance, or as he puts it, “dressing up and doing silly things in wigs and waistcoats”, there is a new sense of camaraderie for those who find themselves taking new kinds of risks.
These different approaches lead to engagements that are just as diverse.
Rees’ most memorable effort was collaborating with Colin Firth as guest editor of Radio 4’s Today Programme in 2010 to scan politicians’ brains and test whether political orientation was linked to neuroanatomy. As a bonus, the experiment produced a scientific paper, co-authored with Firth and radio science reporter Tom Fielden.
Tollervey has good memories of that dressing up – for a re-enactment of the history of microscopy – though he also recalls wryly that one young audience member’s answer to the question what they had learnt that day was: “scientists can’t act”.
For Ebrahim, involving patients in discussions of priorities for systematic reviews in heart disease was most memorable, because it revealed a concern – cognitive impairment after bypass surgery, which had been completely overlooked.
Historian Chris Millard, from Queen Mary University London, has fond memories of a project at the Barbican where “I managed to explain a number of lost emotions to Ruby Wax whilst dressed as a First World War army officer”.
Despite their wide variety of public engagement experience and tactics, there is common advice that they have put forward:
★ Look for quick wins with visible interim outcomes.
★ Avoid didactic messaging and instead give people space to think about the issues.
★ Use creative techniques such as music and performance if you can.
★ Plan to be flexible, so you can adapt to what people tell you as you go.
Human interaction can throw up problems of its own. Ways to reduce the risks of things not going to plan include not simply seeing the public as recipients of information. Listening to them, involving them and finding ways to engage them is key.
Being misunderstood or misrepresented can be a worry, admits Stephen Wilkinson, Professor of Bioethics at Lancaster University, whose report on embryo selection got much press publicity. You have to accept that once the conversation is underway, especially if it is reflected in the media, you no longer have full control. He advises that you should “be very careful about the language you use”.
Starting a new public engagement activity may take some effort, but all agree that they are fun and very rewarding. “It is a pleasure to tell people about what I do”, says Tollervey. Thinking about things in new ways can even yield unexpected results. Shah Ibrahim found that setting up cricket games between teams from intervention and control villages in a long-term study was useful for building trust. “Cricket matches take a long time which means that you have opportunities to meet lots of people and to listen to what they have to say”. Osrin relates how another Indian project organised a consultation with the Mumbai police about the way in which they respond to violence against women. “Over 100 police of all ranks attended for two full days, provisional guidelines were developed collectively… and we all met a Bollywood star”.
Wonderful experiences await you, so isn’t it time you joined the public engagement party?