We have reached a point where everyone in the science sector is talking public engagement. It can be commonly perceived among more established academics as a ‘tick box’ type of scenario, where if you do some poster and a talk somewhere then you can get a big bag of funding for your next project. For others its something that they need to learn how to do to become academics, once again another ‘tick box’ situation and not necessarily something they really feel they need to do to become a researcher. For others it is a hobby, an interesting past time which with a lot of work and job applications can lead to a very interesting and rewarding career.
What the last set of people maybe do not realise is that it’s not just the public that need told about public engagement. In fact, sometimes the academics themselves need a little guidance on what really IS public engagement anyway?
Surprisingly, this was only something I realised very recently. I was having a conversation with a PhD friend of mine, who had also completed an MRes at the same time as me and gone on to further academic study while I ran for the hills and got a job. (At the same university. In the same department. Hmm.) As part of the doctoral training programme he is on it is compulsory to complete some sort of public engagement activity as part of his research. I thought this was great and said so, but he seemed rather confused about the whole business.
For starters, what is public engagement? A totally valid question really. As he rightly pointed out, there is no such thing as the ‘general public’. Each individual could be a genius in something that just isn’t what you are talking about, and each person will have varying levels of understanding of science. Not to mention the many different ways in which people communicate and learn in the first place. How can you possibly be told just to ‘engage the public’ without some sort of clearer guidelines?
So, what is the best way to decide how to engage this ‘public’? Taking my research project as a case study, I began writing articles about it in magazines. The magazines I chose were aimed at specific demographics, one was professional geologists and one was for young geologists between 3 and 18 years old. Already this is narrowing down how we can begin to engage these particular brands of ‘public’. The reason I chose these was largely dependant on two things 1) I knew the editors (quite important in terms of getting things published) and 2) I knew that these were two demographics who would not normally consider this particular topic in their daily work or interests. Others with the same research topic might have chosen magazines (or a totally different form of communication) to the heritage sector, for whom I have written articles for but not about my project. This was for two reasons 1) I felt that geologists needed to know what I had to say more than conservators and 2) I was bored with writing about my project.
Importantly, thinking back to my post on why people communicate science, this is an entirely subjective choice. My aim was to start people thinking about an area of science and expertise they might not normally consider and to open up already scientific minds to the wider heritage associations of their subject area. (It could be said that I was trying to communicate culture to scientists.) I also felt that the biggest impact of my research would be to those who use and care for geological collections the most, and so professional geologists are the primary stakeholders of the research project on social values associated with geological collections. It therefore made a lot of sense to get this demographic on board with my research as much as possible. Although this last reason was a secondary consideration, it is important to think about why you need to do public engagement and what you can get out of it.
When getting down to writing the actual article, thought needed to be put into what aspect of the project I was going to address. To attempt to cover the entire project including the background to the subject area and resulting research questions, the particular methodology and why it is so innovative and the intended conclusions is not advised in these circumstances. When I think about ‘engaging the public’ I think about what this person wants to find out the most. What might make them tick? Why have they signed up to this magazine in the first place? Once I feel I know that, I begin to work backwards. Lets start with what we can assume they know about geology and geological collections (usually erring on the side of less rather than more in most cases, apart from in the case of a professional society – you don’t want to go offending people). Then, more importantly, what don’t they know? Finally, how can I use my knowledge and research to fill in those perceived gaps and lead to a fuller understanding of the wider topic my research is addressing?
Take, for instance, the issue of fracking. When I was working for the Scottish Earth Science Education Forum doing lessons and CPD courses for secondary teachers across Scotland on Carbon Capture and Storage, one of the common misconceptions I came across was that pupils AND teachers thought that oil came out of a big hole underground. They didn’t consider that we drilled down into rock, and oil is extracted from the tiniest of pores in the rock itself. They didn’t consider that actually we are doing something very similar to the fracking process, and have been for hundreds of years, when extracting oil. What I then hypothesise, is that this kind of assumption could be made by a lot more people, who might oppose fracking on principle because they do not understand the basic concept that oil doesn’t come of of a massive hole. The phrase ‘oil well’ might be a culprit for this kind of assumption. This doesn’t tackle the more pressing issues of whether we should frack, but it could be a simple solution to a lot of otherwise meaningless explanation of how it works if people have no idea how normal oil extraction happens.
Coming back to the topic in hand, I use this type of process to decide on the message I would like to put across. Although it might not directly address what I am doing with my particular research project (which might be exceedingly boring to many) at least I can build the foundations of a wider understanding of a broad and complex topic.
Going further back to the discussion I was having with my PhD friend, after taking all of this in he then asked: but why do we have to do it? Why can’t academics who are doing complex topics just get on with it instead of taking time to try to explain it to people who might not understand it anyway?
For me, this is the ultimate annoying question. Because ultimately, I think that academics and researchers need to get off of their pedestals and remember that their hard work is for a purpose, and that is the greater good of society – however minor or abstract. This means that researchers need to ensure that what they are doing does actually benefit society in some way. Public engagement is called public engagement because it is not just an academic nattering on at ’the public’ about their research trying vainly to get them to understand that the ‘moho’ is not a shortened version of a haircut, but the engagement it is an active dialogue between people from different disciplines in an effort to enhance each others lives and work.
Oh. Says he, well in that case I’m already doing public engagement. I’m in the social sciences.