I had a very interesting comment on the last post I wrote on public engagement, and ended up writing a rather long reply to it. In the end I thought it might be interesting to make this into a short post to make it more accessible to others. Please join in and comment below!
Comment: I think the case and need for public engagement should not be over-emphasized. While it is certainly desirable there are other criteria that need much more consideration especially ‘impact’ of the research being undertaken. These days researchers have to clearly and exhaustively demonstrate the economic and societal impact arising from their work – this is a major strand throughout a research programme, much more emphasis is placed on this than public communication of science. Guidance from some research councils indicate that while public engagement is encouraged, researchers should be wary of making such activities too demanding and to the detriment of research activities. A strong argument could be made for most science communication being left to professionals.
My Reply: I think an argument could be made, but not a strong one. I think that assessing and understanding the impact of an academics’ work is invaluable, especially since funding is so difficult to get and we really need to think how different projects can most effectively benefit the sector they are working in or for. If, when making proposals, this then forces academics have to adjust some of their research methodology to make it relevant and effective, then that is fine. All from a standard methodological point of view.
My point is that, as well as communicating to someone with no academic background (as supposed to saying general public) being important to an extent, public engagement also means engaging with the policy makers and other professionals who may be working in a sector but not as a scientist i.e. in heritage science this would be conservators. They are the end-users of the scientific/academic research I am carrying out, but they do not necessarily understand any of the methodology. However, it is imperative that I, the researcher, am able to communicate my research’s worth to them in order to make it worthwhile for any funding body. This is the same for policy makers either at a museum or government level.
This is not just the work of a ‘science communicator’, but of the individual researcher. They need to be able to understand how their research affects their particular sector to enable them to carry out the research. I needed to understand the needs of curators and conservators to ensure the question I was researching was relevant.
I think too many academics worry they have to be able to teach a toddler about channel flow when really they just need to understand why they are doing it themselves (other than for personal interest).