To investigate how to better engage people with science, it is key to identify how research is currently disseminated and the routes of exposure accessible to the public. Despite the increasing popularity of the Internet, traditional media including TV news reports and print newspapers remain the main sources of scientific communication in the UK. The 2014 ‘Public Attitudes to Science’ (PAS) report published in partnership with the British Science Association gives us insight into some interesting factors (link: https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3357/Public-Attitudes-to-Science-2014.aspx#gallery[m]/0/).
Despite 42% of the 1749 participants surveyed primarily hearing or learning about science through TV news, interesting trends are emerging with younger demographics. 21% of 16-24 year olds identify social media as their primary source of scientific exposure, this perhaps accounting for some of IFLScience’s 22.5million likes on Facebook. The power of social media thus cannot be underestimated when considering how best to enable dialogue between scientists and the wider public. We can use these platforms to really engage the public beyond a ‘show-and-tell’ to something that can truly be educational and interesting. That is not to say that ‘How to make the perfect grilled sandwich with Science’ isn’t educational (link: http://www.iflscience.com/chemistry/chemistry-perfect-grilled-cheese-sandwich). Another example of the power of social media for public engagement is the highly successful ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’. Sweeping through social media between July and September 2014, this participatory activity became a social phenomenon. The ALS association benefited from a 36-fold ($2.9 to $100.9mil.) increase in donations as a result of the massive exposure. One can only imagine the positive impact this will have had on ALS research for years to come.
Returning to the PAS report, it looks as if we are not communicating enough as a whole. Only 6% of respondents reported that they hear too much about science, with 51% of respondents seeing and hearing too little. In addition to this, 58% agree that scientists put too little effort into informing the public about their work. From this it is clear that we have an audience that is more than willing to be engaged and included in our work, a relationship from which we would all benefit.
I’ll leave you one final figure; one that we must address. ‘30% of respondents think they’re not clever enough to understand’. I truly believe that this is wholly as a result of a failure to excite the imagination and curiosity rather than an inability of the respondents. One only needs to take the example of perhaps the greatest ever public engager, Dr. Carl Sagan to see the possibilities of engagement.
I urge you all to watch the original 1980’s documentary written and presented by Sagan, ‘Cosmos’ (link: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0081846/) to see the gold standard for scientific teaching and communication. For a little taster of Sagan in the classroom, enjoy the video below: