The problems with a call for all scientists to participate in public engagement

As I outlined in a post last week, there have been a lot of articles lately which outline how a better appreciation of what science is and who scientists are is needed. This has inevitably led to posts and articles calling for more scientists to get involved with public engagement activities. But there are a number of problems that I can see with generally asking for more public engagement:

1. ‘Public engagement with science’ is an ambiguous phrase and can mean many things. This is outlined  eloquently by Alice Bell in a blog post entitled, ‘What’s this public engagement with science thing then?’ I recommend reading it in full but here is a snippet of the post:

‘The public’, ‘engagement’, ‘science’ or ‘scientists’ are just simplifications we’ve made up to make the big wide complicated world easier to understand. These terms are still real and meaningful, but at the very least, they’re open to a bit of playful reinterpretation.

2. Despite continued calls for more people to be involved with public engagement, many scientists don’t appreciate the variety of different ways which they can interact with ‘the public’ (for want of a better term) and stick to a limited repertoire of activities that only engage a limited audience. It may be possible that because of the ambiguities of the term scientists don’t realise what activities fall until the title of ‘public engagement’.

3. The biggest problem with encouraging all scientists to engage the public is that not every scientist wants to do, or is capable of carrying out, public engagement activities. This was highlighted to me by a meeting I had with a scientist earlier this week. He explained how he would love for his research to be ‘out there’ and for more people to understand what he did. However he continued to say that, despite having a lot of respect for scientists who were also great communicators, he personally wasn’t the right person to tell people about his work; not only did he not have the time but he felt he didn’t have the right personality to effectively communicate his research.

Although more quality public engagement is needed, the greatest challenge is finding the balance between encouraging more scientists to step up and try a variety of different activities, allowing those who already do it the space and time to carry out effective public engagement, and finding ways for those who don’t want to take on the personal responsibility to communicate their research through professional science communicators. This is extremely complicated and simply calling for ‘greater public engagement with science’ does not communicate this or help address any of the problems laid out above.

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