There has been a lot of conversation lately about the value of public engagement in large science visitor attractions (summarized wonderfully by Louise Crane’s storify) and so I thought that I’d put my own thoughts down on paper.
I believe that, for the most part, a lot of projects that these large organizations carry out are broadcast, not public engagement. They carry out ‘public engagement activities’ that simulate dialogue (by allowing Q&A or limited interaction) but that essentially just give information to an audience who is already interested in the subject – it is deficit model dressed up as public engagement. So what Anna Perman said in her blog, that “science communicators shouldn’t like public engagement projects”, is true. (I do realise that I am making sweeping generalizations here!)
So why are these large prestigious visitor attractions failing? The phrase ‘public engagement with science’ is extremely difficult to define. I have linked many times to Alice Bell’s excellent blog post “What’s this public ‘engagement’ with science thing then?’, as it sums up how hard it is to define this phrase very eloquently. On top of this people are afraid to talk about failures in public engagement activities. As Steve Cross, UCL’s Head of Public Engagement, says in an excellent article, ‘We need to talk about failure’;
“It’s time we all allowed evaluators to get into the cracks of our work, to show us the failures and help us get better. Evaluators aren’t there to study the one aspect of your project that you know will work, to convince your funder to give you more money. They’re there to help you, and other practitioners, to do a better job in the future.”
What this adds up to is that people will have their own idea about what a public engagement activity should set out to achieve, what defines a success, and that no one is willing to admit when a project fails… and the string of poor public engagement projects continues. Anna continues in her article to say:
“I can’t help feel that the projects that are most successful in ‘widening participation’ are probably the ones that have gone under the scicomm world’s radar, precisely because they’re not aimed at that particular echo chamber.”
Public engagement with science is important for many reasons. For example, as I summarized in a blog post, there are still widely held stereotypes about what a scientist is and what they do. More honesty, positivity and creativity is needed to try to overcome this repetitive cycle of bad public engagement projects:
- Greater honesty is needed about the political and other unique pressures each organisation faces. Also, about how successful projects really are.
- More positivity and willingness is needed to accept the challenge of overcoming political pressures/engaging a large, diverse audience/ other obstacles to public engagement
- More creativity is needed to develop new ways of communicating and engaging with the organisation’s audience
This is a huge challenge. But, as science communicators, we care about whether the wider public is engaged with science, and therefore we should be eager to this challenge on.