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Public engagement and science communication: A waste of time?

Why is public engagement in science so important - and why should we be investing a lot more time, money and effort into disseminating and communicating the breadth of scientific research we undertake?

November 12, 2018

The 2014 BIS report on Public Attitudes to Science highlighted the discrepancy between public enthusiasm for science and how that science is communicated, both to the general public and to the policy makers that can affect change based on modern scientific advances.

Why is public engagement in science so important - and why should we be investing a lot more time, money and effort into disseminating and communicating the breadth of scientific research we undertake?

This is the first in a series of posts on public engagement - keep your eyes peeled for our update from a hugely successful Norwich Science Festival!

Despite the best efforts of Copernicus, half a millennium ago, a portion of the world’s population is still convinced that the sun rotates around the earth.

Similarly, Darwinism has passed its 150th birthday, yet even this beautiful theorum on the origins of life is besmirched by some who, often, simply haven’t had access to the mounds of evidence in support of it.

This is hardly surprising, considering that in many cases people are exposed to misguided science journalism (the main source of information for a receptive general public, according to the 2014 survey) - a major example being the false, yet widely held, belief that MMR vaccines cause autism.

Then there are subjects such as climate change and the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). As a field, science isn’t (or hasn’t been) particularly good at selling itself, its ideas or its research findings outside of funding bodies through grant proposals.

Getting the money and funding the research is one thing. Seeing that research come to fruition in a world sceptical of scientific discoveries, despite the overwhelming and oddly discordant trust in science and scientists - especially considering the lack of broad acceptance of the findings of science and scientists (we’ll come back to that later) - is another matter entirely.

Public engagement can help to override misconceptions. Some are still unconvinced that the Earth orbits the sun and not vice versa.

Public engagement can help to override misconceptions such as the sun rotating around the earth

The reason that Europe shows such apprehension towards genetic engineering – a process hardly removed from the conventional techniques we have used for over 10,000 years – is that Greenpeace pulled off one of the greatest marketing campaigns ever witnessed in order to swing public opinion against GMOs. Science had no comeback.

Both Germany and Scotland have recently outlawed the growth of GMOs, yet how many people are aware of the huge benefits that modern techniques such as CRISPR can have on healthcare, nutrition and food security? How many are aware that “organically” grown seeds could well have been randomly mutagenised next to nuclear reactors in the 1950s? How many are aware that it is entirely possible to grow GMOs in organic farming systems? Why are the terms “organic” and “GMO” even used conflictingly in the same sentences?

The recent EU ruling, that gene editing using CRISPR would come under the same tough regulations as other GMOs, was another blow to progressing a field that might usher in the next green revolution and improved food security in a world straining under a rapidly changing climate and a throbbing global population.

Scientists, whether we like it or not, have a duty to shout about our research - and not just in the echo chambers of twitter or science conferences. Misconceptions among the general public can quickly become government policy, and vice versa, often flying in the face of evidence.

The recent EU ruling on gene editing highlights the need to communicate the research benefits

The recent EU ruling on gene editing highlights the need to communicate the research benefits
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Scientists, whether we like it or not, have a duty to shout about our research - and not just in the echo chambers of twitter or science conferences.

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The prevalence of misconceptions

Over 150 years since the dawn of Darwinism, only 41% of the population of 23 of the world’s wealthiest nations believe that humans evolved from an ape-like ancestor. Even though we have tail bones, look almost exactly the same as the great apes and the abundant fossil and DNA evidence to support evolution, 28% of people in these countries believe in creation theory and another 31% are on the fence.

This is hardly surprising, considering it took Louis Pasteur to essentially rediscover the same thing, and two centuries of time, before even scientists accepted Francesco Redi’s findings that life does not spontaneously generate from matter - despite the fact he clearly demonstrated that maggots do not grow from meat that has been sealed away from the environment.

There are other non-scientific beliefs held by vast proportions of the population despite a huge weight of evidence to the contrary. For example, in Britain, 39% of people believe homeopathy to be an effective treatment for illness, when a glass of orange juice would be just as effective.

However, creationism and homeopathy – though scientifically and clinically disproven – are not as immediately and obviously threatening to society as are some of the other widely-held misconceptions.

A substantial proportion of people believe that vaccines are a threat to the health of their children. This is despite the mass discrediting of Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent claim, made notorious due to release in a major newspaper after publication in a leading medical journal before being retracted from the latter, that MMR vaccines could lead to autism by damaging the brain.

This all means that fewer than the 95% of the population needed for herd immunity are vaccinated, which has led to outbreaks of a disease which should have all-but-been eradicated.

The world is hurtling towards rapid and irreversible climate change, scientists seem pretty damn sure that humans are the problem, yet it turns out that, in America at least, people aren’t aware of that consensus. If they were just aware of the consensus, they, too, might balk at Trump’s regularly calamitous balking at climate change.

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The world is hurtling towards rapid and irreversible climate change, scientists seem pretty damn sure that humans are the problem, yet it turns out that, in America at least, people aren’t aware of that consensus.

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Public attitudes to science

According to the 2014 survey on public attitudes to science, the Great British public are overwhelmingly in favour of government funding of scientific research - 79% of respondents being in favour of this, with 35% in strong agreement.

This is good news, considering another 70% thought that government funding is the main source for research into science (spoiler alert: it isn't). However, a disconcertingly lower number of young people (28%) strongly agreed that science should be government funded compared to the 35% average.

More worryingly, however, is that only 10% of responders would describe themselves as “confident engagers” in science - those generally interested in all aspects of science. Double the number describe themselves as “concerned,” 15% as “distrustful engagers,” 16% as “indifferent” and 17% as “disengaged sceptics.”

If only 10% of the British public are confidently engaging in science, then we have a problem - especially considering that science and technology is at the heart of modern society, from our food and fuel to our smartphones and healthcare.

Without science we’d still have smallpox; we’d still be using leeches instead of anaesthetics; we’d still be trying to read in the dark; and we could never have imagined the internet. Bizarrely, “distrustful engagers are also more likely on average to have access via computers, tablets and interactive TVs.”

Improving public attitude to science is necessary to ensure continued funding support for scientists to innovate and address global challenges.

Improving public attitude to science is necessary to ensure continued funding for scientists to address global challenges
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Without science we’d still have smallpox; we’d still be using leeches instead of anaesthetics; we’d still be trying to read in the dark; and we could never have imagined the internet.

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Public awareness of science

Perhaps these numbers can be explained by a general lack of knowledge, or interest.

The highest scoring group in a cultural knowledge quiz were the “confident engagers,” with those who were “concerned” scoring lowest.

However, the feedback for individual topics doesn’t necessarily reflect this. Three quarters of the British public feel that food security is a big issue globally, while 67% of respondents feel that food security will become an increasing issue in the UK in the future.

Sadly, however, the report focuses a major segment on genetic modification (GM) technologies. Considering that 80% of respondents think that no technologies should be ruled out in order to increase food production, perhaps - as the report pertains to - we should start framing GM as part of a holistic solution, rather than a standalone agricultural technology.

Along the food security theme, the use of robots in agriculture is something that is relatively unheard of compared with the manufacturing industries. Or space exploration.

Only 5% of survey respondents had heard a substantial amount of information relating to this, with 66% supporting a role for robots in agriculture (though, importantly, 87% of the confident engagers are in favour of this, highlighting that more can be done to engage and inform other groups).

The use of robots, particularly for timely and cost-effective monitoring of crop health, could significantly increase our yields in the future, something that 72% of people were in support of generally.

With green technologies, too, there is a similar story; 77% of people are in favour of the use of offshore wind farms, with over half of respondents also in favour of carbon capture and storage as a method to reduce climate change. The numbers in favour of fracking were far lower.

The public are mostly unaware of the use of robots and AI in agriculture to help monitor crop health and improve crop yield

The use of robots and AI can help to monitor crop health and improve crop yield
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Along the food security theme, the use of robots in agriculture is something that is relatively unheard of compared with the manufacturing industries. Or space exploration.

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What’s holding us back?

Seemingly, the British public on the whole are in favour of science and scientists. From the findings of the report, it is the reasons that are given for being in favour or against certain issues that were sometimes lacking.

For example, in the survey the perceived risks of GM crops outweighed the benefits, while most people were unaware of the use of GM in increasing disease resistance in crops.

As scientists, we have a duty to disseminate our research to a wide audience – considering especially that many research institutes are funded by taxpaying members of the public.

In order to investigate attitudes towards public engagement among scientists, I asked scientists working at Earlham Institute if they thought that public engagement was a waste of time; 92% said no, providing a variety of reasons why public engagement is important.

Scientist's attitudes on the importance of public engagement

Why is public engagement important?

The reasons for why public engagement is important were many and varied but consisted mostly of a need to share our research among the wider community in order to inform and educate, enthuse and inspire, and also prove to taxpayers that their money is being wisely invested in biological sciences research.

However, despite public engagement being perceived as important by scientists, time constraints and the importance of publishing peer-reviewed science to institutes and career academics mean that public engagement and science communications can often be overlooked.

When asked, “what is the biggest barrier preventing you from public engagement?” EI scientists listed time as the main constraint. Another concern is that public engagement isn’t as valued or as well recognised as publications and grants, therefore the effort invested might not be equally rewarded.

On the contrary, adding in a lay summary of research is a prerequisite for most grant applications. Subsequent media coverage can also raise the profile of research - helping to attract further funding.

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As scientists, we have a duty to disseminate our research to a wide audience – considering especially that many research institutes are funded by taxpaying members of the public.

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Scientists share their opinions on the barriers to public engagement

Scientists share their opinions on the barriers to public engagement

Effective science communication

Thankfully, there is a dedicated and ever-growing community of people who are interested in spreading the word about scientific research in the realm of science communication and public engagement.

Hundreds of people attend the BIG STEM Event every year, while hundreds more flock to the British Science Association or the Engage Conference, the latter taking place in Edinburgh later this year.

Just last week we had the biggest and best Norwich Science Festival ever (more on this to come in another feature - keep your eyes peeled), which saw a footfall of around seven thousand people each day over eight days.

When asked whether having a dedicated public engagement team was a valuable addition to a scientific institute, 92% of EI scientists said yes.

The main reason given for this was generally that it’s important that professional communicators can initiate engagement activities and provide expertise in communicating complex concepts to a wide range of audiences.

Scientist's opinions on the value of having a dedicated public engagement team

Scientists opinions on the value of public engagement

Many scientists mentioned that one of the biggest barriers to doing public engagement is the difficulty in explaining complex concepts to a lay audience, therefore having enthusiastic and dedicated experts in science communication is vital and necessary.

However, even among science communicators, it is sometimes difficult to come to a consensus as to what constitutes good public engagement.

On the one hand, there is the need to promote science to a wide audience in order to inform, educate and inspire the next generation of scientists. On the other hand, there is also a need to engage effectively in public dialogue, as public opinion on scientific issues can have a significant effect on policy at government level, while our research must also be accountable to the taxpayers funding it.

These two strands of thought are inextricably linked and public engagement must involve both education and dialogue. Without a properly informed general public, is it possible to engage in effective dialogue?

The word "dialogue" is key.

To quote Carl Sagan: "In the way that skepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore the fact that, deluded or not, supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the skeptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be. Their motives are in many cases consonant with science. If their culture has not given them all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped."

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Thankfully, there is a dedicated and ever-growing community of people who are interested in spreading the word about scientific research in the realm of science communication and public engagement.

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The role of science communication

Clearly, there is an absolute necessity to properly communicate the findings of rigorous, peer-reviewed scientific research to an audience that can be cautious to accept it.

We need to foster an environment in which learning and disseminating scientific concepts is ingrained in our culture so that the population and government can be better informed to make the best choices based on experimentation and evidence.

We also need to make sure that we’re talking about the controversial issues when engaging with the public, not just enticing people into careers in STEM, or entertaining large crowds with big bangs and flashy technology (though that’s also valuable in its own right).

Acceptance of GMOs can be made a simple as putting on a workshop on biohacking, or a talk at a local high school, or an impassioned conversation - note, conversation - with a member of the public at a local science festival.

Considering the wide-ranging applications of modern, complex biological sciences techniques, from gene editing and synthetic biology to DNA sequencing and artificial intelligence, public engagement with science and science communication is as important now as it has ever been.

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We need to foster an environment in which learning and disseminating scientific concepts is ingrained in our culture so that the population and government can be better informed to make the best choices based on experimentation and evidence.

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Article author

Peter Bickerton

Scientific Communications & Outreach Manager