Engaging with the public

Alice Bell raises an essential question: “Whats this public engagement with science thing then?”

Im similarly sceptical about lumping this whole science thing together (and in particular, lumping together scientists). Science is big and complex, its ideas about itself vary and change over time. Maybe it should be pluralised to sciences, like publics. Or again, maybe we could just talk about specific people, ideas and approaches. Leave loose talk about science to philosophers and advertising executives, and instead focus on sharing what you have particular expertise in, be honest about what you dont know and think about all the new things you might learn from engaging in a bit of broader discussion about your work.

Like Bell, I favor much more specificity about the “public” we’re addressing. I like “people” much better than “publics” plural, because the effective point of contact is the individual, not the committee. People have many different goals in their interactions and experiences with science. When I bring Sophie to the local planetarium for a show, neither she nor I is the “public”. We are people with a pre-existing relationship, looking to deepen that by engaging with the particulars of a science both of us have some knowledge about. Other people have their own goals and experiences – many of them intent on avoiding science. No form of engagement can bring together all these people without addressing their distinct goals and interests.

On that note, I very much like Bell’s final suggestions – particularly being receptive to serendipity:

Dont be silly about the public. Remember: knowing your audience and targeting specific groups can be very powerful, but so can the serendipitous connections made by packaging your work as accessibly as audience as possible.
There is nothing wrong with a bit of ambition, but be realistic. This means keeping in mind the limitations of your project, including pragmatic concerns like money, time, your professional image and the weather. You are unlikely to change the world. You may not even change any minds, but that doesnt mean its not worthwhile, you may well have helped move towards a bit of world/ mind changing. These things take time. None of them are easy.

I would add one thing. This final point may sound a little nihilistic. I mean, if you can’t change minds, why even bother?

But at an early career stage, very few people have the moxie to change minds. The point of engagement is to become a better scientist. Like all things, it takes practice to master. It may take many failed efforts to arrive at success.

You are only a reed. But you are a thinking reed.