‘Book a scientist’: academics find a new way to engage public

German researchers let members of the public fire questions at them in 20-minute slots, and the result is a deep, albeit narrow, form of science communication

August 25, 2020
Woman holds conversation online
Source: iStock

On a Tuesday afternoon in mid-August, about 60 academics in Germany waited in front of their computer screens, ready to sate the curiosity of the public.

They were taking part in “Book a Scientist”, an unusually direct method of science communication.

The concept is simple. Members of the public are allowed to book 20-minute slots to fire questions at academics about their research, on topics ranging from “why do I X-ray bats?” to “who can decide what I’m allowed to say online?”

Compared with engaging the public on Twitter, through newspaper interviews, or via a blog, the reach of “Book a Scientist” is very limited. At most, the researchers, all from institutions that form part of Germany’s multidisciplinary Leibniz Association, can speak to a handful of people in the hour or two set aside for digital encounters with the public.

But advocates argue that although narrow, “Book a Scientist” is a very deep way of connecting with the public, even generating new research ideas.

“Our experience is that many people at our other public events do not really dare to ask their questions to our researchers when an audience is listening,” said Marlen Sommer, a team event manager at the association who helped manage the meetings.

The idea was trialled physically in 2018 and 2019, but the pandemic has pushed it online – potentially opening it up to a much bigger public.

Some members of the public just wanted practical advice. Charline Uhr, a research assistant at the Leibniz Institute for Financial Research proffering advice on avoiding investment mistakes, was asked by several people for the “best investment idea to become rich without any risks”.

However, she said, her interrogators all had well-prepared questions, and overall the interviews were a “great opportunity to leave the ivory tower, to hear something about the fears and problems of people” outside finance and academia.

“If you try to evaluate this event by time spent versus people reached this is a bad deal,” she continued.

But the format is “far more inspiring than writing a post without knowing whether you are answering a question the ‘real world’ might have”, she pointed out.

The experience was a bit like “like talking to friends about my research at lunch or dinner”, said Hannes Ullrich of the German Institute for Economic Research, who offered up his expertise on whether machine learning can improve medical care.

He ended up speaking to a fellow academic, tackling the same questions but in a different field; an employee of a firm for which his research is relevant; and a private citizen interested for personal reasons.

“Book a Scientist” functions rather like the open discussion that occurs between academics, policymakers and the general public on Twitter, he said.

But, in common with other participants, he appreciated getting to know his questioners better. “I actually got to see and talk to the interested people and also learned a little about their backgrounds and interests,” he added.

The association’s website shows that although some academics were fully booked, still more had at least some unbooked slots. But for those who got a steady supply of conversation partners, the exercise was worth it – and given the informal nature of the chats, required little time in preparation.

“I would say that the time invested has definitely paid off,” said Lisa Spitzer, an expert on research transparency at the Leibniz Institute for Psychology Information, who also took part. “You may not reach as many people at once as through other channels, but the impact you have is all the greater.”

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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