How the general public can bring out the performance artist in scientists

December 17, 1999

Some find it 'worthless', others confess it gives them 'a warm feeling'. Gillian Pearson asks scientists about communication It isn't research money and it isn't scientific paper output so it's worthless."

That is the damning view on participation in public understanding of science initiatives put forward by one research scientist in a recent survey. But it turns out that disgruntlement on this scale is comparatively rare.

Participation of scientists in public understanding activities has frequently been encouraged by appealing to their sense of duty.

In 1985 the Bodmer report concluded with a message to scientists: "Learn to communicate with the public, be willing to do so and consider it your duty to do so." Ten years later the Wolfendale report said: "Scientists, engineers and research students in receipt of public funds have a duty to explain their work to the general public."

But is it reasonable to expect all scientists to get involved in timeconsuming and generally unrewarded activities simply out of a sense of public duty?

Research I have carried out that reviews the opinions of 150 scientists involved in the public understanding of science suggests that the motives and experiences of this group of enthusiasts are much more diverse and intriguing than is often presumed.

Responses show that the scientists are self-motivated individuals - 70 per cent of them first got involved in public understanding of science through their own initiative, only 10 per cent do so out of a sense of duty.

The prime reason that these scientists take part is that they get pleasure and personal satisfaction out of working with the public. They mention "the feel-good factor", "a warm feeling" and quite simply that "it's fun". They enjoy the buzz of performing and the reaction of their audiences. One scientist's assertion that "most university academics are exhibitionists" was borne out in a number of responses such as "I enjoy seeing others get excited about science" and "I enjoy the thrill of putting on a show".

Only 15 per cent of the respondents felt that they got no benefit from their involvement in public understanding.

Apart from personal enjoyment, declared benefits ranged from enhancement of communication skills to establishing useful contacts that open up new research opportunities. A number of scientists found the process of communicating their work to the public gave them fresh insights into their field along with an added sense that what they were doing was worthwhile.

But the number of scientists who reported that public understanding of science had played a significant part in their career advancement was strikingly small - only nine out of the 147 respondents.

The data have a bearing on a number of common myths about the attitudes and beliefs of those involved in public understanding - and especially about factors that might inhibit scientists from a greater involvement, such as concerns that their research is too complex to communicate or that they risk the scorn of their peers.

The survey shows that scientists believe that their own research, however seemingly abtruse, is worth communicating.

The rare instances of scientists regarding their research as incommunicable to the public hardly stand up to scrutiny, as others in the survey with similar research interests found no difficulty in communicating to the public.

But communication of research is just part of a richer picture. Almost 70 per cent of the respondents perform public understanding work that covers both their own research and more general science topics.

There is also less resistance from colleagues than might be expected. Twice as many respondents reported that their colleagues were generally "supportive" as declared a feeling that colleagues were "negative" or "indifferent". While there was the odd scientist who experienced extreme antipathy - "Some were vehemently against it to the point of shouting at me" - there is a sense that the previous feeling of "amused tolerance" from their peers is gradually being replaced by a more supportive stance. Indeed a couple of scientists reported "envy" from some of their colleagues.

The most common problem cited by this group is their lack of time. Time spent on public understanding is time spent away from research or teaching and it carries no weight in any external assessment procedures.

Few go as far as describing it as "worthless". But a significant number of scientists in this survey, when asked what changes they would make to practice, believe that the way forward is to give some degree of kudos to public understanding by making it count towards the research assessment exercise or teaching quality assessment.

These scientists also believe that it is the practising scientific community that should be in the vanguard of public understanding activity.

The majority believe that the best work comes from scientists like themselves who are involved in research and who have an ability to communicate.

Such individuals have credibility with the media, a body of expertise to draw on and access to the latest ground-breaking work.

Opinions differ as to whether it should be a mandatory part of all scientists' jobs or whether limited resources would best be spent on identifying and supporting those who show some interest and aptitude.

What is clear is that if more scientists are to be encouraged to take part, more research is needed to understand what motivates scientists, what problems they face, and what benefits they can expect.

This means moving away from the expectation that all scientists will take part out of a sense of duty and moving towards a system of formal recognition in which communicating science is seen as a genuine academic pursuit comparable to teaching and research. Gillian Pearson is director of education of the Oxford Trust. This research is contributing to her part-time PhD with the Open University.

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