Science communication and outreach – What do we REALLY want for the public?

Sometimes when we’re doing a good thing, we forget to look at it critically, to dissect our ambitions with it and to see if we’re really accomplishing our goals. Sometimes we don’t really have those targets in the first place and, rather, we simply march along under the feeling and banner of “doing good.” And while I’ll be the last to argue that we always need be efficient and precise in everything we do (I’m a big fan of being human!), sometimes it’s worth looking at these things to see if we’re burning our gears.

I would however argue that in science outreach and communication this is something we should probably be doing. Not because we must be scientific about everything we do (though we could likely spice up our rigor here), but because I imagine many who engage in these efforts do want something out of it.

I teased this idea a little in a recent post about who’s the solution to science outreach, but I thought it worth a little more thought here. So let’s take a peak then at some of our possible motivations. Perhaps we’re on target, perhaps we’re chasing our tails, but generally it starts like this…

I want the public to be more knowledgeable and engaged in Science.

Which is an exciting sentiment I’m happy to be seeing more and more, but we immediately run into quite the question — Why? To what end? Heck, what does this even mean?

Maybe we can narrow that down a bit. Which parts of “science” are important? Is there any action step on the public’s end? If we can at least answer these questions, that goes a long way to refining our goals, but sometimes it’s still tricky. And while I am far from having the answers, I think it’s worth taking a little tour through our motivations to see whether our favorite #scicomm or outreach endeavor hits our own marks.

Just for example:

We want to affect public policy on [Insert key science-related social issue here].

Climate change. Stem-cell research. Any number of examples would fit. This could be almost as specific a goal as it gets, and yet hidden within are still a variety of nuanced considerations. To name a few:

  • Public trust in science
  • Awareness of the issue
  • Prioritization and funding of the concern

Although these issues can be incorporated into some typical science outreach icons (science-night-outs, museums, etc.), if this is really the aim, simply increasing the public knowledge and enjoyment of science at large is not likely sufficient to gain transformative traction. It sure helps, but we likely have to go beyond that. And since this is a goal focused on social change, efficiency of time and resources also comes into play. Noting that, it’s then worth asking who we are best to really talk to for accomplishing bullet-points like those mentioned above and in what way do we engage? Teachers? Politicians? Students? The general public? Industry partners? Do we focus on education? On policy change?

It’s easy to say “all of the above,” but that’s not the way to go about making change happen. A general public fervor and excitement towards science could help the bottom-line here, but we need not be so Sisyphean in the task. So we have to prioritize to effectively make it to the next step. And to do that, we have to think about that exact change we want to make happen.

And while I really am all for raising the bottom-line of science interest and science literacy, just think about all of the targets that might hide in the back of our brains for that intent:

  • Increased funding
  • Public health education
  • Supporting K12 education
  • Conservation
  • Recruiting public collaboration and assistance
  • Receive feedback
  • Advising policy
  • Disseminating to colleagues
  • Sharing because it’s fun
  • Etc, etc, and more…

When realized (or remembered), each of these goals can easily bring up a myriad of tactical questions that might well change our approach and investment: Is it always the public that’s the most efficient target? What about sustainability? Would a law or policy change make this more effective? What if business could get behind this? If the public gets interested, is that enough? How does the public take ownership? Are there overarching politics and culture playing a major role that need be addressed first? Which medium has the farthest reach? What should I prioritize? …And so on.

Given how differently each of such questions might be answered, I think we have to really hone in on the “why” of our work to take it to the next level. And sometimes we have to be willing to admit that we might be running in place a little before we can really move on.

But sometimes too it’s worth admitting that we’re doing it simple because of that last reason I mentioned.

Because sometimes it’s just fun.

And when that’s the case we should celebrate it. In fact, that reason alone might not be talked about enough and might well be what it takes to bring others on board. Joy is infectious after all.

Regardless of your aim, I think it’s sometimes worth a little analytical thought — not because we are compelled too, not because we should — but because if you’re doing it, it’s probably something you care about. And if all else, it’s worth remembering why it if puts the a fire in the heart or the smile on your face.

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