Author: Layal Liverpool Edited by: Isabel Wassing
What is public engagement?
Public engagement aims to improve the understanding of specialist fields of expertise by the wider, non-specialist population. This can be achieved through different forms of interactions, from more passive activities such as listening to experts directly, to more hands-on activities such as interactive demonstrations.
The media has always been an essential tool for public engagement with science. Experts commonly appear on TV or radio to discuss recent scientific discoveries, and scientists are sometimes involved in the development and delivery of celebrated science documetaries, such as BBC Horizon here in the UK.
The internet and social media have undoubtedly made this kind of science communication easier for scientists, by allowing them to play the part of journalists who can curate and publish their own science-themed blogs or run science-themed YouTube channels. One benefit of this has been an increased accessibility of science to non-experts. However, it also comes with the inescapable caveat that not all scientists are good journalists and that anyone can write a blog, whether they are an expert on the subject or not.
History of public engagement with science
Public engagement is not new. Even centuries ago, scientists were communicating their work by bringing scientific demonstrations to the general public. An example of this happened in continental Europe during the 1500s, where public dissections were performed by pioneering anatomists. Albeit gruesome, these demonstrations were certainly informative.
A less controversial example is the Royal Institution's Christmas Lectures, established during the Victorian era in the UK by Michael Faraday - the British chemist whose discoveries changed electricity from a curiosity into an invaluable technology. The Christmas Lectures provided a means for scientists like Faraday to inform the public through lectures and demonstrations which contributed to the popularisation of science. Nowadays, the media and the internet have hugely expanded the audience that can be reached by these kinds of engagement efforts.
Why scientists have a moral imperative to engage with the public
Public engagement is important for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most obvious argument is that the public have the right to be informed, at a level they understand, about the research that their taxes have been funding. A second important reason is that the discoveries made through scientific research have the potential to impact everyone in society. This is particularly true for research involving patients, who will be directly impacted by the outcomes.
Science in society
Medical research with far-reaching effects can also sometimes have polarized reception in society, especially if the new science has the potential to break conventionality. An example of this type of research is genetic manipulation and gene editing. The question is who should decide how these techniques are used? Does society have an input and is this input properly informed?
A success story in this field involves mitochondrial replacement therapy (MRT), which was recently legalized in the UK. This in-vitro fertalization (IVF) technique uses genetic material from three people to prevent inherited diseases.
Another example is the advent of a highly targeted gene editing technology called CRISPR/Cas9, which has the potential to revolutionise the treatment of a wide range of human diseases. Jennifer Doudna - who along with Emmanuelle Charpentier first proposed that CRISPR/Cas9 could be used for programmable gene editing - has been very vocal about her view that society, not scientists alone, should decide precisely how this gene editing power is harnessed. For this to happen, scientists will need to actively engage with the wider public on these kinds of topics.
A recent report about heritable genome editing published by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics emphasised the importance of public debate before any laws are changed and new technologies are implemented.
Doudna told the Los Angeles Times that she believes "there's a disconnect between the scientific community and mainstream culture, a real degradation in trust by the public." She went on to say that "Many scientists […] find it much more fun to do the next experiment in the lab than to take the time to explain to non-specialists."
Improving public faith in science
This is not trivial, as loss of faith in science can lead to serious problems. An obvious example is the outbreak of preventable diseases in developed countries due to reduced vaccine uptake. Recent measles outbreaks in the USA and Europe can be linked to a fall in vaccine uptake in the early 2000's after the widely discredited physician and scientist Andrew Wakefield published a study in 1998 linking the MMR vaccine with autism in children.
It should be noted that the internet and media, which are the very same tools that have revolutionised the communication of science, have also been fundamental in spreading the pseudo-scientific ideas behind the anti-vaccine crusade. The anti-vaccine propaganda film “Vaxxed”, directed by Wakefield himself, is one example of this. “Vaxxed” was withdrawn from the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016 but is still readily accessible online. This arguably makes it even more crucial for real scientific experts to have a solid internet presence, not only to communicate accurate, peer-reviewed science, but also to debunk falsehoods that lack any scientific evidence and to restore public faith in experts.
In 2017, the perceived loss of faith in experts led scientists around the world to take to the streets in a "March for Science”, coinciding with Earth Day. Organisers told the BBC that "the aim of the March for Science was to bring scientists and their research closer to the general public". They added that "it can be challenging for scientists to communicate with the public" and were in fact actively encouraging scientists themselves to become politicians, "so their voices can be effectively heard".
It is worth noting that relatively few MPs in the House of Commons have a science degree. In 2017, the charity and innovation foundation NESTA reported that only 9% of general election candidates had an academic background in science, technology engineering & mathematics (STEM) fields. This is a low representation of the 41% of graduates reported to have completed a STEM degree in 2016 by the UK's higher education statistics agency.
If we apply our initial definition of public engagement as the interaction of specialists with non-specialists to communicate their expertise, then the majority of politicians are non-specialists when it comes to science. Public engagement is therefore essential for informed science policy.
The future of public engagement by scientists
The importance of public engagement by scientists is being increasingly recognised and promoted by the governmental and non-governmental bodies that fund scientific research. Most scientific research grants now include a section where scientists can outline their plans for engaging the public with their research.
I would argue that the stereotypical scientist who, as Doudna alluded to, prefers to hide away from the public in a dark lab, is becoming less and less common. The increasing financial support from funding bodies for large-scale public engagement projects combined with the accessibility of the internet and the media as expository tools will hopefully ensure that involvement in science communication activities continue to be an essential aspect of the scientist experience.
Giving the public the tools to trust scientists - https://www.nature.com/news/give-the-public-the-tools-to-trust-scientists-1.21307
Public engagement Wellcome Trust - https://wellcome.ac.uk/what-we-do/topics/public-engagement
Public engagement MRC - https://mrc.ukri.org/research/public-engagement/public-engagement-funding/