Priorities in SciComm – Taking science out of the “cultural ghetto”

A message from last week’s Science Communication Conference at the University of Surrey particularly resonated with me. Imran Khan, one year into his tenure as the CEO of the British Science Association, laid out what he sees as priorities for his organization in the coming year. During his remarks, Khan said that when you look at individuals who are passionate about art or music, they are often highly engaged in the intellectual debate in those fields without formal training. For example, there are those whose appreciation of a band leads them buy every album, go to every show; they become experts in signature chord progressions and drum fills. They are seen as knowledgeable without being professionals. And this is where science struggles. Khan went on to describe how we (scientists, science communicators, academia, museums, funding bodies, NPOs) are happy to engage with the public on our terms. “Here, come to this science festival!” we say. Or, “let me tell you about my research in the pub!” Beyond recruiting individuals to serve as citizen scientists on projects like Galaxy Zoo and Worm Watch Lab, we need to build people’s personal investment around science. It’s not just for those of us who studied it at Uni or have PhDs. According to Khan, it is critical that we work to take science out of its “cultural ghetto” and elevate the role that members of society play, regardless of whether they are trained as scientists.

View of Parliament from the London Eye.

Photo credit: Alexis Webb

What are the current barriers for reaching this goal? How can the above “we” help to make it acceptable for anyone to see themselves as passionate and informed about science as their favorite band? As a former teacher, I find that the ownership of science by its professionals can often prevent it from garnering mass appeal. Because they lack expertise, many students do not feel that science speaks for them. Science becomes facts to memorize, replacing the science built on curiosity and the freedom of exploring the world around them. This perception becomes a barrier for students to become active participants in the dialogue. They believe that they don’t know enough, aren’t smart enough, to talk about science. And this belief likely continues as they enter adulthood. Science is something to be explained by those who know, the Brian Cox’s and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s of the world. I think those of us who communicate science to the public should look for opportunities to build a culture of science for everyone. It isn’t just about the experts talking to each other.

As a first step, I think we need to open up the conversation. If we preach that science is vital because it touches daily life, then we must bring the public to the table and value their input. We need society to care about and connect with science in personal ways. But this means we must help people find the level of comfort to engage. Individuals should be able to do science, talk about science in the same ways that they chose to discuss music. In the salons of the Enlightenment period, members of the intellectual elite had such discussions about all subjects including science. We need to look to expand such models now in an effort to connect science across all levels of society. Those of us in scicomm must take science down off its pedestal, dust it off, and show how it is exciting and reachable for everyone.

Not to lecture from her soapbox, but Alexis Webb thinks that the way forward is far beyond getting more students to do science and maths for A-levels. We must provide them with opportunities to love how science is all around them and will shape their future world. Less testing, more wonder.


Hi Alexis — Apologies but something about this blogpost has been niggling me since I first read it but I couldn’t quite put my finger on the precise nature of my difficulty. But it’s coming to me slowly.

Firstly I didn’t hear Imran’s talk so need to be careful about what I say. But the idea of generating fans of science, in the same way that musicians inspire fandom seems to me a somewhat inappropriate analogy. For sure, music fans may become ‘knowledgeable’ and some may even be inspired to take up music themselves but my guess is that most don’t and no-one perceives that as a problem. So why should a similar outcome be regarded as problematic for science or science communication? It is important to bear in mind the huge heterogeneity of the audience, in terms of age, learning and levels of interest.

Nor would I be quite so ready to dismiss festivals or pub-science activities as scientists engaging ‘on their own terms’. Few scientists would see such events that way since these activities very much take them out of the laboratory and put them in front of audiences that are unfamiliar. In my own limited experience this can be a great education for the scientists, as well as a enjoyable experience for the audience (especially if they are allowed to contribute to the discourse by asking questions — which is obviously key).

As regards ‘ownership of science by its professionals’, I suspect that is mostly to do with the fact that the training involved in becoming a professional scientist is pretty long, as it is in many fields. Do people complain about the ownership of medicine by doctors, or of the legal world by lawyers? In any case, the examples of citizen science that you mention in the post and which are being powerfully enabled by new technology, are helping to provide an entry point for enthusiastic amateurs. From what I’ve heard of Galaxy Zoo from Chris Lintott, they have been learning valuable lessons about how much some people are willing to engage with the science behind galaxy identification and been introducing more advanced tools and activities to cater to these procedures. All very positive. It’s a format that may not easily be applied to all fields (easiest to implement for the analysis of digitised data, I imagine) but no doubt the Galaxy Zoo example will propagate to other disciplines. Indeed it already is (e.g. the OPAL project). I know we can always do better but hasn’t the conversation already begun?

– Reply:

Hi Stephen – First, thanks so much for taking the time to read and respond to my post. I agree with much of what you say here, so should probably also clarify my thoughts a bit.

I wasn’t writing to critique what’s already being done; or say that we haven’t begun to make these strides. I agree that participating in science festivals is a great step for scientists who care about public understanding of their work. That’s why I too engage in such events. And citizen science is powerful and positive. I think it is the way forward.

My connection to what Imran said really stems from the idea of building a science culture where the public finds science approachable even if they aren’t formally trained. That’s where I struggle with current attitudes. Maybe it’s my bias, but when I currently hear the words “fandom” or “amateur” applied to the public engaging with science, it often carries a negative, condescending tone. It comes across in a different way than when it’s applied to music. I think this was Imran’s point. If someone who enjoys tinkering around at home or attending events at museums wants to call themselves an amateur scientist, that’s fine. But I don’t know why we have to make this distinction simply because we are the ones with the degrees. Would a self-taught guitar player who gigs around the world call himself an amateur simply because he didn’t study at Juilliard?

My hope is, as I wrote, is that we work harder bring the public to the table on their terms. That they have as many opportunities to acquire and bask in the culture of science in ways that suit their needs. And that doing and discussing science is just as accessible and free from preconceived judgments as going to a concert.

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