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.
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.