GUEST POST: New questions for science engagement & communication

Lily Bui  Master's candidate, MIT Comparative Media Studies

Lily Bui
Master's candidate, MIT Comparative Media Studies

The way that we talk about science is changing. In fact, the way that we’re doing science is changing.

The 2014 MIT and Culture Kettle report “The Evolving Culture of Science Engagement,” posits that science is becoming more participatory, more story-driven, more informal, more emotional, more distributed, among many other things. The traditional model wherein science is insulated by institutions and only practiced by “experts” has transformed in recent years into a model that engages communities of non-experts with scientific concepts, stories, questions, and practices.

Having worked in public media and citizen science, I’ve seen these new modes of science engagement expressed first-hand. For instance, at the Public Radio Exchange (PRX), I helped manage the STEM Story Project, an initiative supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation that aimed to generate more public radio science content. The intended audience was one that did not necessarily have a background in science, so the science content had to come across as accessible while still retaining scientific merit and accuracy. By design, the STEM Story Project pieces appealed to informal audiences, using emotion and a sense of mystery and the unknown -- many of the categories listed in the MIT/Culture Kettle report. 

We see  similar currents in many citizen science efforts, which enlist the help of the public (usually non-experts) to collect or analyze data in support of scientific research. In May 2010, Public Lab’s grassroots mapping community collaborated with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade to monitor the BP Oil Spill with a balloon mapping tool, producing crowdsourced data about spill zones that had not been documented by the EPA. These initial efforts resulted in “a new generation of tools which [Public Lab is] now testing at sites across the US and beyond.”

What I’ve mentioned so far reinforces the findings of the MIT/Culture Kettle report, but some critical questions and gaps in the research remain.

  • Is there a need to redefine “science”? Today, when we talk about science we are not just referring to the practice of scientific research in labs; we are also talking about the communication of, and public engagement with, that research. This might be a moment to rethink the meaning of “science” to encompass these new areas, so that we look at “doing science” much more holistically. The implication of that broader view might be that these informal public modes of engaging with science (e.g. listening to a science radio story or participating in data collection) are not on the periphery or outside of the scientific discourse, but rather at the crux of it. If so, how might this new view disrupt extant models of data analysis, verification, and publication? As more non-professionals contribute to scientific research, questions of credibility and credit are already beginning to challenge how scientific knowledge is constructed.
  • How do we assess the impact of these new forms of engagement, and with what metrics? In order to be able to assess how well something is being done, we must first understand -- if only in the abstract -- what the goals might be. There may be a need to reexamine how science engagement projects are evaluated. Do we care more about the number of impressions on a web page, the number of views for a YouTube science video, or how often something is shared, how often it is talked about, and what is said about it? Further questions to consider: To what end do we intend to push the evolution of science engagement? Is it simply to extend scientific discourse to more audiences? Is it to affect policy? Is it to involve more and different kinds of people in helping solve world problems?
  • Diversity. With the rhetoric of inclusiveness and collaboration dominating much of contemporary science communication, a thoughtful evaluation of whether our good intentions actually affect diversity -- in a multitude of valences including gender, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic background, and interdisciplinarity -- is also necessary. While the gross number of people in scientific professions is rising, statistical breakdowns (see UNESCO,  Royal Society, and NSF reports) reveal that the science & engineering sector is still mostly male, mostly white, mostly correlated with a higher socioeconomic background.
  • Pedagogical models. How do increased public science engagement and wider availability of informal scientific knowledge affect pedagogical models and “knowledge transfer” (see Dneprovskaya, et al.; Murray)? Does scientific knowledge become “stickier” with these new modes of communication and in participatory or distributed learning models? Or, perhaps more provocatively, to what extent is knowledge transfer an end-goal at all? It may be that the aim of some newer science engagement initiatives (for example, a science storytelling series like StoryCollider) is to appeal to emotion, highlighting the lived experience of scientists and those touched by science.
  • Celebrity. This stems from my own curiosity more than anything, but what does celebrity have to do with science engagement today (see Inglis)? This line of inquiry may require digging into rhetorical and genre analysis to answer the question: How does the science messenger affect the credibility, effectiveness, and affectiveness of a message? Why is it different when Bill Nye communicates something on television than when the same thing is said by a science educator in a classroom?

Informal settings and methods for engaging with science render the membrane between the sciences and the public much more porous. Now that so many initiatives exist to bring the discourse of science to the public, we’re also discovering how science can become part of the public discourse. Now is a good time to pause and ask these questions, so we can  better understand what implications these cultural shifts may hold for the future of science writ large.

Further reading:

  • Dneprovskaya, N.V. et al. "Study Of Social Media Implementation For Transfer Of Knowledge Within Educational Milieu." Scientific Bulletin Of National Mining University 4 (2014): 146-151. Applied Science & Technology Source. Web. 22 Nov. 2014.
  • Guterl, Fred. “Diversity in Science: Where Are the Data?” Scientific American. Blog. September 16, 2014.
  • Murray, Samantha R., and Joseph Peyrefitte. "Knowledge Type And Communication Media Choice In The Knowledge Transfer Process." Journal Of Managerial Issues 19.1 (2007): 111-133.
Images: Shutterstock, via PRX.

Lily Bui

Lily Bui is ​a researcher and M.S. candidate for MIT's Comparative Media Studies program. In parallel, she works as a STEM Story Project Associate at the Public Radio Exchange (PRX); the Executive Editor at SciStarter, PLOS CitizenSci, and Discover Magazine's Citizen Science Salon. ​In past lives, she ​helped produce the radio show Re:sound for the Third Coast International Audio Festival out of WBEZ Chicago​;​ worked on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.; served in AmeriCorps in Montgomery County, Maryland; worked for a New York Times bestselling ghostwriter; and performed as a touring musician.​ Like all graduate students, she is interested in everything. Tweets @dangerbui.