Informal outreach. Public engagement. Science communication. These are buzzworthy phrases in the world of science today. So it should come as no surprise that the annual AAAS meeting, held February 12-16 in San Jose, CA, would have an entire track dedicated to topics in these areas. The plethora of diverse sessions shed light on what is currently being done in these areas, and what remains to be addressed going forward.
Several of the sessions looked at science communication programs, requirements and implementations on a formal level. A particularly revealing set of presentations focused on the Broader Impacts section of applications to the National Science Foundation. AAAS Fellow Jen Cohen showed that only ~20% of applicants and 30% of reviewers for NSF proposals rated themselves as having a “high” or “very high” understanding of the criteria for Broader Impacts. She emphasized that this finding points to a need for input, training and prescriptive guidelines about Broader Impacts from the scientific community, something that the NSF has continually declined to provide. At the same session, AAAS Fellow Justin Lawrence discussed efforts to develop a Writing Guide for Broader Impacts, based on research he and his team had done looking at the prevalence of specific Broader Impacts -related terms in proposals submitted to the NSF Geosciences Directorate between 2007 and 2012. Needless to say, this guide is highly anticipated by the scientific community.
Scientists like data, so it was appropriate that presentations featuring quantitative survey results were extremely well-attended. Both University of Texas researcher Anthony Dudo and Lee Rainie from the Pew Research Center presented data from surveys of professional scientific society members. Their independent results showed that a majority of respondents were involved in public engagement through a variety of formats, with nearly 50% engaging via social media. Dominique Brossard from the University of Wisconsin, Madison talked about research showing that use of, and engagement via, social media correlated with increased citations in publications. Combined, the presenters’ data show that scientists know that they should engage, and that collectively the community is becoming more willing and adept at doing so. However, all presenters emphasized that there was a wide range of success and efficacy in terms of engagement efforts, and encouraged more strategic approaches to improve both quantity and quality.
Several sessions highlighted different approaches to science communication trainings that aim to address the issues of engagement strategy and efficacy. Jeanne Braha from AAAS and Brooke Smith from COMPASS presented overview of the programs run by their organizations, with both emphasizing common themes such as setting defined goals, framing research within context, and introducing methods for overcoming barriers to participation. Building on these talks was a comprehensive session in which participants analyzed different approaches and strategies for funding for science communication. The depressingly familiar laments of not enough being spent by federal agencies were partially offset by more upbeat presentations by Wellcome Trust Director of Strategy Clare Matterson and (soon-to-be retired) Kai Lee from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, who detailed how their organizations explicitly required that their grantees engage in public communication of research. The session inspired much debate about how current efforts and thinking can be channeled to form a unified approach that moves the community from discussion to action.
Not all of the meeting discussions were entirely formal. Adding a unique twist to the proceedings was a session titled “Comics, Zombies and Hip Hop: Leveraging Pop Culture for Science Engagement.” The brainchild of Bay Area Science Festival Director Kishore Hari, the packed event featured live science rapping by Tom McFadden, a high school science teacher from Northern California, a science-themed comic book showcase from Judy Diamond from the University of Nebraska State Museum, and a demonstration of a zombie-themed game from Julius Diaz Panoriñgan from 826LA that teaches kids about disease spread and infectivity. The presenters (and their presentations) gave the audience an interactive look at how pop culture can be used to bring science to audiences, rather than the other way around, surely inspiring a bevy of wild new engagement activities (or at the very least a new approach to organizing conference sessions).
Where will the field go next? Several meetings taking place in the next few months, including the International Public Science Events Conference, the Broader Impacts Summit and a formal convening organized by the Center for the Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE), will explore different aspects of public engagement. ASBMB will feature its own set of outreach and communication activities at the Experimental Biology meeting March 28-April 1 in Boston. Check out a listing of our events, or even better, join us!