Back in November the Huxley Summit was held in London by the British Science Association. It brought together various people in and outside of science, and the theme was the challenges and opportunities of the Fourth Revolution. The topics of single use plastics, artificial intelligence (AI) and genetic editing were used as a way to explore public opinion and perception, which is central to whether these novel technologies can be adopted. Katherine Mathieson (chief executive of the British Science Association) explores this issue in her review of the Huxley Summit 2018. But scientific engagement strongly affects public opinion. It is therefore worth going back and reviewing key talks of the British Science Festival that represent essential components of good science engagement. I had the pleasure of attending the festival in Hull for the first time back in September, and I did so with our branch’s tardigrade mascot Blu, who had his/her own adventures at the festival!
DIVERSIFY YOUR AUDIENCE
(Inspiring women into science, Anne-Marie Imafidon, 11 Sept. 2018)
Diversifying the audience that you are trying to inspire is essential if you want to unleash new talent, skills and perspective. Unless you have been living under a rock you will probably already know about the problems that girls and women face in science. While it isn’t just women that we need to encourage and support in science, Anne-Marie’s talk represents the need to diversify your audience. Recognising this need, Anne-Marie co-founded STEMettes, a social enterprise to inspire and support girls into STEM. Her festival talk was a combination of her backstory, identifying the problem, and then talking about STEMettes. She largely focused on inspiring girls into engineering, so we saw a few videos of what some girls had already achieved. For example, by using an algorithm you can programme your own lights to go from study mode to disco mode! Ultimately STEMettes is about changing perception and increasing awareness of girls in science, and boosting their confidence to do it. Diversity is essential both within science and its communication, especially since the latter can influence the former, and with it we get new talent delivering the communication that will shape public opinion.
INSPIRE PEOPLE TOWARDS SCIENCE
(What shapes your relationship to science? Professor Louise Archer, 12 Sept. 2018)
Good science communication through any medium will inspire people to continue to seek it out. For example, if it is taught in schools in a way that creates inspiration, it can increase children’s aspirations in science.
In this talk, Prof. Louise Archer described the ASPIRES project she directed that looked into why children either want to go into science or don’t. The idea that some people might not see themselves as a science person means they often don’t go on to become a scientist. It was this principle in their decade-long study of children aged between 10-19 years old that they wanted to address. They identified the factors that affected children’s aspirations and coalesced them together into the concept of science capital. Science capital is basically what shapes your relationship to science. It is about what you know, who you know, how you think and what you do; all of which is affected by your social, cultural and habitus spheres. The best part of this talk was when we got to calculate our own science capital through a series of questions (such as whether we and our parents had science degrees, and hold a science job etc.). We added or subtracted points for questions, and after getting ten points you then had to stand up. After another point milestone you then had to wave your arms around. If I remember correctly, we also had to do a little dance after another milestone! This was a fun and interesting demonstration showing that most of the audience clearly had a high science capital, which would be obvious for a science festival audience! For everyone present it was clear that they had been inspired to aim high, and as a result they have returned to science. This is something that science communicators can capitalise on: Presenting topics in a particular way that grabs people’s attention so that they will want to return.
WIN HEARTS, NOT JUST MINDS
(Finding truth: is science enough? Panel chaired by Andy Extance, 14 Sept. 2018)
Science communication is not just about facts to win people over (just think about the debate on GMO’s that has raged for decades). When it comes to controversial topics, it is quite likely that people will have an emotional investment in particular results. Thus, the question is how can we expect to win people over with facts when they have already made up their minds based on this emotional investment? We can’t, and this talk on finding truth reflects this.
The panel for this debate consisted of Dr Jane Gregory, Dr Jack Stilgoe, Dr Erinna Ochu and was chaired by Andy Extance. As it turns out, the answer to the question of whether science is enough is a lot more complicated than people think. Most of the points made here converged on this due to various factors. For instance, Jane Gregory highlighted that there are different types of knowledge; that some cultures have different priorities on knowledge (e.g. religious). This point was taking a bit further by Erinna Ochu when she said we need to consider emotional truths (aka the emotional investment) even if it doesn’t match up with the facts. (It was at this point when a lady who didn’t believe in climate change walked out of the talk!) As Jack Stilgoe explained, we need to be aware that the media is trying to sell us a particular message, but we need to identify if it is valuable for us and also their motivations behind it. The one point that came through loud and clear is that as scientists we need to respect what people know, how they know it and therefore show more understanding. It is obvious that facts are not enough. We need to work around these other issues. Through this we can win people’s hearts, and then after that use the facts to win their minds.
UNDERSTAND THE PAST TO ADAPT
(Changing the face of science engagement Professor John Durant, 14 Sept. 2018)
Science communication has come along way. There are new mediums, obstacles and challenges, and we need to understand these to make decisions about how we communicate today.
John Durant provided a whirlwind tour of the history of science communication starting with the 1980’s. Back then, science communication was one-sided; talking to the audience but not really listening to them, which can come across as patronising. This is not to say that science communication back then was bad. As he described, there were some good things, such as more science books and fellowships. These days science communication has evolved into a two-way dialogue model taking science communication into science engagement. He noted that there are two opposing trends. One is mainstreaming science engagement; the live science, science cafes and events. The other is the inclusivity problem where particular minority groups are excluded. But some cultures had successfully integrated science into them as he explained: At a Native American convention in Montana for instance, there was a science learning tent where they had asked scientists to get involved.
By exploring this past, John gave some science communication recommendations: We need to diversify our engagement into other groups, we need to make our science communication more targeted and private by creating a cultural connection. What is interesting here is that he makes points not too dissimilar to mine: diversifying and creating a cultural connection (which one could argue is part of an emotional connection).
BRINGING IT ALTOGETHER
(The Huxley Debate: what do we do about ocean plastics? Panel hosted by Lord David Willetts, 13 Sept. 2018 and Presidential Address: The AI Revolution- hopes, fears and opportunities Professor Jim Al-Khalili, 13 Sept. 2018)
These two talks represent two different ends of the science communication spectrum when considering the above topics. On one side, we have science communication of single use plastics ticking off the majority of my aforementioned points. On the other side we have AI, which as Katherine Mathieson reports has two polarised viewpoints.
The topic of ocean plastics has had some very good science engagement behind it boosting the field, and the talk itself reflects this.
Firstly, the panel itself had a good gender and professional diversity to it capitalising on various skills and talent. The chair was the politician Lord David Willetts. Andy Clarke represented the business sector as the former CEO of Asda. The non-profit sector was represented by Annemarie Nederhoed of the Plastic Soup Foundation. Katy Duke CEO of The Deep came from the interface between science and engagement, and finally Professor Daniel Parsons was the academic. However, science communication has also capitalised on diversity too. It was not just David Attenborough who has spoken about single use plastics. Liz Bonnin has also talked about it on her BBC programme Drowning in Plastic, and the field itself has seen a boom in being communicated to the public.
Secondly, it is these TV shows and the likes of it that have inspired people to ensure that people return to pursue this interest. Katy Duke expressed this herself: “there hasn’t been another environmental crisis that hasn’t gotten this much people engaged”. It has appealed to everyone and moreover, it has won hearts and minds as an important global issue. What is also worth considering (and also what I think draws people back to this topic) is that people can get proactive immediately. They can make informed decisions. Such as whether they should choose tin over plastic foil considering that tin has a carbon footprint seven times higher than that of plastic as Daniel Parsons explained. Annemarie Nederhoed mentioned microfibres and its effects on marine pollution but also how we can mitigate it.
Thirdly, by adapting how we communicate this science we can change it into a dialogue, and this actually happened at the Q&A afterwards. One man spoke passionately about there having been enough feasibility studies and that we should just get on with solutions. But Andy Clarke responded that actually we need to consider the whole model; the consequences of taking action without knowing enough. The perfect example to this is the tin versus plastic choice. A few other panel members highlighted that we do need more research to fill in knowledge gaps, such as the pathway of plastics. Overall the topic of single use plastics has done very well in science communication contributing to public (and global) opinion.
Jim Al Khalili’s talk was the presidential address which was to a packed room. His AI talk was well structured as he outlined its importance, how it is defined, recent breakthroughs (such as Deep Mind) and even fears. As he explained AI is already here and doing a lot of good (e.g. healthcare), and therefore it is vital that the public understand what is happening. According to him, the field is moving so fast that no wonder the public is concerned, but he then went on to address these concerns.
This is clearly a polarised discipline and Katherine Mathieson in her Huxley review recognised this: “In the current political climate, we must acknowledge the two polarised viewpoints that surround AI and gene-editing.” When it comes to inspiring people towards this science, many already see the benefits, but it would appear that people are also drawn to it out of fear (as opposed to a need to protect our planet that single use plastics evokes within us). Understanding the past to adapt, and winning hearts and not just minds seems to be exactly the purpose of the Huxley Debate. All those different factors (emotions, allaying fears, working around ethics and politics, and learning from the past) appear to be well-embedded in her comments: “The things driving the narrative are complicated and full of nuance”; “So, what can we do in our current positions? Having these conversations now is vital…”; “By using the tools of successful campaigns from the past and present, we can help propel the world towards a positive future.” Despite the science communication that AI has had recently, it is clear that the field has yet to have the same boost in science communication and engagement that single use plastics has had over the years.
By reviewing some of the British Science Festival talks we are reminded of the essential elements that can change the public’s perception of particular science issues: Diversity capitalises on talent which increases the number of scientists who then go on to do good communication by learning from the past. Through this they inspire the public to return to them, but also establish a rapport of respect with them. In short, by bringing all these issues together effectively we can take science communication and use it for beneficial public understanding. This in turn will affect public opinion on technology, and ultimately acceptance of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
About the Author
Danae Dodge finished her PhD at the University of Sheffield many years ago. Currently, she is re-directing herself into science communication. She volunteers for many science charities (which apart from the British Science Association Sheffield branch) includes Sense about Science, the Yorkshire regional branch of the Royal Society of Biology and The Scientista Foundation, USA. You can follow her on LinkedIn and on Twitter: @DanaeDodge