Guest post by Shaun O’Boyle
You know those words that have lost all meaning to the point where they have become completely administrative… like ‘innovation’? ‘Public Engagement’ is one of those for me. Okay, so it’s two words but still, it all sounds a bit civic duty. I mean it shouldn’t be too hard to get the ‘public’ – actually, let’s say ‘people’ – engaged with science; science is innately engaging.
I’ve spent the last two years trying to figure out what gets non-scientists engaged with science.
There are different levels of science-engagement. For some people it might be a simple “huh… that’s interesting” when they hear something new about the universe, before they return to thinking about baseball or pondering the future of denim. For others, it might be something that’s so engaging and inspiring that it compels them to actually become a scientist. For me it was the latter.
Two years ago I was a lab-coat-wearing scientist… albeit briefly. A caffeine-fuelled PhD followed by a caffeine-dependent postdoc gave me an invaluable sense of what it meant to ‘do’ science. I’ve been trying to figure out what, other than an inbuilt tendency to be factual and logical even at the expense of movie enjoyment, got me into science.
I was born one year after Carl Sagan’s truly brilliant Cosmos and twenty-nine years before Brian Cox’s equally brilliant Wonders of the Solar System. The result was me not seeing either of them until I was twenty-nine. Instead, I spent my formative years watching the plot-driven science fiction movies and television shows of the 90s. I almost didn’t realise that it was there (the science), but I knew that something was grounding the stories of interstellar battles, Martian sand-hoppers, and alternate realities only accessible through a static-filled television screen.
For me, entertainment is the most effective form of engagement. That doesn’t mean it has to be fun, colourful, exploding science, or that science can’t be serious (it often needs to be). It just means that science is best communicated when it’s carried by a message that captures people’s imaginations; and sometimes that requires some creative thought.
Sometimes engagement is subtle. Sometimes the science is hidden in a larger project with other concerns – like a movie – but that doesn’t dilute the power of the engagement… even if it does mean you have to concentrate less (I shall regret that pun). For example, I really love that when J.J. Abrams rebooted Star Trek, he enlisted the advice of Carolyn Porco, head of the Cassini imaging team, to ensure that when the USS Enterprise drops out of warp in Titan’s atmosphere, it looked as real as possible. I love that when Chris Carter wrote an ancient alien virus into The X-Files, he had virologist Anne Simon make sure it stayed within the realm of possibility whenever possible. I also love that when Danny Boyle sent a crew of scientists to save a dying sun, he worked with Brian Cox to keep him from breaking more than the permitted one law of physics for the film Sunshine. Here were three scientists working on ‘public engagement’ projects that must have been pretty awesome to work on.
I think if we really want to engage the non-scientist majority with what we do, then we need to do it in a way that also engages us. It should never feel like a chore. My favourite television documentaries are those where I can tell the presenter really wants me to get something because they are so excited about it themselves. They haven’t sat down and thought, “what’s the next module the audience need to take in their informal science education?”, they got together with an energised, creative team and said “what’s the clearest, freshest, best-looking way we can tell people about this thing?”. It’s the same when I read a really great newspaper article on shiny new research fresh out of the lab – I like reading about it when I know the journalist really enjoyed getting their head around it and figuring out why this research is worth writing about.
I think the future of ‘public engagement’ – and its inevitable success – lies in making it enjoyable for the people doing the engaging. If I was a filmmaker, I would be making the kind of movie I really needed to make; the kind I really enjoyed making… The kind I really wanted to see. If I was to fall into the trap of making what I think other people want to see, then I don’t think I would make particularly good movies. That’s because sometimes people don’t know what they want to see. Sometimes they want to be surprised. And when you see a movie that surprises you, it can be inspiring and profound. There’s no reason the public face of science should be any different.
Shaun (@shaunoboyle) produces Futureproof on Newstalk and works in communications at Science Gallery. He also does science things for television and theatre, and hopes to one day realise his dream of refusing an invitation to appear on Loose Women.
Top image: Carl Sagan poses with a model of the Viking lander in California. Source: NASA
Other posts in this series:
- Science +1: Glimpsing at the frontier of science
- The next chapter of apoptosis research
- The search for life in the universe (by Markus Hammonds)
- Small science with a big impact (by Dr. Éilis McGrath)
- Things are going to change around here! (by Humphrey Jones)
- The future of the Internet is wired into the human brain (by Prof. Billy O’Connor)