Public Engagement in Science Communication

by Aliyah M. Weinstein

A lot of science communication happens on the internet: on blogs like this, on Twitter, and on institutional websites. I am a part of this community, and happily blog about my life as a scientist and engage in conversations on Twitter about the future of science communication. However, questions that often plague scientists participating in this means of outreach are, how do I know whether I’ve reached my target audience? How do I know what they’ve learned from me? A more direct way of assuring answers to these questions are to meet your target audience face to face.

This past spring, I was selected to be a Science Communication Fellow at Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh, PA. This program was advertised as an opportunity for scientists “to share their work with diverse public audiences.” My interest was piqued, as I realized that as engaged as I’d been in the science communication community over the previous three years, I hadn’t engaged with my own community, the residents of Pittsburgh who are surrounded by multiple research universities, hospitals, and biotechnology companies, but likely have little idea about the innovation taking place inside those walls.

As a Fellow in this program, I received training in developing a strategy for engaging the public in my science, before setting up a table display in the Conservatory on a Saturday afternoon and explaining my research to members of the public who passed by while visiting the museum. Here are three tips I learned that will help scientists at any level become more efficient science communicators:


1)     Draw people in

Public engagement is different from written communication in a number of ways. The most important, I believe, is that there is a much larger role for the initial engagement of individuals. When communicating directly to the public – for example, at a museum or at a community event – you must convince a grandparent, a child and her parents, a group of teenagers, in a very short amount of time, to pay attention to you versus whatever else is going on around them. One effective way to draw someone in is visually, with bright colors and three dimensional displays. This might include stuffed animals (or cells or microbes), posters, or tools from your research (such as a petri dish, pipette, or sample collection tube – empty, of course!) propped up on a table at an event; in a more formal setting, visuals may take the form of a PowerPoint slide or a handout to attendees.


2)     Meet people where they are

Members of the public with whom you engage in conversations about research will each arrive with a different level of scientific knowledge; it’s important to realize that and begin the conversation at their level. My research is in the field of cancer immunology. It’s a mouthful, and I know that most people haven’t heard the word immunology before, or don’t know what it means. But most people (unfortunately) know a friend or family member who has had cancer, so I start there – with something personal, relatable, and interesting. (I’ve learned that most people, as upsetting of a topic as cancer can be, are interested to learn something that might help a loved one.) Another Fellow with whom I worked does research on the effect of water pollution on tadpoles and frogs. Everyone is familiar with frogs, which gives her an upbeat and easy starting point for describing her work.


3)     Explain in detail

While the average member of the public might not be familiar with scientific jargon, this does not mean that they are incapable of understanding scientific concepts. It is therefore important to explain your research in detail, while avoiding the use of technical terms as much as possible. Related to my research, for example, while the term immunotherapy might be outside the average person’s scope of knowledge, the idea of discovering ways to get your body’s own cells to help kill off cancer cells is comprehensible. Remember, the goal of public engagement is not to teach terminology, but to create a better-educated public that understands the concept of scientific research and its importance.


In the end, any member of the public who, no matter how willingly or how briefly, engages with a scientist has learned something: they’ve put a face to the practice of scientific research and realized that it’s members of their own communities who are making discoveries that impact all of our lives. If they remember a detail of the research you explained to them, all the better. But any level of engagement between scientists and the public serves the entire scientific community well, and scientists would do well to practice that.