This blog is skipping the queue somewhat in terms of blogs I mean to write, however there are good reasons for that. Just as the General Theory of Relativity is founded on two key principles*, there are two things I must explain before I continue.
- I am the Public Engagement Ambassador (PEA) for the University of Surrey. This is an unpaid role that I do in conjunction with my paid role as a Post Doctoral Research Fellow. The job of a Public Engagement Ambassador is to act as a change agent within a University, promoting the practise of Public Engagement.
- The position of PEA is awarded and coordinated by the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement. It does not necessarily have to apply to science, in fact, many of the PEAs that I have had the pleasure of talking to aren’t involved with science or STEM** at all.
A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to achieve funding from the NCCPE in order to attend the annual ASDC conference. This blog documents my experience at that conference, speaking particularly about what science communicators and PEAs can expect from such conferences, and what benefits there can be to attending.
What’s an ASDC Conference when it’s at home?
When you’re new to science communication, the sheer number of different organisations, gatherings, and movements can be baffling. The worst thing is that every one of them has an acronym, and everyone else seems to already know what they mean. They get thrown around in science communication circles like confetti at a wedding.
An email circulated the science communication mailing list telling of an ASDC conference. Oh dear, another acronym that I know nothing about. So I looked it up. ASDC stands for the Association of Science and Discovery Centres. Ah! I thought, how could I have missed this?
Science and Discovery Centres are probably one of the largest employers of science communicators in the field, and are certainly the highest impacting vehicle for getting science to the masses, reaching over 20 million people every year. They run a conference annually.
Do you have to be from a Science or Discovery Centre in order to go to the conference? No. Is the content of the ADSC conference only relevant to Science and Discovery Centres? No.
Why should a Science Communicator go?
Any budding science communicator should consider attending such conferences in order to broaden their knowledge of the science communication field in general, but specifically this conference in order to learn more about how Science and Discovery Centres operate. What extra things do they have to consider compared to a run-of-the-mill tourist attraction? What extra issues they have to consider compared to an ordinary science outreach endeavour?
Why should a PEA go?
But there were other questions; how would this conference relate to my PEA activities? The answer was Not Directly, but there will always be indirect benefits to attending this sort of thing, provided you have ANY link to science communication. For one, you are guaranteed to be rubbing shoulders with likeminded people, and you can always learn from that if you are willing to open your mouth and ask questions. I was also able to meet other PEAs and have the chance to talk to them about their particular PEA efforts in their institutions. And the actual workers at Science and Discoery Centres – although they now work in institutions where public engagement is the number one priority, many of the staff either currently have, or have previously had the same trouble that I do – persuading academics that engaging the public with their research is a GOOD THING. Therefore, I was able to get some top advice about how to deal with particularly tricky customers ***.
So how did it go down?
The day started very generally, talking about SCIENCE and INSPIRATION and the PUBLIC. We can do that through the TELLY, or ANYTHING, IF THEY WILL LET US.
Then we moved on to the PARTICULAR ROLE OF SCIENCE CENTRES. Mark Walport gave a rousing speech about the reporting and public understanding**** of Climate Change, and although I had a little bit of trouble seeing how that related to the session topic, I’m sure that many of the participants were inspired through his use of a specific example.
Then came the Pecha Kucha, demonstrating some of the awesome, innovative STUFF THAT SCIENCE CENTRES DO. Pecha Whatcha? I hear you say? It’s the future. It’s Powerpoint 2.0. It’s what presentations are supposed to be like. None of the boring wandering from side to side, waffling from slide to slide. Pecha Kucha puts the focus back on the presenter by limiting the amount of material that one can present visually. Provided you can talk fast enough, you can actually get across as much information as you like; the slide in the background is just there to consolidate things. I loved it. In the Pecha Kucha, we heard about some of the fantastic projects that various science centres have developed, what troubles they faced in development, some of the curious outcomes, and what they learned. Fantastic stuff.
Finally, IMPACT. How can we measure our effect? Is it entirely unfeasible to take multiple sets of twins, send one half to ordinary museums for funsies, send the other half to Science and Discovery Centres, then see what they choose to study at university and measure our success that way? Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor, not a social scientist.
So what’s the Buzz in the world of Science and Discovery Centres?
Impact continues to impact on all of us. Although left to the final session, I would say that Impact pervaded the entire day. As the recession continues, budgets for science, and Science and Discovery Centres are hit hard. It is all the more necessary for Science and Discovery Centres to demonstrate their worth, both intellectually and financially, in order to be able to maintain their existence as a business or charity.
And this is the critical difference between a Science or Discovery Centre and any other public engagement practice: striking the balance between doing the greatest good, and keeping themselves afloat.
One of the biggest buzzphrases you will hear is ‘informal learning’; a loaded phrase that carries with it a huge weight of responsibility, as well as being the tool through which they measure their intellectual worth.
I’m sure we could enter into a hefty debate on how much museums and tourist attractions are concerned with making sure that their visitors are actually learning something, but the whole point of Science and Discovery Centres are to inspire and engage with Science. And science is pretty damned important. Not only does the attraction have to be fun, it has to be inspirational, educational, and almost infectious in the enthusiasm it generates for science. And factually correct. And then be able to measure that? Crikey. I admire the people that are able to bring all of those things together, and then bring enough people through the door in order to turn the whole endeavour into something that pays for itself.
What did I learn?
The only thing I regret is not attending the conference dinner. Throughout the day, people kept referring back to events at the dinner the previous night, and I became all too aware (just like Twitter at the Science Communication Conference) that I had missed out on something yet again. One of the things I wanted to learn about at the conference was how public engagement activity is supported by policy at Science and Discovery Centres, and how this might be translated into policy at Universities. This is not an over-coffee topic. This was an over-dinner topic, and I had missed the dinner. Oh Well. I’m sure I can catch up my learning on my next sci-comm encounter.
Oh, and Imran Khan is only 28.
*1. The laws of physics are the same in every frame of reference. 2. The speed of light is the same in every frame of reference. I should tell you to go away and look these up by yourself, but what sort of science communicator would I be then?!
** Oh dear, another acronym. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. The wary amongst you should also look out for STEMM (with added Medicine) and STEAM (with added Art). Soon, we will stop referring to schooling, education, and subjects altogether, calling it all STUFF (Science, Technology, and other Underappreciated Fun Factivities).
**** Public Understanding of Science is a red flag term for people in science communication. It used to be the commonly used term for science communication in general. Nowadays, however, science communication practitioners prefer to think that they are engaging the public with science topics. Ultimately, there is a two way exchange of knowledge between the science communication practitioner and the public. We are not just imparting science knowledge into an empty well, no. The public’s reaction informs our own understanding and practise.
! DEFICIT MODEL KLAXON !
The Deficit Model for science communication is so very taboo, practitioners prefer not to use the phrase ‘public understanding of science’ at all, for fear of sounding behind the times. Personally, I think that Public Understanding of Science still has a place in the sci-comm vocabulary. For example, we could poll 100 people on the street and ask them how much they know about climate change, and their answers would constitute (statistically) the Public Understanding of Science. We could then engage with them to inform them further.