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Engaging the public with science – what are people interested in, and how should scientists use this information?

Engaging the public with science – what are people interested in, and how should scientists use this information?

By Suzi Gage, a final year Epidemiology PhD student from the University of Bristol, looking at the relationship between drug use and mental health. She was the 2012 UK science blog prize winner and her blog, Sifting the Evidence, is part of the Guardian's science blog network. She has also just completed a Media Fellowship with the BBC. This post is part of a series of posts for the Public Attitudes to Science 2014 study.


A friend of mine, trying to get a rise out of me, once told me that he’d rather see me writing in the Daily Mail than for the Guardian, where my science blog is hosted. Though he was perhaps being facetious*, the underlying point is important. When we as scientists want to communicate the work we are doing to the public, who are our intended audience? And how do we reach them?

The British Science Association and Ipsos MORI are currently running the Public Attitudes to Science 2014 study, which will be published next year during National Science & Engineering Week. As part of it, they conducted qualitative research, speaking to a small sample people online about where they got their science information from, and what science they were interested in.

The results suggested that overall, people found it easiest to engage with science that related to human beings. When Ipsos asked, “what science do you come into contact with on TV?” the words participants mentioned most were things like “bones”, “DNA” and “forensics”. The Wellcome Trust Monitor (a similar study) report also showed that people seek out information about biomedical science when they are ill, or when they have another pressing personal reason to find out.

Aside from specifically human-relevant stories, popular science shows included Coast, as well as programmes looking at space exploration and understanding the Solar System and the Universe (the words “Brian” and “Cox” were also fairly high on the list).

This study – which was qualitative and therefore not intended to be representative - is pretty interesting, but it also raises as many questions as it answers. How should we use these findings? Of course a story is really important to engage an audience. But if we capitalise on things that we know people are interested in, are we compromising the reporting of science? A lot of science is relevant to people’s experiences, but if we try and shoehorn human interest into every story, could this be damaging?

As a psychologist turned epidemiologist, I find it heartening (and not really surprising) that people are interested in hearing about topics related to human bodies and behaviours. But I’ve seen some brilliant science communication about the more ‘hard’ sciences – fantastic chemistry demonstrations by Andrea Sella or Suze Kundu, for example.

I worked for six weeks this summer with the BBC, on a British Science Association Media Fellowship. A lot of the stories I wrote were quite “human interest”, or about cute animals like sea otters or penguins, but a particularly popular one I wrote was about ball lightning. Yes it had a beautiful video, but it was a fascinating story nonetheless, and much more distally related to humans.

But it’s hard to know causation here. Maybe programmes about health, or about the Universe, are made more often because that’s what people like. But perhaps people are interested in human-related stories or space exploration because this is what is presented to them most frequently. Maybe the broader the range of science on TV and radio, the broader people’s scientific interests would be too? Programmes like Radio 4’s Inside Science try and cover all sorts of science stories – this is a great way to increase the public’s appetite for the slightly less human-centric stories, as well as the more human-centric ones, which are unlikely to stop being fascinating any time soon.

*In all seriousness though, I would love to write for the Daily Mail, and would jump at the chance to!

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