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How is the data from the PAS studies relevant to those working in science communication?

How is the data from the PAS studies relevant to those working in science communication?

by Alice Taylor-Gee, Science in Society Manager at the British Science Association


As the new Public Attitudes to Science survey is underway, I was interested to find out exactly how, or if, science communicators use the data from the previous PAS studies in their work, whether it impacts on the projects they run or helps them target certain audiences. I posted this question to the 2,500 or so science communicators who subscribe to the psci-com discussion list and was really interested to read how varied the uses of the data are.

Frank Burnet, Emeritus Professor of Science Communication at the University of West of England says he “often uses PAS data during training sessions for scientists, both in the UK and elsewhere.” This is also how Wendy Sadler of science made simple uses the data: “We use the results of the survey extensively in all our training courses - we always run through the headline results to show that the public are in fact quite positive about science (surprises most practicing scientists!) and which specific areas of science they have the most interest in (so we can encourage them to link to things that will engage the public if their research itself is not so engaging!).”

“Depending on the length/depth of the course we have also delved into the audience segmentation stuff to illustrate how to understand your audience better,” said Wendy Sadler.

Dan Richards, Communications Manager at NC3Rs uses it quite differently, “I’ve used it to inform our communication strategy and think about who our audience is when doing competitor analysis, to make sure we hit a niche.”

Andy Lloyd, Special Projects Manager at the Centre for Life, is currently using the PAS findings as part of a strategic review. “I try to maintain an overview of the relevant research (public engagement, informal learning etc) that collectively forms the evidence base for everything we do at the Centre for Life.  PAS is very much a key part of that, with the added benefit that it is regularly repeated so we can look for changes over time.  We’re currently going through a strategic review process with our Board of Trustees and the evidence base is an important part of the background information to these discussions.”

Nancy Mendoza, Communications Manager at the Society for Applied Microbiology said "Sometimes it's tempting to keep doing what we've always done - go to the same science festivals each year, for example, albeit with a new exhibit. But the danger is that we narrow the focus of our public engagement work and end up communicating similar messages to the same audiences over and over. The PAS studies help us to see that if we want to be innovative; change opinions or behaviours; and reach new audiences with our work, then we must diversify."

Suzanne King tends to use the data in a different way. “I have used the nationally representative data contained in PAS to provide context for smaller, qualitative research studies.  For example, the survey provides a national picture on the type of people by age, gender and social class, who attend specific types of visitor attractions.  When undertaking qualitative research to explore why people do and don’t visit certain types of visitor attractions, being able to put the findings in the context of the proportion of the adult population who go to certain attractions and their basic characteristics, has made the smaller scale research more useful to communicators and venues. I’ve also used the findings to help focus smaller research projects on specific groups and used a sub-set of the attitudinal questions from earlier surveys’ cluster analysis to recruit to focus groups.” she said.

There are ways to use the data to highlight who isn’t involved in science activities, as explained by Emily Dawson, Lecturer in Science Engagement & Communication at King's College London. “I used PAS (all years) in research at King’s looking at exclusion from public science. Given there is totally dreadful data on who doesn’t participate, I use the data on who does participate and in what, to suggest who doesn’t participate (and what they don’t participate in).”

What do science communicators want to see from PAS 2014?

Things that science communicators want to know from this next survey include: “Are you asking any more specific questions about engineering this time as I'd be interested to know if we could get some more data about what people think about that as a discipline, or what they know of it.” asked Wendy Sadler.

“I'd also be interested to know how we compare to other countries across Europe - do they still do a similar poll with the Eurobarometer?” she said.

John Bibby, Honorary Fellow at the University of York would be really keen to find out public attitudes towards mathematics.

Frank Burnet thinks “It would be useful for the PAS to also explore public awareness of scientists, so a simple question about whether or not respondents think they have ever met a scientist would be useful. I have found that scientists are always surprised by the resilience of the stereotypical image of scientists, but it is not very surprising if people think they don't encounter scientists in their worlds.”

Join the debate...


Jayesh Navin Shah's picture

Interesting BBC programme

Hi folks,

I'm part of the Ipsos MORI team that works on PAS 2014. A colleague of mine just sent me this link to a recent 2-part Radio 4 series, Does Science Need the People?


It's about public dialogues on science issues and references PAS 2011 data a fair bit. This got me thinking about how PAS 2014 might be useful in providing contextual data for the public dialogue work done by Sciencewise and commissioned by govt and other agencies. Do any Sciencewise people have thoughts on that?

Jayesh Navin Shah's picture

Answering your questions

Also, in response to some of the questions posed in Alice's post:

Yes, we have lots more in the survey exploring attitudes to engineers and engineering - lots of split-sample stuff (asking one question about "scientists" to one half of the sample and the same question about "engineers" to the other half) which has never been done before.

We have some good questions about proximity to scientists, so can explore that. It would be great to have some comparisons to international work. We've done some thorough desk research so we can get some international comparisons, but welcome people's suggestions - maybe there's some recent international work on public attitudes that we missed?

Thoughts and ideas please!

Kerry Seelhoff's picture

PAS research

It's great to see how the research from Public Attitudes to Science survey is being used by those working in science communication and to hear your comments on it's future development. Your feedback on how the data is used and what impact it has on the activities you deliver, helps us gauge it's value in the wider scientific community.

In terms of international comparability, the OECD are just starting to scope what has been published by different countries and the methodologies used. Talking of which, you may be interested to read that the PAS Steering Group agreed to use random sampling for the next survey, rather than the previously used quota sampling. This methodology is more scientifically robust, brings the PAS into alignment with other surveys (e.g. Wellcome Trust Monitor) and is supported by fellow psci-com contributors. The fieldwork for PAS 2014 has just begun and we will keep you updated of it's progress.

Kerry Seelhoff - 'Public Attitudes to Science 2014' Project Manager, BIS

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