Engagement flows from the human side
Let's focus on the oddities of the enterprise, says Imran Khan.
As I write, it’s been just a few weeks since I’ve taken over from Sir Roland Jackson as Chief Executive of the British Science Association. If anything, I’m more excited about the role now than when I started.
Science is more important in our lives today than it ever has been – and yet so much of it has become so complicated that it’s become harder for the average person to access. But there’s a big societal risk when this complexity leads to a lack of engagement and understanding.
We’ve seen this unfold with economics. The last few years have been some of the most tumultuous in our society’s economic history, and a seemingly endless succession of politicians and commentators have claimed the crisis was an opportunity for us as a society to ‘reshape’ or ‘rebalance’ our economy.
Instead, we’re largely back to business as usual. That’s partly due to powerful vested interests, but it’s also because we as individuals don’t have the ability to engage with economic debates.
I consider myself relatively well-informed, but I’d need to take a course in economics to know how worried I should be about the UK’s credit rating downgrade or what the full context of the continuing euro-bailouts is.
But all of those are important questions which will affect our future and probably our bank balance. The fact that we feel powerless and clueless, disenfranchised from those decisions, no doubt explains the ire which we then heap on decision-makers, whether they be politicians, economists, or bankers.
We can’t afford the same thing to happen to science.
The human side
As treatments, technologies, and products become both more complicated and more important, there’s a risk involved when scientific progress outpaces engagement. Public controversies around GM food, the MMR vaccine, and perhaps even fracking suggest there are significant gaps between science and society that need to be closed.
Those controversies show that we often get the most value out of science when it’s done in partnership with the public. But it’s a mistake to think that this means we should focus only on engaging on an issue-by-issue basis, depending on which science is in the news – or even the pipeline – at any given moment.
We also need to show the human side of science, so that people can get involved and discuss the scientific process itself. One of my favourite – albeit slightly accidental – bits of science communication was the experiment which purported to show neutrinos travelling faster-than-light between Gran Sasso and CERN, before the results were shown to be the result of faulty wiring and incorrect calculations.
The process the science went through wasn’t unusual, but the way the public saw it was. For once, we could see and discuss the confusion, excitement, errors, and resolution of research, instead of only seeing the polished version.
The Gran Sasso experiment is hardly typical of the kind of research we’ll get to work with, but it shows the level of excitement and engagement that can be generated when we show the unfinished article, and particularly the human process of science, instead of just the end product.
That’s not to say there isn’t a huge role for traditional forms of science communication. People still love being awed and inspired, but a renewed focus on the curiosities and oddity of science as an enterprise might help us reach non-traditional audiences.
I’m sure my, and the Association’s, thinking on this will evolve as the coming months roll by – but part of the reason I’m so excited about the role is the opportunity to test and discuss these ideas with you, the science communication community. So get in touch and let me know what you think!