Shorts Editor Dr Joanna Carpenter rounds up the latest engagement stories.
But it can also be dangerous.
US researchers into public engagement in science have called for more applied research on how best to communicate science online. Writing in Science magazine, Dominque Brossard and Dietram Scheufele  of the University of Wisconsin-Madison argue that today’s reality is that one in seven people actively use Facebook and more than 340 million tweets are posted every day.
Speaking to People & Science, Dominique Brossard said, ‘Depending on the outcome one wants to accomplish, social media and the internet can be a perfect communication medium. The majority of people do not go to science centres.’ She continued, ‘If you think of internet platforms, you have the potential to reach audiences that traditionally wouldn’t be interested in finding out more about science.’
Targetting different groups
Tiffany Lohwater, Director of Meetings and Public Engagement at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) urges caution. ‘Sometimes scientists think they’re communicating with the public when they’re really just talking to themselves. There’s more to effective public engagement than just putting material online,’ she told P&S.
AAAS has different strategies  for reaching out to different audiences. ‘Some programs here target teachers, some target decision-makers and communities, some target policymakers, and some are specific to kids,’ Lohwater said.
Simon Williams blogs  for the Public Library of Science and is a research associate at Northwestern University, Chicago. He has been watching the twitter hashtag #overlyhonestmethods , in which scientists poke fun at how they go about their work
‘Many are very funny,’ he told P&S, ‘but what is new is that they are on twitter, which has over half a billion users worldwide. ‘#overlyhonestmethods has been covered by national newspapers like The Guardian and internationally, so it has left the confines of the science community,’ he said.
Some of the tweets are relevant to science policy or public confidence in science. ‘For example, a number commented how they were unable to access full scientific articles,’ Williams said. ‘Others make comments that imply unscientific practices or even malpractice. It is impossible to tell whether they were joking.’
New media can be dangerous as well as beneficial, Brosssard warned, because online opinion can sway others’ views. ‘Comments on blogs can change the way people think about scientific issues,’ she explained.
Williams sees the danger: ‘I think more honesty about the realities of science will ultimately increase public trust in science, but “joking” about malpractice might actually serve to reduce public trust in science.’
Trust should be rebuilt with stronger building codes, says geologist
Scientists have responded with concern to prison sentences of several years given to expert advisers to the Italian authorities. They provided public advice in advance of an earthquake at L’Aquila, Italy, on 6 April 2009, which killed 309 people. Survivors complained that official reassurances led people to stay inside shaking buildings that collapsed.
The Royal Society and the US National Academy of Sciences jointly protested , saying the verdict ‘could lead to a situation in which scientists will be afraid to give expert opinion for fear of prosecution or reprisal.’
However, the International Seismic Safety Organization responded by pointing out that the advisors had been ‘accused not for not having been able to predict the earthquake, but for having wanted to corroborate a forecast of ‘no risk’ in progress.’
The German National Academy of Sciences (the Leopoldina) and the French Académie des Sciences reserved judgement and issued a joint statement  on the situation: ‘It is very unfortunate that the trust between scientists, state institutions and the affected members of the public is profoundly damaged,’ they said.
Parallels with BSE
Miles Parker, Associate Fellow of the Centre for Science and Policy at the University of Cambridge and a former Deputy Chief Scientific Adviser to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, told People & Science in a personal capacity: ‘I was very struck with the parallels with the BSE story in Britain regarding the degree to which scientists and politicians could give authoritative statements that were reassuring.’
‘In very complex and difficult areas like this, one needs a dialogue and often in pressured circumstances there isn’t time for the scientists to fully understand the impact that the statements being made are having,’ Parker continued.
Kelin Wang of the Geological Survey of Canada thinks there were unrealistic expectations. ‘All a seismologist can ever say… is that a large earthquake is unlikely but cannot be excluded. And if that’s all you can ever say, it’s pointless,’ he told P&S.
Wang says his study  of the effectiveness of earthquake policy inChina since the 1960s shows that the focus on prediction is wrong. ‘Public discussion never deal with why those buildings [inL’Aquila] collapsed,’ he said. ‘Earthquakes don’t kill people. Buildings do,’ he continued, explaining that building codes inJapan andChile have saved many lives. ‘It’s tragic that it‘s not been done in many other places,’ he said.
The Department for Education will require Free Schools to teach evolution as a comprehensive, coherent and extensively evidenced theory. The move, to insert a clause into funding agreements, follows discussions with the President of the Royal Society, Sir Paul Nurse.
The Science and Society Programme of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has set out new aims  and a vision ‘of a UK in which we all share in the development and contribution of science to our culture, quality of life, sustainable economic development and growth and feel a sense of ownership about its direction.’
The public finds it acceptable to offer rewards for people to stop smoking or lose weight, so long as it works, King’s College London researchers have found . The public trades off its dislike of such incentive schemes if they maximise health benefits and find the most cost-effective solution for everybody.
Ten- to 11-year-old children think science is a career option only for geniuses, according to a survey  of over 9,000 children by the ASPIRES project based at King’s College London. 81 per cent agreed that scientists are `brainy’ but although nearly 75 per cent found science lessons interesting, less than 17 per cent wanted to be a scientist.
Mid-career scientists are more likely to engage in outreach than their peers, and chemists are less likely to than other scientists, according to a new analysis of US and UK data by John Besley et al of Michigan State University.
The US Bureau of Reclamation has announced plans to close its fisheries resources branch, apparently for `simply carrying out studies to contradict the science of other agencies.’ An official complaint has been filed on scientific integrity grounds. A previous complaint of scientific misconduct is still unanswered, nearly a year later.
The Commons Public Administration Select Committee expects to publish the report  of an inquiry into public engagement in policy making in March. A twitter hashtag #askMaude set up for the public to submit questions for civil service minister Francis Maude’s oral evidence session was unused.
Two-thirds of the public think GM food labelling was very or quite important, according to a recent survey  for the Food Standards Agency. Previous research suggested that less than 10 per cent of the UK public holds a strong opinion. Respondents were keener to know if GM was present rather than absent.