By Imran Khan, Chief Executive of the British Science Association


Last year we announced the British Science Association’s new vision; from now on, our work will be focused on creating a world where science is a fundamental part of culture and society. We feel that science has a huge amount to offer, but its potential is not being fulfilled because it’s siloed from the rest of society.
For instance, the scientific establishment does a fair share of hand-wringing about the shortage of science in politics, the media, business, finance, and even education – and the usual reason given is that there aren’t enough scientists in these fields. But we do less to challenge the idea that it’s only scientists (or those with a formal scientific training) who can be both expected and allowed to champion, critique, and contribute to science.
That’s what we’d like to change. We want to emphasise the fact that science is not just for scientists.
In fields such as art, politics, or sport, it is not just the professionals who feel like they’re a part of their cultural community. But, in science, there’s a sense that unless you’ve got a PhD you’re not properly qualified to talk about science – see exhibits 1 & 2, below:

We noticed that science has much more of a ‘binary’ audience than other fields; your perception of science is characterised by whether you’re ‘in’ science or not, to a much greater extent than is the case for music, politics, or sport.
In music, you can be a professional expert - whether that’s as a recording artist, sound engineer, marketer, manufacturer, or journalist. You can also be completely disengaged and not care about the field at all.
But the chances are, you’re somewhere in the middle; you might consume music by listening to your favourite radio station, or you might be the kind of person who buys the t-shirt, goes to the gig, or makes music yourself. Through your consumption, criticism, creation, and other engagement, you arguably do as much to shape music’s role in society as professional musicians do.
The same is true in politics. Yes, we have councillors and policy wonks and political journalists who work in the sector, but it’s the non-professional activists, party members, campaigners - and even people who just enjoy a good argument about it - that actually enable politics to play any kind of real and legitimate role in our society.
You can make the same comparison with football, photography, food - there are lots of examples. But it’s harder to do for science. Science is seen as “that thing that scientists do”, in a way that would be far too narrow to describe football or writing. And even our ways of changing this, like citizen science, illustrate how big the challenge is; ‘citizen art’ or ‘citizen sport’ are nonsensical terms, because public ownership is built into their accepted definition - unlike for science.
That’s what we’d like to change. This is a huge cultural shift we’re talking about; one that will probably take at least a generation to realise, even with the efforts of all the organisations and individuals that are already helping promote the agenda.
So we need to be able to measure whether or not we’re succeeding. We’ve therefore come up with a new model for thinking about our audiences and what we do for and with them.
Like all models, it’s only an approximation, and doesn’t capture the full complexity of the real world. But we’ve found it a useful starting point to plan our approach.
We started by looking at the behaviours, confidence, and self-identities of people in relation to science - and suggested that you can classify people in one of four ways.

  • The scientists. The knowledgeable and involved; professionals - the people who produce or curate scientific knowledge. They’re confident discussing and contributing to science, even when it lies beyond their expertise, and identify as part of the scientific community.

  • The enthusiasts: The engaged and participative. They attend events, keep up to date, and contribute socially - but aren’t professionally involved. They’re the scientific equivalent of people who have strong amateur interests in music, sport, etc - the group the BSA thinks we don’t have nearly enough of.

  • The receptive: Interested in, and open to, science. They don’t self-identify as being interested in science, or make a special effort to stay informed - but aren’t completely alienated either. They see science as a specialist, professional field, and only consume science content passively.

  • The apathetic: Disinterested and closed to science. See science as important, but something that is entirely the domain of scientists, and divorced from the rest of culture.

To be clear, this is not a socio-economic model, and it doesn’t just apply to a notional ‘general public’.
Look at the House of Commons, for instance; there are some politicians who are clearly scientists, some who are enthusiasts, and many who are apathetic or receptive, despite all being part of similar social strata. You could conduct the same analysis on any segment of society you wanted.
With that caveat, we started by reimagining the ‘science v the public’ binary model into a linear model - and see our role as helping people move ‘up the scale’, to the point where they might become enthusiasts (or critics, or engaged consumers - we don’t think we have the necessary language fully formed yet).
This isn’t to say that ‘moving up the scale’ is for everyone; we just want there to be fewer barriers to it for those who might want to.
We would do this not by handing out identity-badges, but creating ‘opportunities for transition’ - in the hope that, with exposure to enough of those opportunities, an individual’s behaviours and self-identity would shift.
For instance, we could be clear about the fact that some of our work (e.g. the British Science Festival) isn’t intended to transition people from being apathetic to science into science fans. Nobody would expect someone who couldn’t care less about music to go to Glastonbury; we should be open about our science festival trying to achieve and reinforce a particular variety of behaviour and identity ‘transition’.
However, we weren’t entirely happy with the way that this visualisation suggested that people are on an ‘unfinished journey’ if they only ‘make it’ to being an enthusiast. Our entire objective is to maximise the number of people who do feel confident enough with science to feel like they’re a part of that group, and argue that they’re a critical part of society.
So we redid our model to show that there’s more than one ‘end-point’ to this story, and it’s entirely legitimate and desirable for people to identify as non-professional engagers with science, who feel confident enough to take part in discussion and critique of science with the professionals.
There are bound to be unanswered questions with our new audience model. For instance, where do people who are actively sceptical about science fit in? How does it map on to younger audiences who don’t have the opportunity to be identified with the ‘professionals’? Does a change in zone equate to an increase in science capital, or are there significant differences between that schema and this one?
We’ll also need to redefine what counts as ‘science’ to really be able to deploy this model effectively. Nobody sees playing in front of a packed-out auditorium or stadium as the only valid models of musical or sporting expression; how do we create more legitimate ways for people to engage and participate in science?
Nonetheless, we’ve already found this new model an interesting challenge to our preconceived ideas about what our different programmes and activities might be for - and we’d welcome your views on how it can be adapted, tweaked, or used elsewhere in the sector.