By Heather Mendick


There is a bewildering array of science communication initiatives in the UK. 

Alongside the British Science Association (BSA), Wikiversity lists the Wellcome Trust, the Office of Science and Innovation, the Research Councils, The Royal Society, the Higher Education Funding Councils, the Royal Institution, the Royal Academy of Engineering, and the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, completing their list with the catch-all: ‘a whole host of other scientific institutions, such as the Institute of Physics’. These diverse organisations have a variety of ways of understanding the roles and goals of science communication, even differing in what they include as ‘science’. In this post I discuss my ongoing work with BSA as they attempt to map out an ambitious vision for science communication and to evaluate how they match up to this vision.

Creating a vision for science communication and translating it into practice

The BSA’s vision is of a future where science is seen as a fundamental part of culture and society at large, instead of set apart from it’. They want to take science out of its ‘cultural ghetto’ so that it becomes more like ‘business, politics, media, art, or sport’, areas that have professionals and experts but that are also ‘seen as being there for anyone to own and engage in if they want to’.

This is a democratic vision. It is based on the belief that solving scientific problems, from climate change to food security, will not happen through scientists alone but ‘requires a partnership between science and the rest of society’. It is a challenging vision for many scientists, as it demands they not just communicate to others but with others, listening as well as talking. It also does not necessarily mean that people will become more positive about science. The result of getting more engaged, might well be a population who are more critical and sceptical about science.

To put this vision into practice, the BSA constructed an audience map or model. This divides people into audience segments, or ‘zones’, based on their behaviors, confidence and self-identity with science:

  • the not interested - see science as not for them;
  • the interested - are potentially open to science but make no particular efforts to engage;
  • the engaged - are enthusiastic about science and actively seek out information and events; and
  • the experts - are professionals who produce or curate scientific knowledge.

Through this model, they translated their vast vision into the more manageable task of creating transition opportunities between the zones. In other words, their goal was to move people from being not interested to interested, and from interested to engaged; shifting people from relationships with science based in apathy, disinterest and passivity to ones based in excitement, engagement and activity. This is where I come in. The BSA asked me, as an independent researcher, to evaluate their work in terms of its transition opportunities.

The possibilities and problems of transition opportunities

Any complex social situation must be modelled in order for us to begin to understand it. Yet, doing so involves making multiple assumptions and simplifications. The first thing I did for the BSA was to unpick some of these.

Most of the BSA’s current work is with people who are expert or engaged. This cannot directly ‘transition’ people as they are in the inner two zones of the BSA model, end points rather than transitional spaces. An obvious first response to this would be to advise the BSA to refocus its work on people either just interested or not interested. There are multiple reasons not to do this.

First, the BSA has limited expertise in accessing and working with these groups and in order to be able to expand its work with them it needs to maintain its funding, support and reputation which rely on much of its current work. Second, many people who are expert and engaged can act as gatekeepers to those who aren't. This is particularly true of science teachers, science communicators and people working in a range of cultural organisations. So engaging them indirectly creates transition opportunities for their students and audiences. Third, zoning people ignores the differences between people in any zone. For example, the expert zone includes both people who share the BSA’s democratic vision and those who see science as something that should remain the property of an elite group of professionals. Transitioning people who are already experts in or engaged with science is critical to the cultural changes the BSA want to see, towards a society where people collaborate across these zones in defining the direction and use of science.

Turning to the interested and disinterested groups raises new questions. How much interest and engagement in science do you need before you can be classified as interested rather than disinterested, or engaged rather than just interested? What about a parent who learns science to help their children, or a political activist who attends a Corbynomics course, or someone with a mental health diagnosis who gets active in a group that critiques psychiatric practice? All of these people could be defined as engaged because they seek out scientific material and, for the political activist and and the mental health patient, they want to shape scientific debates. But if asked how they feel about science, they may well say that science is not for them. This could be due to how they define science, because their motivations are extrinsic to science, or a legacy of their school science experience.

By raising such questions, the BSA’s audience map can open up discussion about the purposes of science communication. But measuring transition opportunities means finding a way to set these aside and reliably locate people in one zone or another both before and after their engagement with the BSA. As a (mainly) qualitative researcher, I would say that this is why you need to use observations and interviews rather than surveys to evaluate how people’s relationships with science shift through their engagements with the BSA, and to come to larger conclusions about what this means for the nexus of science and culture. I hope to report on the outcomes of this research through this blog in September.

 Find out more about our audience model