By Clio Heslop, Partnerships and Impact Manager


Just over a year ago, I said a temporary farewell to my British Science Association (BSA) colleagues to begin a sabbatical as a Civic Science Fellow in Austin, Texas. Although in the end I remained UK-based (the only one in my cohort not physically in the USA), I still learned so much about different approaches to science engagement in the US, and about the broader idea of “civic science”.

The growing civic science movement has a central aim: to “allow science and research to more meaningfully connect with diverse communities and our shared civic life”. Myself, and the other Civic Science Fellows, were all hosted by organisations with an interest in the potential of civic science to change the way they worked. The Fellows have a broad range of expertise, including television production, technology policy, environmental data, chronic pain research, nature photography, museums, community partnership, and more. As well as our individual projects, we worked together as a cohort to envision what civic science could become.

My “host” organisations were the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin and the US-UK Fulbright Commission. My initial plan had been to spend my time at the university developing participatory approaches to engagement. But, when the COVID-19 pandemic halted the prospect of global travel and in-person activities, I had to rethink these trans-Atlantic arrangements!

Luckily, I was able to carry out my work remotely, and most of my focus for the Fellowship shifted to interview and survey-based research. This was a huge learning opportunity for me – although I have a lot of experience of delivering science engagement, investigating the topic as an academic social scientist is a whole new challenge! I also wanted to learn as much as possible about the work my colleagues were doing on strategic science communication, social media, and misinformation.

I was interested to develop some ideas around partnerships between scientists and civil society organisations like charities, think tanks, campaign organisations, and advocacy groups with a strong social purpose. I had first thought about this a few years ago when working on the BSA’s AccessLab project, and I realised that little is known about the shared attitudes and goals between science engagement and civil society.

In addition, I was also curious to learn more about the contrast between the US and the UK with regards to science. How does each country perceive science and those “doing” science? Is this significantly different? And, what techniques are employed in science engagement? Is there a lot of cross over, or are some activities more suited to one than the other?

I realised how lucky we are in the UK to have well-established organisations and networks to help inform our work and incentivise engagement. This infrastructure is less developed in the USA but there is a lot of work happening to grow the field and build capacity. Other Fellows and colleagues had told me about the politicisation of science in the US however I was still not prepared for the extent of it. Peoples’ views on how scientists should communicate, and even if they could be described as “qualified”, are intrinsically aligned with their political leaning.

Yet there is also a lot in common between US and UK approaches to science engagement. I noticed a commitment to equitable community partnerships, to listening and hearing stories of marginalised groups, and to long-term inclusive ways of working. A value that resonates with the work we do at the BSA.

Over the next few months, I’m looking forward to continuing to build my US connections, finishing my research analysis, and sharing much more detail about the projects I was involved with on future blogs!

In the meantime, if you have any questions for Clio about her Civic Science Fellowship, get in touch via [email protected]