By Ivvet Modinou, Head of Engagement, British Science Association 

AccessLab is a new public engagement format that aims to improve access to and the judgement of information, through direct citizen-scientist pairings. Why now?

A day doesn’t go by without the terms ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’ being bandied about, both of which have highlighted the difficulties people face when trying to find trustworthy sources of information. The ability to judge the reliability of different sources of information, whether it’s political, social or scientific, is a skill that can be learned.

Specifically, scientific research impacts on many important aspects of people’s lives. For example, farmers need to know how to encourage biodiversity and how to protect their livestock from disease. Homeowners might like to know if their home will be under water in ten years due to climate change. New parents want to understand the side effects of vaccination. Car buyers want to know which fuel will be best for the environment. Teenagers want to know which jobs will be taken by robots in the future. The list is endless.

However, often when people interact with a scientist, the scientists are held up on a pedestal; the knowledge giver, the wisdom provider, the cure to all our ills. As public engagement practitioners we are also guilty of this; we build platforms through our events, festivals, workshops and shows that elevate experts’ purely as purveyors of facts. What would happen if we experimented with changing this power dynamic and tried to focus more on the skills that researchers possess, rather than their knowledge?

AccessLab is one such experiment and one that I’m immensely proud of. As Head of Engagement at the British Science Association, we’re always looking for new ways to engage audiences with science. Working with our fantastic partners at FoAM Kernow, we believe this may be a model that has legs and we’re piloting it in Cornwall.

AccessLab pilot event with researchers and citizens, Falmouth, May 2017 

We bring together people who have questions with scientific researchers (in the most recent iteration those ‘people’ are community organisers and local councillors) to investigate a topic that is of interest to the person and/or their community.

Critically though, we do not pair the researcher with someone who has a question about their research area – quite the opposite; they study genetics, we’ll pair them with someone interested in fracking. This is important so that researchers do not fall into the habit of giving answers to the questions, but rather investigate the topic with them as a non-expert. Through working in pairs, one-on-one, it provides an opportunity for the participants to learn how to find sources of scientific information and how to judge the reliability of these sources and for the scientists to begin to understand some of the barriers people have with accessing their work.

Another important part of the format is that all the researchers and other participants live in the same area. We are not bussing in scientists from around the UK, we want the researchers to wear their science identity on their sleeves in their local community and build relationships that are long lasting and based on personal interactions. This will allow for longer-term engagement within the community and follow-up conversations.

This is still in the development phase as a format. Our ambition is – if the model works - to create a series of sustainable, community-run AccessLabs across the UK, pairing local researchers with their communities. If you’re interested in working with us to achieve this, we would love to hear from you!

If you want to find out more about our first pilot back in May you can do so here and all of our learning will be openly available. Wish us luck on our journey and we’ll keep you posted on our progress…