Science promotion
Science promotion

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2 Joining in

2.1 Institutional science promotion events

Nowadays, engaging with science through an institutional science promotion event can be quite straightforward. You can find out about such events by, for example, reading posters in your local library, watching a science documentary on TV or browsing the internet. The range of such outreach events is remarkable – from long-standing mainstream programmes such as the Royal Society Christmas lectures on TV and the annual BA (British Association for the Advancement of Science) Science Week, to more unconventional activities such as the controversial ‘Bodyworks’ exhibition of cadavers and the ‘Science on the Buses’ scheme. Despite their different techniques, these all exist, at least in part, to promote science.

Part of analysing science promotion as a phenomenon is to ask why institutions choose to support these events, and whether there is a recognisable ‘message’ that can be given to a target group. In order to begin answering these questions, it is worth looking briefly at the organisations that regularly back such institutional events.

UK government funding for science promotion at the time of writing (2006) came mostly through the then Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), especially its Office of Science and Technology (OST). Since the 1990s, there has been increasing deregulation in many areas of governance, and hence a greater emphasis on realising policy through non-state action and responsibility. Thus the government fulfils its political mandate for science promotion and engagement through the OST, which gives financial support to other institutions. In 2006, the money went primarily to the grants scheme called ‘Sciencewise’, for research into public dialogue best practice, and to the BA.

Sciencewise grants, established in 2004, are for projects that help facilitate dialogue between the public, the scientific community and policy makers – dialogue that can then feed into public policy decisions. Projects funded recently include:

  • a research group looking at public engagement with nanotechnology;

  • a workshop series to discuss a new model of dialogue called ‘Convergent Engagement’, and how it might inform changes to the BA Festival of Science;

  • a ‘Science Communication Working Lunch’ series to facilitate the sharing of good practice in public engagement and dialogue.

The BA is a charity, set up in 1831, that aims (amongst other things) to ‘obtain more general attention for the objects of science and the removal of any disadvantages of a public kind that may impede its progress’. Its modern remit is to encourage a more open science–society relationship so that science and technology are better received. Its science promotion events are sponsored not only by national government agencies but also by a wide range of benefactors, including local councils, media organisations, industry, research and professional interest groups.

Two other long-established charitable groups lead the science promotion field:

  • the Wellcome Trust was created in 1936 to fund research that improves human and animal health, and this now includes activities to promote public engagement with science;

  • the Nuffield Foundation was established in 1943 to improve social well being by encouraging creative research.

Their work in the Public Engagement in Science and Technology (PEST) field is now often cooperative – for example they often join up with NESTA (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and Arts) and the Millennium Commission, which are both National Lottery funded bodies and principal sponsors of PEST events.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there appears to be a close relationship between long-established charitable organisations from within the scientific community and recently formed government agencies. In the following sections, we will attempt to evaluate why these organisations, the government, and others want to run science promotion events. For now it seems useful to look at how they do this. Although these are certainly not rigorous terms, it might be useful to group these events according to three idioms: ‘Go See’, ‘Go Say’, and ‘Go Use’. They can be defined thus:

  • Go See events involve practical demonstrations. People can watch experiments or machines in action and hear scientists explain their ideas and theories. The session may be organised to allow the exchange of ideas. These events may be particularly useful for introducing new topics, raising awareness, and motivating young people.

  • Go Say events are those where people can debate scientific issues, so they are particularly useful for engaging scientists and the public in dialogue.

  • Go Use events are those where science is presented in a utilitarian way, for people to make use of, and so are particularly useful for engagement through participation.

Sections 2.2 to 2.4 give some examples of science promotion events to give you a flavour of what an organised science promotion event in the UK can be like.

As you read through the examples, think about the opportunities that might arise within them for open dialogue or whether there may be more likelihood of a ‘top-down’ transmission of facts. Are these idioms useful in understanding how PEST is conveyed in institutional science promotion events? (Another caveat though: it has only been possible to apply these idioms to the idea of ‘institutional’ science promotion and not to ‘independent’ science promotion because of the diverse, informal nature of the latter.)

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