Friday, February 28, 2014

Sex & Bugs & Rock'n'Roll

Public Engagement (PE) is an umbrella term, which covers a wide variety of activities serving many different agendas. These include justifying the use of ‘taxpayer’ money for research, increasing research impact, identifying research priorities, encouraging discussion about controversial issues, promoting science as a career, broadening the scope of research, and stimulating public behaviour around scientific issues. Effective public outreach contributes to measures of research impact, which has helped to legitimize scientists committing time towards PE and a number of funding bodies now incorporate requirements for ‘stakeholder engagement’ into the criteria for grant proposals. Timely and effective PE can be crucial for the transition of science into policy and dialogue with different sectors of society is essential for identifying and addressing public priorities on contentious topics. For example, PE has played a key role in facilitating discussions of evolution vs. creationism in the USA, and catalysing societal action on environmental issues 

However public engagement is not so easy especially if you want to engage a variety of audiences and not the usual suspects that are interested in your particular field of science. As this is part of my daily bread and butter I know how difficult it can be for the colleagues. We do outreach in schools, we give public seminars, some of us are involved with outreach programs at museums but that is a very small subset of society and it is difficult to develop ways to do outreach with the remainder of the people which not necessarily a captured audience, or that may not have already selected to be somewhere where science was on the agenda. We have to seriously start thinking outside the box and that's why we decide to show up on a Santa Claus parade dressed up as insects.

Some colleagues in the UK had an even better idea. They go to music festivals and set up booths on entomology and microbiology as a way to capture people's curiosity, and bring the science to where the people are. In addition to display materials, they do hands-on activities, and really worked to make the material interesting and creative. They argue that music festivals are perfect places to engage public in science, in part because the people attending music festivals are there with open minds, and are ready to have fun and be 'engaged', at least with music. They are primed for anything out of the ordinary and might just stop by a booth that is displaying honeybee colonies, and taking swabs for microbiology cultures. 

And the absolute best of all - they managed to publish about their work in Trends in Ecology and Evolution. The British Ecological Society actually funded the researchers for three festivals and got them to report at the International Congress of Ecology, held in London last year. The experiment in outreach resulted in the aforementioned publication in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, and an invitation from the society to continue the festival circuit this summer.

I really like this idea, maybe because I like music festivals a lot myself. We have a very famous one here in Guelph as well. Maybe would should show up there this summer with barcodes, bugs, and rock'n'roll.

h/t Valérie Lévesque-Beaudin 

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