How can we avoid preaching to the converted?

This was the question asked by Dr Adam Hart, University of Gloucestershire, in the Society of Biology’s annual Charter Lecture this morning. Through an enhtusiastic presentation, Dr Hart concluded that engaging those interested in science with science festivals and similar events is not necessarily a bad thing, in fact, but that in communicating science, we must recognise how varied people’s understanding, motivation and willingness to engage with science is.

Dr Hart characterised the audience for science communication as a ‘complex market’; in terms of age, motivation, religion and culture and enthusiasm, amongst other factors; therefore it’s too much of a simplification to see people as falling into either ‘converted’ or ‘uncoverted’ camps when it comes to engaging with science.

Science Festivals attract thousands of people each year, with the 2010 Cheltenham Science Festival, for example, attracting 28,000 people to 158 events over six days, with thousands more attending the Festival’s free ‘Discovery Zone’ events. Dr Hart suggested that Science Festivals are great for those who enjoy science, and that we shouldn’t be scared of organising events which reach out to those with an already developed interest and enthusiasm for science.

Yet of course neither should we shy away from engaging those harder to reach. Dr Hart characterised people’s levels of scientific understanding as a ramp, or escalator, with different messages and activities appropriate for people at each stage; the aim being to move people along from lower to higher levels of scientific understanding and appreciation. ‘Hooks’ are very effective, he said, to get people involved in science, with major hooks being the natural environment, natural history and sustainability. The key, Dr Hart said, was to get the science in to projects focusing on these, giving the example of an ‘Enviroschools’ project, which engaged students first in improvements to their school grounds, before stimulating discussion of ecology through the involvement of an ecologist explaining why the interventions – such as bat boxes – were important.

Dr Hart was emphatic that ‘the basics’ of science could be just as effective a communication tool as ‘whizzes and bangs’. Engaging people through insect specimens for example, or simply going into schools to talk to children about science, could be very effective – although relying on people’s time, often in short supply, which he acknowledged as a major constraint. Fundamentally, communicators should emphasise science as ‘method’, not gimmick or trivia, in order to gain the maximum benefit from engagement; introduce people to how science works and they can go away and explore for themselves, as oppose to scientists simply imparting facts.

Dr Hart, as an entomologist, drew on his own experience of the Bee Guardians project, which was successful recently in securing funding from the Big Lottery Fund to turn Gloucester into the first ‘Bee Guardian City’. Dr Hart and colleagues have worked with allotment and garden societies to communicate and build an awareness of the importance of bees as pollinators, whilst engaging people in science through ‘citizen science’ projects.

It’s clear that ecologists are in a privileged position when it comes to public engagement (in contrast perhaps to biochemists and cell biologists, where Dr Hart suggested ‘hooks’ were not so readily available). Projects which focus on ‘nature’ or ‘sustainability’ are a good first step in catching the public’s interest, but with the help of ecologists such projects can really be used to communicate the importance of science itself to those participating.