By Alex Holmes
I just finished my first online course through the Biochemical Society, which introduced me to Public Engagement and Science Policy. I went into this course having already participated in and designed several public engagement activities, but after being suggested this course as preparation for an upcoming placement, I figured there’s always something new to learn – and wow was I right!
What actually is Public Engagement?
Prior to this course, I thought I knew what public engagement was, but it turns out I wasn’t familiar with the nuances of public engagement, science communication and science outreach. The latter two terms both indicate that there is a one-way stream of information from the communicator to the audience. However, public engagement means that there is a two-way communication where the communicator talks with rather than at an audience. This subtle difference made me recategorize some of the activities I had previously done and better understand that public engagement can be a collaboration with the public, where both parties transmit and receive information. This has also made me consider ways I can build this two-way dialogue into my activities in future, maybe asking people for their opinions or their perspective on the topic and future of research in that area.
In addition to this redefinition, I got to read the thoughts of other science communicators and what public engagement means from their perspective. I personally always thought of public engagement as trying to spark interest and understanding to bring people into science, so it was educational seeing everyone else’s mentions of storytelling, giving back and building relationships and trust between scientists and the public. These have widened how I perceive public engagement activities and the impacts I could be having.
Evaluation should never be an afterthought
This course made me reframe evaluation as a science. You start with defining your aims and impacts, work out how to measure whether you’ve been successful, in a way your “test subjects” will respond to, and analyse the results. Then write them up and use the data to inform your next “experiment”. Do it well enough and you might be able to get a grant out of it. Thanks to the signposting to other resources, the evaluation strategies I use for my activities have considerably improved following this course. I redesigned the feedback sheet I previously used at ‘Be Curious’ in 2019, from four closed and uninformative questions to a slightly longer, but quantitative and informative series of questions to use this year.
Public Engagement Activity Inspo
There are a couple of nitty-gritty bits of public engagement that I hadn’t given much thought to previously that were highlighted through this module. I’d never properly addressed ethics in my activities, even though they’re a crucial part of the dialogue between researchers and the public. Example activities, such as scientific scissors, gave me some simple but effective ideas to incorporate ethics. Also, how best to take the audience into account, as there’s more to consider than just age or initial understanding of the topic when you design the content. However, it’s not just the content: how are your audience accessing the activity and are you putting in place measures to reach all audiences? With event cancellations due to COVID-19, there has been a rush to move content online, but many underserved audiences may not have access to the internet, so this needs to be carefully considered.
Science Policy 101
I didn’t have much experience of science policy when I started this training module. I knew that it was important, as science and policy naturally feed into each other; whether it’s getting funding or having restrictions on what can be done in a lab or tackling antibiotic resistance from a governmental level. This module made me much better informed about the ins-and-outs of science policy and how scientists can get involved: from select committees, through their societies, to pairing schemes. As well as making me think about research in a wider context, it has made me consider politicians more as a public engagement audience.
Overall, this fantastic online course widened my understanding and appreciation of Public Engagement and Science Policy. The online format was useful and flexible, as it worked around my lab schedule and everyone could easily contribute to the topic areas. My public engagement practices have already tangibly improved following the course and I can’t wait to channel even more of what I learnt into my next event!
About the Author
Alex Holmes (she/her) is a PhD researcher at the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds. She’s found herself working somewhere between biology, chemistry and computational science to research a family of membrane proteins, which is a bit of a step away from her undergraduate and masters degree in pharmacology, also from the University of Leeds. When she’s not in the lab, she is very interested in science communication and public engagement. She has led stalls for university events, been a Pint of Science team leader and been part of the Letters to Prescientists penpal programme. Check out her twitter @aomholmes and webpage here.
This online course will be run again, on 12 October 2020. Find out more here.