Public engagement should no longer be regarded as a commodity

Feb 15 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

I am very proud to share with you here an intervention I have been asked to provide for the Euroscientist magazine, an online publication of Euroscience, "a pan-European association of individuals interested in constructing scientific Europe from the bottom-up". The editor at Euroscientist, towards whom I am very thankful, contacted me when she found out about my publication "Who cares about physics today? A marketing strategy for the survival of fundamental science and the benefit of society", which is available on the arXiv web bullettin.
I hope you will enjoy my analysis at Euroscientist and become curious of the other Euroscience activities if you are not aware of them yet.
Public engagement should no longer be regarded as a commodity

Today, public engagement is mostly regarded as a commodity. If there is good level of funding available, scientists may consider spending money in what they usually call ”public relations”. Otherwise this is the first thing scientists cut because they consider it to be the least necessary.

But public engagement in science is very much needed. At the very least because the public is either an enemy or an ally of research. Examples such as the climate change denial illustrate this point well. In other circumstances, such as the 2009 Shuttle mission, it was people who wanted such mission to happen in order to service the Hubble Space Telescope for the last time even thought it had been declared doomed by US President George W. Bush and NASA President Sean O’Keefe. An unprecedented movement of popular opinion grew to such a large extent that the official decision had to be changed and money reallocated.

To adequately communicate research to a lay audience, it is necessary to adopt the audience’s language and appeal to its own interests. Just like what is done in marketing. Therefore it is not a heresy to mix scientific content with languages that are either non-scientific or even non-verbal, including, for example, by communication through the means of theatre, dance, video-games, comics or music …

This is all part of an approach I dubbed “A marketing strategy for the survival of fundamental science“. Such an approach is critical in order to build a society that is both aware and appreciative of science. A conscious society is the only one able to properly assess how crucial investments in science have to be in the European budget. Or how future prosperity depends on new ideas and how these have to be explored by young and passionate minds.

For example, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) particle accelerator is teaching scientists important lessons about the Higgs Boson, among others. However, some have argued that the money this experiment costs should rather be spent on finding ways to cure tumours. However it is precisely the capacity we acquired by walking down the road of curiosity for the invisible and the minuscule that contributed to finding solutions to cure cancer. Indeed, the LHC smashes particles called hadrons. They are the very same particles used in hadron-therapy, a medical technique that can treat deep cancers in an efficient way.

Many more of these beautiful and deeply meaningful connections have yet to be unveiled to the largest public. Once the level of public engagement progresses, the public will slowly see reduce its disconnect with science and scientists. Instead, the public will start further engaging in a durable and satisfying conversation with these scientists.

@Doctor_Cinnamon

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It is written “science communications”, it is to be read “solid foundations for a future of prosperity in science, economy and society”

Feb 04 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

Last year on October 23 a petition has been addressed by Nobel Prize awardees and Fields medalists to the representatives of European governments: the object: rumors that research funds will be cut on occasion of the end of November meeting to discuss the European budget (http://www.no-cuts-on-research.eu/index.php?file=home.htm).
Back then no agreement was found among the leaders, who are to meet again this week on February 7 and 8. In view of this new summit it is the European Industrial Leaders that put up a "campaign to stave off possible cuts to the European Union's research budget" (http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2013/02/fully-fund-research-european-ind.html?ref=hp&goback=.gde_2757561_member_210416760#.UQ6W7h7hya4.twitter).

The sword of Damocles that is threatening the European funds for scientific research represents, at a closer look, an extremely dangerous risk for the future of all European citizens, not only scientists. 
The current well-being of most of us Westerners, in Europe as well as the US, is based on easily identifiable pillars: scientific studies, at first abstract and then applied, that brought us electricity and computers, just to quote a couple of examples. There would not be anything of all that we are used to if some ancestor of ours had not been so curious to think about the why and how of natural phenomena, which sometimes have weird names such as “quantum field theory”.
The example that I personally like to quote most often, given that I am both an Italian and a physicist, is related to CERN and its accelerator LHC, now operating underground in the Geneva area: the acronym designating this experiment stands for Large Hadron Collider, that, in plain language, corresponds to a sort of dodgem whose cars are minuscule particles, which belong to the category of hadrons ... hadrons as in “hadron-therapy”, a technique of modern medicine that is used to cure deep cancers in a unique way (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Particle_therapy). How else could humanity have discovered the existence and behavior of the subatomic world other than walking down the path that has brought to build the LHC in order to discover and study the Higgs Boson?
This link is just one example of a connection between fundamental science and well-being that is obscure to most people. It is then apparent how the issue of an accurate positioning of research in European funding policies represents, in reality, a much wider problem, which requires a unity of intents that goes far beyond academia and laboratories: it concerns all of us, together with our kids.
In such a context the voice that reaches the ears of our political representatives should be a single powerful one that collects many more people than just the industrials or the scientists. The latter should lead these unitary efforts: in fact, in order to have a weight in society, before politics, lobbying is needed.
This goal can only be achieved if the general public is involved in the process and engaged in a two-way conversation; how does one go about conquering support from the public? by speaking its own language, studying its interests, meeting it where it is to be found, which most certainly is not at the entry to the Ivory Tower. 
A marketing strategy is needed; that's right: marketing, as in advertising campaigns; in fact, where else does the success of advertisement lie if not in its ability to sympathize with the public, to be in its shoes, to touch its emotional chords, one category at a time? 
The time is over, then, to simply rely on press releases in order to reach the public: communication has its own tools, science is the product to be advertised, in a proper way of course. In such a context it is not a heresy to bother mixing scientific content with languages that are either non-scientific or non-verbal even: theatre and dance, for example, or video-games or comics ... 
This list could go on and would cite many efforts that either have been just proposed or are already being implemented. What is still missing, which I personally believe would represent a qualitative leap, is the unity of intents: “united we stand, divided we fall”, as the saying goes. There is a notorious instance that exemplifies what I am advocating for here: the history of Hubble Space Telescope. In 2003 it had been declared doomed by US President George W. Bush and NASA President Sean O'Keefe, in charge at the time: no more maintenance for the telescope, the money that the necessary Shuttle mission would have cost had to be destined to bring astronauts on Mars. The scientific community succeeded in exciting such an emotion in common people that the two lobbied against the official decision, pushing Bush and O'Keefe to change their minds ... incredible! But true and repeatable. Incidentally, that's the story of how today you can enjoy the Hubble IMAX movie (http://www.imax.com/hubble/).
The present situation, worsened by the economic and financial crisis, represents both a test bench and a turning point: if the lack of awareness and the poor appreciation of science by the public are not confronted vigorously, no petition will ever suffice.
In conclusion, putting forth petitions and campaigns is very welcome, in that they try to protect everyone's future. However in order for the largest public to be appreciative of science it has to be aware first and this can only be achieved if the public is engaged in a two-way conversation. My recipe for tackling this problem at its roots is in a paper I titled “Who cares about physics today? A marketing strategy for the survival of fundamental science and the benefit of society”. An example initiative is the dance show "Gravity", about which I posted a contribution previously. The paper is available at http://arxiv.org/abs/1210.0082, I hope you will find it interesting.

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