How to engage people in science

March 21, 2017

Australia’s Chief Scientist Alan Finkel has aired an alliterative array of attributes to engage audiences with science: attitude, ambassadors, access and ammunition.

how to engage people in science

Featured image: Dr Alan Finkel AO at Science meets Parliament 2017 with Sally-Ann Williams, Engineering Community & Outreach Manager for Google Australia 

Dr Finkel spoke about how to engage people with science at the 18th Science meets Parliament event in Canberra today. One of his key messages was to develop your elevator pitch.

“Identify the key idea and write it up as a 100-word media release, then try it out on a politician.”

The need to develop simple, clear pitches to engage people with science was echoed by Buzzfeed political reporter and panellist Alice Workman, who gave the example of the viral ‘big chicken’ video on twitter as exemplifying the ‘simple, no BS’ idea that can rapidly get picked up in media. The video, released yesterday, was retweeted 35,000 times.

While science research often cannot be distilled into one thought bubble, like any news story, science stories need a simple pitch that everyone can understand, Workman told the group of 200 scientists gathered for the two-day event.

“I think the bigger problem is trying not to use complicated words, but also to whittle stories down to their basics. Journalists are under the pump, and journalism is a business.”

Four key tools to engage people in science

Engaging an audience beyond clickbait requires a deep understanding of your audience, access to influential people and being prepared, said Dr Finkel, who listed attitude, ambassadors, access and ammunition as four key tools for science advocacy.

He emphasised having an open attitude to engage people with science.

“You can’t assume your audience knows the facts. You can always assume they have the capacity to learn.”

He also said that it was important for science to have ambassadors, and that his office was in ‘early consideration’ of a program that mirrored internships such as the volunteer internship program which allows students and professionals to learn from US congress – and which funds them for up to one year to learn about the political process there.

“Could we create the same process for Australia? It takes a person of integrity and awareness to be an ambassador. We need to create the same qualities in ambassadors for science,” said Finkel.

Access to politicians is tempered by a difference in timescales at which science and politics operate, he said.

“Research timeframes are long; the window to operate in politics is short. How then can we hit the window where the evidence and the opportunities align? This event is one. Another is the Commonwealth Science council for which the PM is chair. This allows politicians and researchers to identify areas of shared opportunity in areas such as expanding the economy and navigating risks.”

Before approaching politicians, or others you need to engage, Finkel advocated preparing your pitch as ammunition for the encounter, as well as consulting widely, gaining supporters and identifying paths to funding.

Science meets Parliament is held over two days in Canberra and includes a televised National Press Club address, and a day at Parliament House, where delegates meet privately with parliamentarians.

Heather Catchpole

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