A new era for engaging communities with science

By Guest Author 18/05/2015 1


The way we engage the public with science is poised to change.

By Dr Victoria Metcalf, National Coordinator for the Participatory Science Platform in the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor.

I do a lot of speaking each year about science to the community, up to 20 public talks annually. These are primarily to school classes and community groups like Probus and U3A. I typically talk about Antarctica, climate change or adaptation and genetics. I’ve been doing these kinds of talks for years and am always striving to better my practice, to be evermore interactive and entertaining, to engage more, to think about the values my audience holds and explore those same values in thinking about how to frame the story I am telling.

Always, I focus on the story because in weaving together a story, rather than just a collection of facts, that is when the audience sits up, leans forwards, becomes animated and asks questions. And I will modify each talk as it rolls off my tongue, actually exploring the values each unique audience has in a session and allowing that to alter my story trajectory to suit. There’s a lot of me in these talks- first and foremost I am a human being, rather than a scientist, and my personal journey I know adds value to the science I am trying to convey.

Still though, I’ve been left hungry in my interactions. One-off talks like this (although I am often invited back) are valuable and do have a place in raising understanding of science. I hanker for something more lasting and meaningful though, one that extends the interaction, one where there’s more time getting to know my audience first; a situation where there is time to really discuss issues, misinformation and indeed what the audience actually wants to know. A ship that sails and where the audience travels for the entire journey.

There are many citizen science projects out there that are built on more lasting interactions with members of the public. These can take the form of a combined virtual isolation and global togetherness in helping to analyse data via the internet like the Penguin Lifelines project. Or they can be more grass-roots projects that make use of volunteers in the community to assist with environmental and conservation efforts.

As much of my research has been on Antarctic marine life (that doesn’t involve counting penguins in photos) there haven’t been opportunities for this kind of citizen science. And in the back of my mind for some time has been a recognition that projects that involve the community at the conception point must be a desired outcome. Many existing citizen science projects involve the public as data crunchers; that is, at the back end of the research, not the front.

So it was with excitement that I viewed the release last year of the National Strategic Plan For Science In Society, otherwise known as A Nation of Curious Minds. This strategic plan is a game-changer for how we engage society with science. It’s built on three concepts: science is everywhere; curiosity is key; and New Zealand’s curious minds can be both enabled and empowered to do amazing things.

The headline quote from the document is from the late and great Sir Paul Callaghan:

“You don’t need to teach a child curiosity. Curiosity is innate. You just have to be careful not to quash it. This is the challenge for the teacher- to foster and guide that curiosity”.

Although the plan puts emphasis on children and young people, the goal is to enable all community members. Children through their innate excitement and curiosity and their interactions with other generations can be viewed as the vehicle or enabler in this regard.

Science literacy, a term often used regarding science communication and education these days, can be defined as “the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes (can also be known as the nature of science) required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity”. In essence, it’s an understanding of the nature of science and the application of that understanding to scientific findings. It is also though, critical thinking around scientific information and scientific and technological issues in order to make informed decisions.

Increasing our science capital is something that involves both the public and scientists working and metaphorically walking together.
Increasing our science capital is something that involves both the public and scientists working and metaphorically walking together.

We know (and by we I mean collectively scientists, educators, government and many industries) that science literacy is fundamental to the future of New Zealanders. To be clear, in the Curious Minds framework, increasing science literacy and lifting engagement with science is not a one-way street about ‘making the public smarter’ so that they can properly talk to scientists. It’s as much about enabling scientists to be smarter and more invested in how they interact with the public too to facilitate meaningful, long lasting relationships built on trust and respect. This is a path that we must walk together.

There are three main aspects to the Curious Minds Strategic Plan: 1) enhancing the role of education; 2) the public engaging with science and technology and 3) the science sector engaging with the public. There is an additional and pivotal integrating action across all three areas and this is the Participatory Science Platform (PSP).

In the spirit of a cooking programme, where a classical dish is reworked, the PSP is citizen science with an innovative twist. It is truly a ground-breaking, innovative approach. How the initial one-year long pilot study of this PSP in New Zealand plays out will be watched around the world. What makes it different is its structure as a three-legged stool: scientific robustness; pedagogical (educational approach) robustness; and community relevance, engagement and respect (from the onset) all coming together under the one platform.

The concept is that through this PSP New Zealand will lift our ‘science capital’, a somewhat esoteric concept, that dispels the notion that science is equated with only scientists. It’s about building knowledge networks.

Less than two weeks ago I started a new role, one that directly allows me to address a life mission, to increase science literacy and engagement- this notion of science capital- and in doing so make a real difference to people’s lives. In what could be one of the world’s longest job titles I am now the National Coordinator for the Participatory Science Platform (i.e. the PSP) and this role sits within the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Adviser (PMCSA, Sir Peter Gluckman). It is a joint initiative between MBIE and the PMCSA.

I couldn’t be more thrilled to be taking this transformational step for New Zealand and New Zealand science, and helping guide and shape such an innovative pilot initiative.

Over the coming months I’ll blog a lot more about the PSP, the context for it, my role, and what is happening out there in communities during this pilot. Soon you will find these blogs on a new Sciblogs space, once a more user-friendly name for the PSP has been unveiled.

Join me on this journey.


One Response to “A new era for engaging communities with science”

  • This is great news for public participation (Citizen Science) in NZ. Good luck in your new and exciting role.