The acceptable face of the limelight? Kisane Prutton on public engagement opportunities

Over the last 20 years scientists have come under increasing pressure to communicate their research to the wider public. Public engagement is now a predominant feature in scientific strategy and research funding; the term is fast becoming synonymous with the notion of the ‘civic scientist’, the scientist who chooses to put the interests of the public before their own.

In support of their strategic objectives, the British Psychological Society has just awarded four grants to psychologists whose projects embrace the spirit of public engagement (see Chair of the Society’s Publications and Communications Board, Dr Graham Powell, calls them ‘shining examples of real-life psychology enriching real lives’.

One of the awards went to Dr Victoria Winson, from North East London NHS Foundation Trust, for her Men’s Allotment Group. Victoria was awarded £2954 to help fund the next two years of the project, a ‘green gym’ in Barking and Dagenham for men who are at risk of depression and possible suicide. The rationale for the project stems from the fact that men are notoriously poor at seeking help for emotional problems. Whilst they are less likely than women to be diagnosed with anxiety or depression, they are three times more likely to successfully take their own lives.

Victoria described the men’s reactions to the pilot project as extremely positive, ‘You can see that people have visibly grown in confidence. These men have embraced the idea of taking control of the allotment and all the practical tasks associated with growing their own food. They have found that for the first time in a long while, they are starting to take responsibility for their lives.’ BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind will be featuring The Men’s Allotment Group in March with a follow-up programme in July.

Projects such as the Men’s Allotment Group illustrate that by thinking differently we can target a niche audience, the very individuals who need our support. In contrast, media engagements are designed to broadcast to a wide and diverse audience. Whilst traditionally considered one of the more efficient, if not high-profile mechanisms to interface with the public, they are not popular with scientists. The media elicit the classic ‘flight’ response from scientists; they tend to shy away from journalists, citing the risk of reporters distorting, misrepresenting or over-simplifying their message, whilst quietly fearing ridicule from peers. Since the proliferation of new media technology however, there is an argument that scientists no longer need the journalist-middle-man to reach the wider audience. The new, emerging public engagement arena is looking appealing.

Advances in digital technology mean that we can host online forums, virtual scientific exhibitions and video podcasts on the web. We can reach into any home that has broadband (with informed consent of course!). There is much the net-generation can teach us about using the new social media vehicles such as Twitter, blogging and YouTube; the opportunities to reach out to people are growing exponentially and are tremendously exciting. However, let’s not get too carried away with the potential of the web, it may carry our messages far and wide but the inherent social isolation may cross swords with the heart of our philosophy. Long live face-to-face engagement!

Poliakoff and Webb (2007) suggest there are four main reasons why scientists should undertake public engagement activities: science is central to many issues of interest to the public; direct engagement with the public helps restore potential media distortions; positive perception of science may lead to positive support for funding; and, last but not least, public engagement activities can be fun and enriching for those who participate.

In their research investigating what factors predicted scientists’ intentions to participate in public engagement, Poliakoff and Webb found that scientists were more likely to participate if (a) they had done it before, (b) their attitude towards participation was positive, (c) they felt they had the skills to do it, and (d) they recognised other colleagues were also engaged in such activities.

Interestingly, it would appear that our American colleagues have applied the findings from this piece of research (which is actually British) to shape another vehicle into the public arena, policy makers. The Government Relations Department of the America Psychological Association provides training to psychologists who wish (with safety in numbers) to ‘serve as federal policy advocates for psychology’. According to their training flyer, their day-long training starts with an overview of the legislative process, covers the skills to inform and influence policy makers and involves a visit to Capitol Hill to meet with Members of Congress. Naturally it includes refreshments. More tea, Mr President?

I wonder if British psychologists would be as shy of our ministers as they are of our journalists?

Poliakoff, E. & Webb, T.L. (2007). What factors predict scientists’ intentions to participate in public engagement of science activities? Science Communication, 29, 242–263.

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