Richard Holliman is a sociologist studying the related areas of science communication and public engagement with the sciences. Trevor Collins is a computing researcher working in technology-enhanced learning and specialising in community informatics. They are based at the Open University, UK. Working with scientists and other stakeholders on the Informing science outreach and public engagement (Isotope) project, they collaboratively developed a community website for science engagement practitioners (http://isotope.open.ac.uk). Here’s why they put public engagement at the centre of their research.
“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” could have been the tag line for the NESTA-funded ‘Informing science outreach and public engagement’ (Isotope) project. In the end we plumped for ‘create and share’ as a way of acknowledging the core messages that we learnt from our research, specifically that:
- Expertise in and enthusiasm for science engagement varies by academic discipline, the role of a scientist within a department, and so on;
- some scientists are keen to extend their scholarship practices, for example to learn about innovative ways to engage with members of the public;
- at least some scientists are willing to share their experiences of science engagement with other professionals working in this field; and
- a membership-driven website can act as a useful platform for sharing resources and expertise among science engagement practitioners.
In developing the rationale for the site we drew on complementary expertise from social scientists, community informatics researchers, educational technologists and scientists. In effect, we acknowledged from the start that no one disciplinary perspective had all the answers, or necessarily even the correct questions. This multi-disciplinary approach proved challenging in some respects, for example, in ensuring that our respective use of terminology was genuinely shared among researchers from different disciplinary traditions. Ultimately this approach proved rewarding, however, it required each of us to make our discipline-based thinking visible through discussion and negotiation.
Of course, these challenges ran through all aspects of the project, not least in terms of the theoretical perspectives and methodological approaches which informed our collaboration. To provide an example, we’ll compare ideas from the social sciences about public engagement, with related perspectives on socio-technical design informing participatory practices and community informatics.
Social scientists have written a great deal about the nature and purposes of public engagement with the sciences. This isn’t to say that other academic fields haven’t contributed to this emerging field of research and practice. Rather, it is to note that the Isotope project was partly informed by social science research, such as the work of Alan Irwin who, along with Brian Wynne, published an edited collection in the mid-1990s called Misunderstanding science. Following in the same vein as this generative text Irwin later characterised three ways of thinking about public engagement: in his terminology, ‘first order’ approaches can be characterised by initiatives designed to improve the public understanding of science through informing and educating; the ‘second order’ refers to approaches which involve public groups in a dialogue and consultation in order to share perspectives; and the ‘third order’ recognizes activities which draw on the perspectives of multiple stakeholders with a view to those stakeholders informing and influencing the outcome of a given activity.
We drew on Irwin’s description of third order thinking to the extent that we conceptualised our research participants as active participants and contributors to the project. As such, we wanted to explore what scientists thought about reaching out of their respective ivory towers: how did scientists define public engagement; did they engage, and if so, how; what audiences did they value; were there topics that they considered to be ‘out of bounds’; did they value opportunities to share resources about science engagement, and if so, how would they do this?
To collate viewpoints from across the relevant stakeholders, we worked with groups of professional science communicators, science teachers, science lecturers, research scientists and postgraduate research students based in the UK. In the initial phase of the project we collected data on these questions through self-reporting of science engagement activity, followed by questionnaires and a series of focus group interviews. The focus group interviews involved a number of structured exercises where participants worked in groups to develop plans for a science engagement activity. This led to a series of questions exploring the value placed on sharing resources and how this might best be achieved.
When describing Isotope we wanted to reflect the various contributions of the people participating in the project. To do this we worked in collaboration with Peter Devine to design this take on the Periodic Table. Each of the elements refers to a contributor to the Isotope project.
The design and development of the site was also informed by approaches to socio-technical design which involve users as sources of expertise and validation for creating effective technology. We sought to involve the project team and contributors as co-developers of the site. While this offered potential benefits with regard to ownership and responsibility for the site structure and content, it also raised challenges concerning the transparency and flexibility of the site design. In this case we used the Drupal content management platform to develop an initial prototype which could be easily configured and edited in order to provide the functionality and guidance needed. Through very short development iterations that directly involved the research team, we produced an initial version of the site in response to the questions and issues raised through the initial research phase of the project. The site was then tested and evaluated by a selection of individuals from the previously involved stakeholder groups, prior to a second stage of re-design and development to produce the second version of the site, which included several additional sections, clearer graphics and more concise guidance. Through developing the site incrementally in response to targeted actions and direct feedback, we developed reciprocal relationships between the stakeholders where each party was encouraged to contribute their expertise and benefit from the expertise of others.
The resulting website provides a forum for sharing resources and activities of interest that are curated by members of the community and facilitated by an editor. Of course, there will always be those who argue that we could have produced a website without the direct involvement of the science engagement community, just are there are scientists who question the purposes and benefits of public engagement. In our case, the co-development of the site produced something that we believe is better than we could have done individually, and the experience and relationships it developed has also helped inform other aspects of our research, teaching and scholarship in ways that we could not have anticipated.