Demonstrating the benefits of science communication
By Toss Gascoigne
The issue of demonstrating the benefits of science communication activities to bosses or funding bodies is a challenge.
It’s hard to prove the benefits in the logical way: record the current state of affairs to establish a baseline – on, say, attitudes towards careers in science. Then run the program or activity to try and change things. Afterwards do a new survey to see if anything has changed: a sort of ‘before and after’.
There are obvious problems:
- these changes in attitude are pretty subtle and difficult to measure
- there are other events that also affect the situation, like a very personable scientist appearing on TV, and it’s near-impossible to separate what you’re doing from these other events.
So we revert to things easy to record, such as media coverage and bums on seats. But these don’t measure what you’re trying to do, like change attitudes. So they don’t convince anyone.
Nor do surveys. The media is full of reports of ‘independent’ surveys, trumpeting that 80% of people want more science taught in school or more action on climate change. But who commissioned the survey? Often it’s an interested party.
So that’s the bad news…
But some approaches can work.
One is telling stories: the girl who was going to be a hairdresser but after going to an engineering event, decided that looked more interesting. If you tell that story and add (something like), “This event was attended by 600 other girls, and if one in 10 had the same response as Nancy did, it means 60 new female engineers for Australia.”
A second course is to ask the person you need to persuade, Minister, boss or bureaucrat, and then ask them what will convince them. People are surprisingly willing to say. Bear in mind they may need to persuade others, and really want you to put a convincing case.
And here’s a third course used by a university trying to persuade school students to do engineering. They tested the attitude of kids before they did a week-long program, then immediately after they finished – and then again 6 months later. A fair bit of work, but it gives the review more credibility.