The Culture of Science Engagement Is Becoming Less Formal, Experts Agree

Science communicators compared notes at a workshop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. [Lisa Abitbol/MIT]

At age 13, physicist and writer Alan Lightman designed a homemade rocket, formulated rocket fuel, and launched a lizard on the rocket. The lizard survived the launch and parachute landing but lost its tail since Lightman had forgotten to include the length of the lizard's tail in his calculations.

With this story, Lightman hooked an audience of journalists, scientists, world-famous rappers, science communicators, university students and others, who had gathered in a dark nightclub in Cambridge, Massachusetts to listen to four storytellers describe a personal interaction with science.

The Story Collider show was part of a two-day workshop, The Evolving Culture of Science Engagement, held in Cambridge on 22-24 September. An initiative of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Culture Kettle, in association with AAAS, the workshop brought together 70 leading-edge science communication practitioners and researchers to discuss how science engagement is changing and to provide examples of new and interesting programs.

"A writer's job is a special one," said GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan and Science Genius. "You're trying to draw them in, bring in those that are listening to your world, captivate them with your imagination, but also to learn. You want anything you say to be worth saying. You want to reach their mind and then reach their heart. That's what I want to do."

The workshop highlighted the role of techniques such as narrative, participation, mystery, and informality in science engagement. Practitioners shared their perspectives on and experiences in developing a range of communication and outreach activities, including science festivals, online video series, and comedy shows.

"We're seeing a change in science engagement similar to what's going on in other areas of contemporary culture," said Peter Linett, founder of Culture Kettle. "Take classical music, where performances were once very formal and serious and highly scripted. Today we're seeing new, grassroots approaches with more playfulness, informality, and spontaneity, and without that wall between the performers and the audience. People are connecting with science in new ways, too; there's more humor, personality, and emotion in the experience."

Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at American Museum of Natural History, explained that he has studied stand-up comedy to learn about comedic delivery and the way comedians interact with their audience. His radio program, StarTalk, is co-hosted by comedians and often visited by celebrities in popular culture to bring a different element to the science content discussed.

"Comedians are experts in pop culture, which is necessary to make somebody laugh," Tyson said. "Evidence that science is becoming more mainstream is that it has become the purview of comedians. The universe, by the way, is a hilarious place."

Workshop participants highlighted the need for ongoing discussion and resource-sharing between the science communication practitioner and research communities, including disseminating case studies of diverse engagement activities and making resources available for more in-depth collaboration.

The importance of science storytelling and finding new ways to connect with audiences also came to the fore at another event the same week, in Washington, D.C. At the second "Science of Science Communication" Sackler colloquium, hosted by the National Academy of Sciences and co-sponsored by AAAS, about 450 scientists, professional communicators and members of the public met for three days of workshops and presentations on effective science communication in areas including climate change, evolution, obesity and nanotechnology.

In summary remarks on the conference's last day, Alan I. Leshner, AAAS CEO and publisher of Science, highlighted several key ideas that had emerged, including the importance of culture and context.

Scientists seeking to engage non-scientific audiences should "know before whom you stand… You are speaking to them, not to yourself," he said. "Engagement requires warmth, and it needs to be clear we respect our audience."