Why Public Engagement Matters

Public engagement with science describes intentional, meaningful interactions that provide opportunities for mutual learning between scientists and members of the public. Mutual learning refers not just to the acquisition of knowledge, but also to increased familiarity with a breadth of perspectives, frames, and worldviews.

Baratunde Cola, a mechanical engineer, speaks to families at Family Science Days.

Baratunde Cola, a mechanical engineer, speaks to families at Family Science Days. | Credit: Atlantic Photography

Goals for public engagement with science in addition to mutual learning include civic engagement skills and empowerment, increased awareness of the cultural relevance of science, and recognition of the importance of multiple perspectives and domains of knowledge to scientific endeavors.

Why it is Needed

Because science is prevalent in all facets of our lives, the science-society relationship is complex, and there are many ways to approach it. The relationship can be constructive, tension-filled, or everything in between. Interaction between interested stakeholders is critical to finding common ground on scientific issues affecting society. Public engagement can provide a constructive platform for public views to be combined with scientific expertise in decision-making contexts.

From Public Understanding…

The traditional approach to the science-society relationship—particularly when tension exists—has been to try to increase public understanding of scientific discoveries and theories. However, many members of the public already understand basic scientific facts and concepts, yet they may disagree or be uncomfortable with the presumed implications. Thus education alone may be insufficient.

…To Public Engagement

The public engagement approach often uses and builds on public understanding efforts, while moving toward more comprehensive and interactive opportunities for dialogue and exchange. Through engagement, scientists and the public participate in discussions about the benefits and risks of the science and technology impacting our daily lives. In doing so, questions and concerns can be better understood and addressed. Further, involving a wide range of interested stakeholders can connect seemingly unrelated viewpoints, with potentially far-reaching effects. Scientists can expand the reach of their work, and make it more relevant to society.

Research Support for Public Engagement

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang is the 2013 recipient of the AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science.

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang is the 2013 recipient of the AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science. Immordino-Yang complements her scholarly work by asking hosts of her lectures to find ways for her to speak with public audiences during each visit. | Credit: Atlantic Photography

A growing body of work suggests scientists benefit from engaging with the public. Scientists can discover ways to make their work more relevant to society if they engage in two-directional dialogues with the public (which may also help to meet grant requirements, such as the National Science Foundation’s “broader impacts” requirement). Some research finds that scientists’ participation in public communication, particularly social media, may increase scientific impact.

Surveys of AAAS members indicate that many scientists value public engagement with science, but are not aware that their colleagues feel the same way. This latent support for public engagement suggests that finding a path to engaging the public may not be as challenging as many suspect.

Celebrating the work of respected scientists who engage public audiences may catalyze wider, more explicit recognition of the value of public engagement. AAAS offers an award for early career researchers who excel in their scholarly and public engagement work.

Despite the benefits of public engagement, scientists report barriers to engaging public audiences, notably time and a concern that it will shift attention from their research. Partnerships with public engagement practitioners, such as an outreach director or event organizer, can minimize the time required for a scientist’s engagement. See Many Approaches to Public Engagement for more ways to get started with public engagement.