Think about it for a second… How many different ways do you describe science communication each day? In the morning you may call it outreach, around at lunchtime you reference engagement, and by the end of the day, you’re having a heated discussion about widening participation or sharing knowledge. It can certainly be confusing…
I came across this interesting paper which offers some definitions that may serve as a starting point for a broader discussion. What’s in a Name? Exploring the Nomenclature of Science Communication in the UK (full citation below) was recently posted to F1000Research and is currently awaiting peer review.
In the paper, Dr. Sam Illingworth and his co-authors from Manchester Metropolitan University used the results of a literature review and a survey of science communicators to present ‘concise and workable definitions for science outreach, public engagement, widening participation, and knowledge exchange, in a UK context.’ The survey sample size was pretty small (47), and all were practicing science communicators. It included both closed and open-ended questions. The results were interesting:
“Sixty-six percent of the participants agreed that their definitions of outreach, public engagement, and widening participation aligned with those of their colleagues, whilst 64% felt that their personal definitions matched those of their institute.
Only five of the participants felt as though the alignment of their definitions was different when comparing colleagues to institutes. Of these five, three of the participants felt as though their definitions matched those of their colleagues but not those of their institute, whilst two of the participants considered their definitions to be aligned with those of their institute, but not of their colleagues.
These results suggest that in a still emergent field, the participants of this survey are likely to be the driving influence behind the definition of science communication at an institutional level.
It is also worth noting that whilst the majority of the participants felt as though their personal definitions of outreach, public engagement and widening participation matched those of their colleagues and institutes, there were approximately a third that did not feel as though this was the case. If the participants that took part in this survey represent a fair cross-section of people working in science outreach, public engagement, and widening participation across the UK then it is somewhat alarming that such a significant proportion of them feel as though the fundamental basis on which their work is founded lacks such clemency in its definitions.
What is not clear from the above statistics is if there is any agreement between the participants’ personal definitions of outreach, widening participation, and public engagement.”
Responses to the open-ended questions were converted into word clouds. Here are a couple of examples:
Perhaps the most noticeable result from this study is that the open-ended responses to the survey resulted in a wide range of definitions of outreach, public engagement, widening participation and knowledge exchange amongst the participants, despite the quantitative data indicating that two thirds felt that their definitions of outreach, knowledge exchange, and public engagement agreed with those of their colleagues. This would seem to indicate that further communication is required both within and between institutes to ensure a level of consistency amongst science communicators.
Based on the current literature, and the results of this study, the following broad definitions are offered for each of the four considered topics:
- Outreach: a one-way discourse, in which scientists communicate their research to the general public.
- Public Engagement: a two-way dialogue, in which scientists converse with members of the general public in a mutually beneficial manner.
- Widening Participation: any activity that engages with social groups under-represented in HE, in order to encourage them to attend university.
- Knowledge Exchange: any activity that involves engagement with businesses, public and third sector services, the community and the wider public, and which is monitored for funding purposes.
The authors admit there is some overlap in the definitions, and that they’re largely dependent on the context in which they are used. They also know the study doesn’t provide a complete solution for the varying (and sometimes competing) definitions of science communication.
Let’s kick off a broader discussion…
How do you define science communication?
Share your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter using the hashtag #DefineScicomm.
Illingworth S, Redfern J, Millington S and Gray S. What’s in a Name? Exploring the Nomenclature of Science Communication in the UK [v1; ref status: awaiting peer review, http://f1000r.es/5p0] F1000Research 2015, 4:409 (doi: 10.12688/f1000research.6858.1)
I previously published a Q&A with Dr. Illingworth in which he discussed the value of scientists engaging with schools.