In a special guest Q&A, Science Talk’s Dr. Kiki Sanford sat down with Brooke Smith, Director of Public Engagement with Science at The Kavli Foundation, and Rick Borchelt, Director of Communications and Public Affairs for the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science, to talk about key themes discussed during last year’s SciPEP (Science Public Engagement Partnership) Conference and what’s next for the partnership between The Kavli Foundation and the DOE.
Dr. Kiki Sanford: SciPEP is a collaboration between Kavli and the Department of Energy. Can you tell us a bit about how the collaboration came about, and why each of you realized this partnership was a good idea?
Rick Borchelt: In the DOE Office of Science, we do basic science research tied to the energy, national security, and/or the economic mission of the United States. We spend about $7 billion dollars on that every year and we think it is important that the people who fund these initiatives understand what we’re doing and understand how important that mission is. When we arranged a meeting with Brooke for an early discussion to better understand the engagement and communication of basic science, SciPEP really started to come together more formally.
Brooke Smith: The Kavli Foundation is focused on funding basic research, often referred to as curiosity-driven science. Part of Kavli’s mission is focused on creating a strategic program to develop a stronger relationship between the public and science. One of our early observations was that a lot of the success we’ve seen engaging the public in scientific conversations tends to be focused on applied science—not basic science. It’s much easier to engage the public in a meaningful two-way dialogue when it comes to climate science or water quality issues, but how do you initiate that same degree of engagement when you are a theoretical physicist, or a chemist working on the most basic understanding of how a cell works? We decided to bridge together our two broad communities of basic scientists to determine what is different when it comes to basic science, if anything.
RB: This partnership was made so much easier because Brooke and I have decades worth of experience working together. Going into this, we shared a common vision to focus on engagement and communication of basic science. The SciPEP Conference that we hosted last July was a great example of how we can tap the skills of a private philanthropy and a federal agency, and really come up with a terrific product that struck a resident chord in the community. The real question is: why aren’t more organizations and other philanthropies doing the same thing?
KS: As an attendee at the SciPEP Conference, the enthusiasm in the room was really palpable and all of the attendees were very engaged in the programming. The conference was focused on the why, what and how of the relationship between the public and basic science. What were some of the themes that really stood out to you from the event?
BS: I would categorize the takeaways in two buckets. One bucket is the list of research questions we still need to gather evidence related to: 1) the relationship between basic science and the public; 2) what the public thinks about basic science; and 3) what would result from various engagement activities with basic science. It’s a social science research agenda for basic science, ideally done in partnership with the practitioners. The second bucket is the institutional, individual and societal infrastructures that are creating challenges for basic science communications and engagement. And there we started to hear common themes, like the work is not incentivized, it lacks good pathways for practitioners and researchers to come together, diversity, equity, inclusion and justice is not at the center of the work, and we’re not investing in the professionalization and respect of the people who do this work. The question we’re beginning to ask is, while basic science communication suffers from the same challenges as broader science communications, does it suffer more? Is it harder in basic science?
RB: I also have a two-piece bucket. The first thing we noticed in spades is there is an inability to articulate the communication and engagement goals that you’re trying to fulfill. Those are very difficult conversations for science communicators generally, but certainly one where we suspect basic science suffers disproportionately. Why do we want people to know about basic science? What’s in it for the broader public? What’s in it for the institution? What’s in it for the researcher? Because those strategic goals aren’t articulated or tested in the first place, it’s hard to measure against them on the back end. Where there are metrics, there are metrics because they’re measurable, not necessarily because they’re meaningful or actionable. The other thing we noticed is the relative paucity in narratives for basic science. There are primarily two ways basic science is talked about in the community. It’s either the stepping stone that led you to applied science or technology you’re actually interested in, or it’s based on an intangible curiosity. Neither of the narratives provide a high degree of meaningful conversation to better understand how to engage the broader public because the relatability varies so drastically. How can we leverage curiosity and awe to impact that relatability when what’s “cool” or interesting to each person varies? Curiosity and what we understand about curiosity is certainly something we’re digging into.
View the SciPEP panels on curiosity, wonder and awe here and here.
KS: The SciPEP conference included a really dynamic and nuanced conversation about diversity, equity, justice and inclusion in public engagement in science. What did you learn about this area? Where do you see SciPEP going with this conversation?
RB: While certainly a challenge for all of science, justice, diversity, equity and inclusion is another area where we noticed the challenge might be greater in basic science. Focusing more strategically on reaching those historically disadvantaged or absent communities is a top priority to successfully engage the public in basic science. Our real challenge is making this more than cosmetic, more than performative, more than a spokesperson to carry a specific message to a specific community. We need to go back to science as an enterprise and acknowledge we’re not doing a good job, we need to do a better job and outline actionable goals to make it truly inclusive, truly equitable and truly just. We’re not going to solve the communications piece until the science piece is solved, but there are places we can lead our communities to find solutions.
BS: This was something that we were focused on from the onset and our steering committee was instrumental in making sure that diversity, equity, justice and inclusion was not an afterthought or an add on, which really helped shape the agenda from the beginning. Within each session–whether it was focused on curiosity and awe, or translating research into practice–considerations and commitment to think about those things with diverse audiences and in an inclusive way, with an eye towards justice specifically, came out in the discussions. In addition to that, we had a dedicated session focused specifically on diversity, equity, justice and inclusion. I learned a lot in the planning and participation of the conference, and I’m grateful to the community that came forward to deepen that understanding. The way it was woven in throughout the entire conference was really refreshing, with less of a focus on “why aren’t we talking about this” and more on “let’s talk about it now.” A lot of that led to a discussion around who gets to do basic science and what does that look like as a core component of engaging people in science and communicating science in more diverse ways. Those two elements are so closely linked together.
Check out the rapporteur remarks and the concluding remarks from SciPEP to hear more on the diversity, equity, justice and inclusion in public engagement in science conversations.
KS: What are opportunities for science communicators to become involved with the SciPEP initiative? What about with Kavli or DOE separately?
RB: The original goal of the conference was not to create an annual event; the goal was to understand if there is a difference when it comes to engaging the public in basic science, and the conference was a really powerful tool to scratch the surface of that goal. We are at the stage now where we’ve seeded a lot of the ideas and the conversations, we’ve championed this mission, and it’s time to turn it over to a larger community. We don’t plan to continue an annual SciPEP Conference, but we do want to continue a forever SciPEP conversation about engaging people in basic science.
BS: The landscaping from our first year of SciPEP conversations is outlined in our prospectus, which is a summary of the big questions and the things we need to better understand in order to advance the practices of basic science engagement. It’s our reflection of what we heard at the conference and the roadmap for what the community wants to focus on in the basic science communications and engagement space. In early March, we hosted listening sessions to have others in the community read the prospectus and provide feedback to direct the focus of SciPEP initiatives going forward.
We would also like to learn about those who are interested in hosting a conversation or writing a white paper focused on the key questions outlined in that prospectus. And for those of you leading science engagement and communications efforts about all of science (like ScienceTalk!) we would like to work with you to make room for conversations about basic science specifically – so that we are having those conversations in places many of you already talk about these issues. For anyone who might be a valuable SciPEP partner for these types of events, or has an event tied to these initiatives already underway, you can reach out to us at email@example.com.
About the Authors:
Dr. Kiki Sanford, PhD, is the host of the podcast ‘This Week in Science’ and Vice President of Public Relations at Science Talk.
Rick Borchelt is the Director of Communications and Public Affairs for the Department of Energy, Office of Science.
Brooke Smith is the Director of Public Engagement with Science at The Kavli Foundation.