Connecting scientists and the public in online dialogues about science

My Churchill Trust Travel Fellowship Report, Connecting scientists and the public in online dialogues about science has now been published.

Social media offers much promise for the engagement of new global audiences. This report summarises my journey to the USA, Canada, China and Japan and includes useful observations, tips and case studies for those looking to connect the public with science via online platforms. In theory, social media has the potential to break down barriers and open channels of communication between people of every background and profession on a global scale. Online networks also have a huge potential to democratise many areas, especially academic scientific research. It can allow the public access behind previously closed doors and into restricted spaces through the use of video and images. Importantly, it offers and the opportunity for two-way conversations with global audiences no matter where the research is being conducted.

I travelled to the USA, Canada, China and Japan to meet creative individuals and organisations that are using social media in new and exciting ways to communicate and engage the public with science. I wanted to learn what environments and workplace structures allowed individuals and groups to thrive and integrate online engagement within their day-to-day work and explore what the future might hold. This is a particularly pressing issue for individual research scientists who wish to exploit social media to connect with the public but find stepping beyond traditional research endeavours to be difficult.

Through this journey, I connected with individual scientists, communication teams from research institutions, science centres, museums and government organisations in the USA, Canada, China and Japan. The organisations I visited included Yale University, University of Toronto, the University of Tokyo, MIT, Harvard and NASA. Many people gave up their time to share their work and thoughts with me and I am incredibly grateful to them all.

My interest in social media started when I was undertaking my PhD and I generated a modest network of international connections on Twitter. With this network, I discussed my own research work, news and topical issues in science and of course, some internet memes. Increasingly I realised the ‘professional’ benefits of using social media and received funding to attend conferences to present my research work and found new doors opening for me but I also learnt about engaging with public audiences via online platforms. Since 2012 I have been employed within the Public Engagement with Research Unit at the University of Aberdeen and I have helped others get started on social media networks at the University of Aberdeen and at other institutions.

Before I began my Fellowship I undertook some research to find out how researchers at my university were using social media. I wrote up the findings and you can find a link to the paper at the end of the report. I found that the vast majority of researchers were using social media to connect with their peers rather than reaching public audiences. I wanted to know how this might change.

Since my Fellowship in 2015 there have already been changes in the way in which different social networks ‘work’ (for example the introduction of Instagram ‘stories’). You can find basic guides on how to use an ever-growing plethora of social networks online and this report isn’t a ‘how to’ but a collection of ideas, approaches and best practice that could be applied no matter the network. I should also stress that my aims were not to find out how to ‘go viral’ (there’s some excellent advice on that topic already available from the experts at Buzzfeed http://www.buzzfeed. com/help/viral , if you are interested) but to see how engagement via social media can become part of the role of a scientist and generate a real, interested community around a research topic where work is not just communicated but where the public can help influence the research work through meaningful two-way conversations.

If you don’t read any further, these are the 3 ‘must-dos’ before opening any social media accounts as identified by myself and the experts I met:
1) Know what it is you are trying to achieve.
2) Know where your audience is (and make sure your efforts are focused there).
3) Plan and evaluate what you are doing.
4) Don’t copy or reinvent what already exists, but experiment early on and create a space for yourself online.

If you have trouble accessing the report just let me know and I will send a copy to you. You can see blog posts from all the different parts of my journey on my blog


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