On outreach

"The problem with the London sci-comm crowd," a friend once smiled to me, "is that they can't invite their mates to the pub without giving it a title and calling it outreach". That jest has been on my mind lately, as many among us fret over the future of the UK's oldest science outreach organisation, the Royal Institution, after a botched attempt to modernise its stately London headquarters left those same hallowed grounds under threat of sale. Inevitably, these conversations have led people to question what it is the Royal Institution does, and whether this qualifies a proposed multi-million pound bailout from the public purse. Some would go so far as to claim that the venerable institution has become hopelessly outmoded and outclassed by a new breed of irregulars, who fight science illiteracy and disengagement like guerilla soldiers in new battlegrounds (mostly pubs) and under new organisational structures (mostly volunteers). The threat to the Royal Institution's Mayfair headquarters exemplifies this narrative: being at once a venerated and deeply historical building while also a vainglorious monument that arguably has little to offer the day-to-day practical challenges of engaging the public with science. Old, fossilised, slow, and expensive, versus youthful, flexible, rapid, and cheap.  Do we care that the king is in check when the battle is fought by the pawns?

While there has been a surge in events to populate the social calendars of metropolitan nerds, I'd stop short of writing off the need for the Royal Institution on this trend alone. While they service a growing demand from young (and some not-so-young) people to explore their nerdy interests, I don't believe that's the same thing as outreach - even though they both share similar outcomes. The best way I can describe it is "science culture" - the active participation by a group of people in a shared interest. A cultural scene snowballs, it develops, it seeds future activity, it produces leading figures.  But just as club nights are not music outreach and watching the football in a pub is not sports outreach, science-themed evening events for a narrow audience fail to be outreach because they aim to serve the most accessible audience and not the most intractable one.

It's an old argument, one I’ve had before. Some years ago I met an old friend for a drink, a smart and self-effacing man I worked with on the government's disastrous Science: So What? So Everything campaign. (Ostensibly a science engagement project, it approached the problem just as you might expect a high-flying businessman to: science was a product that needed selling. You could PR it into relevance. But now isn't the time to discuss that.)  When we sat down in the last two seats in a crowded Soho café, we found ourselves next to Ben Goldacre and friend. Naturally, the conversation turned to the Science So What? project. Goldacre argued that the £2m wasted on that would have been better spent on supporting the then-burgeoning science cultural scene and the theatres he and his friends were regularly packing out. I countered that it was likely the 40,000 audience he touted were almost entirely made up of self-identified nerds. The remit of SSW was to engage with people who didn't like science at school and hadn't looked back since. Funding an event that didn't explicitly pursue that audience would have betrayed that goal.

My friend didn't say much through all of this, until we were alone sipping the last of our coffee. He pointed to a workman leaning one arm out the window of his white van, reading the Sun. "Take him. He doesn't need to understand how the large hadron collider works, and he doesn't have to care," my friend said, "but he does need to understand why we're spending billions on it. Because when the Government decides to shut that funding off, he'll be the one they justify their decision to. Not us."

That observation stayed with me, and has informed my personal view of outreach ever since. For better or worse, it will always be to me about securing the status of science within society, largely by engaging with people who don't need to and don't care to understand it.


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The problem with this is that I don't think you're entirely getting what people like Ben (and other 'metropolitan nerds' are saying, or appreciating what's actually being done at the moment.

You've made two assumptions here. One is that the grassroots events you're talking about only appeal to those who already identify with a particular 'community' (another assumption is that such a community exists in the first place, but that's a comment for another time). The second is that supporting existing events would involve them consolidating their existing audiences, rather than seeking new ones.

Neither of these things are remotely true in my experience. On the first point, I think there's a lack of data, and I can't speak for everyone else, but much of our planning is explicitly focused on how to make science and rationalism relevant in areas people wouldn't necessarily think of, feminism, politics, sex, the monarchy, trolling, whatever. The Pod Delusion podcast (and live events) get science out to a very large (20,000+), general audience. Ince and Cox are successful in large part because they're accessible enough to attract an audience beyond the core geek support. I could cite a ton of examples, and obviously assessing how successful all this is depends on scarce data; but to assume otherwise is pretty unfair.

Yes, audiences will always be self-selecting, because this isn't North Korea, but that's a problem for *everybody*. And come on - the Royal Institution's plans for a multimillion pound 'science salon' are just about as 'metropolitan elite nerd' as you can possibly get.

On the second point, the same 'metropolitan nerd' people are heavily linked with wider science outreach projects - Winchester Science Festival,Guerilla Science, GalaxyZoo, Science Burlesque, various comedy events and many similar projects that I won't bang on about. So clearly there's plenty of enthusiasm among nerds for putting on events with wider appeal, reaching out beyond the core to touch other communities, issues and people.

The problem is that doing stuff like this on any sort of scale, and getting the sort of metrics in place that people like you are asking for, requires cash; and while I'm a supporter of the RI, that's why I find their current attitude and sense of entitlement so galling.

Here's a bet of my own, though it's going to be a difficult one to prove. If you took the £22million that was spent on the RI's vanity project, it's fancy restaurant and expensive bar and corporate event spaces, and you ploughed that into the grassroots community, and you allowed them to experiment and yes, sometimes to fail, you would have seen a much better return on the investment.

By Martin Robbins (not verified) on 28 Jan 2013 #permalink

I went to my first Skeptics in the Pub event just before Christmas and found the audience was reasonably diverse. Perhaps there's a bit of "preaching to the converted" about some of science culture stuff, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. I think we have underestimated the number of people in the "general public" who actually have a good good understanding of science and engineering and want to hear more. Events that reignite or maintain an interest are surely desirable?

Thanks Martin. Top line is that I’m not arguing for the existence of the Ri over pub events, rather I’m using a comparison that you and others have made to explore my own personal views about what counts as outreach.

On the one hand you say that it’s fallacious to assume the existing science culture events only reach a narrow audience, but then you say that scarce metrics are kept on this and all audiences are self-selecting. No outreach audience should ever be self-selecting: with outreach, you ought to know exactly who you’re trying to engage before you even figure out what you’re going to do. In fact, it’s the only way to know what you’re going to do.

Secondly you say I’ve assumed money handed to these organisations would be spent consolidating audiences rather than expanding, when rather I’ve said that I feel they don’t qualify for funding earmarked for outreach. If the people behind them want to approach BIS or the Ri for funding, and accept that yoke of metrics, targets and KPIs, more power to them. But as things stand, I don’t feel they exercise the rigour to be labelled outreach. That’s not a criticism – as you point out, these events are well-loved, well-produced and popular. But in my opinion – and it is only a personal opinion - that’s not the same as being outreach.

I concur with Frank's point, and want to add to it, in my own words: if someone immediately understands the relevance of an event and proclaims "cool!" when you invite them, then your inviting them is not "outreach." It is simply, reaching your base. Using American politics as an example, if my heroine Elizabeth Warren invites me to a fundraiser, I'm likely to say "cool," sign up, and feel chuffed I was on the list. If the Democratic Party invites me, I'm likely to start swearing under my breath about those money-grubbing bastards - UNLESS they can clearly express why my attendance is in my interest. If the funding is specifically for pro-science candidates, or to get out the vote in poor communities, or something else I care deeply about, then I might at least read the invite. But once you've got me reading, you've got to make me see not only how it matters to me, but why my participation matters. Don't just tell me "it's good for you" - tell me why I matter to the future of science, why you value my perspective. Just like the Democrats won't get me shelling out my dough without that money somehow making a statement about the direction I want them to go in (more progressive), attendance at a science outreach event should give that construction worker a meaningful opportunity to listen and be listened to about where he wants funding placed - what sorts of research matter to him. I would assume engineering studies about safe working conditions would be valuable, but who's to say he hasn't cherished the idea of traveling past the speed of light since he was a child? If you presume "those people" lack the creativity, imagination and drive for progress that "these people" express once given a couple of pints, then events won't work. But if you don't even reach out to them in the first place, well, then, yeah, you're just having a pint with your mates. Even if there are 40,000 of them. It's called "preaching to the choir." I'm on my way to choir practice later this week, at Science Online 2013 in Raleigh. I can't WAIT! But thats science communication, networking, skills development - not outreach. What we do afterwards, with each other, is often outreach, and is often magnificently successful. But my point is, no matter how many things we may disagree on in the science communication community, the one thing we agree on without reservation is that science is cool. And each of us has a pretty solid idea of why we think so. Hence, we did not need to be reached out to. Hence, no outreach. Make sense?

By Khadijah M. Britton (not verified) on 28 Jan 2013 #permalink