Do you know what “public engagement” is? No, really – do you?
It’s not writing press releases; nor is it writing articles in the Guardian, or doing an interview on Radio 4. The key is in the second word: engagement. What is meant by public engagement is actually engaging, in a dialogue, with members of the public. That’s not you telling them something and then thinking the job is done; it’s actually listening to what they have to say and talking to them about their beliefs and opinions and how your research might interact with those beliefs and opinions in some way.
The great thing about public engagement is that it works. It’s the right thing to do. Its predecessor, known as the deficit model, has failed. The deficit model relies on an assumption that if we, as scientists, provide enough information to the public, enough scientific facts, then they will see the World our way and agree with what we’re doing. They don’t and they won’t. This model has failed. The model that works is not the provision of facts and information, it’s the engagement model.
As you all probably know, I’m on Twitter (I have 1400 followers) and I have this blog, which has been read approx. 15,000 times since January. I’m quite proud of these numbers, I really am. But I’m under no illusions – this is not a major “public engagement” activity because the people I engage with are generally scientists. I’d love it if a couple of plumbers, brick layers, nurses, doctors, lawyers and accountants came on here every once in a while and provided a comment, but somehow I doubt it.
Despite this, my tweets and this blog are publicly available and therefore could be discovered and read by members of the public. I’m happy about this, very happy. I want to engage.
What I am not happy about is the existence of large, unwieldy institutional policies and regulations on the use of “social media”.
Why does this bother me? I’ll tell you – because I’m a person as well as a scientist. I do this because I care. OK, I do it because I get paid too, but mostly because I care. I love my job, I love my employers, and I love scientific research. I care that it is done well, and openly, and I get angry when it is done badly, or hidden behind unnecessary pay-walls. I get emotional, I can be elated and happy or angry and frustrated. I’m a person, and a scientist and I have emotions and reactions, and sometimes I vent those on this blog or on Twitter. None of my blog posts have taken more than 30 minutes to write, and some of them have been written through a red mist. So what? Impulse is human nature. I don’t think any of that should be filtered through 22 pages of rules and regulations, the IP department and the legal department; I don’t want anyone to shave off the rough edges and change my use of language. The public deserve to see real scientists, to see real reactions, to see that we care. If you asked them, I’m sure they’d tell you that they’d prefer to see real people with real emotions, rather than a trimmed down, well-dressed avatar spouting pre-processed opinion that’s been written by a team of legal experts. I care, and I love and I hate and I get angry and frustrated and that’s how I want to be, that’s how I want to communicate with you. Don’t tell me that’s not how I’m supposed to be.