December 06, 2011

A dream conference on public science — help me imagine it

A new grant solicitation from the NSF has me thinking about how and why scientists communicate with laypeople like us, and how and why some laypeople get excited about it. I’ve blogged before about what makes that connection work, but I don’t think there’s been a national conversation about it. Maybe it’s time.

After all, the proliferation of new science content — much of it of a kind you wouldn’t have seen even five or ten years ago — is remarkable. From podcasts like Radiolab and StarTalk and live series like the scrappy Story Collider or the star-studded TED Talks, to new approaches in old-media outlets like Scientific American and PBS, not to mention all those books for the “general reader” that scientists and science journalists are writing, there’s a new energy and a new flavor around science communication. Human narrative is becoming more central, as is humor. Personality and subjectivity are breaking in. The limits of science, and its blurry boundaries with mystery and speculation, are coming out of the closet.

And the whole thing feels less like “science education” than like...well, a cultural phenomenon. Creative intellectual expression meets audience enjoyment. Science as song.

The nature of this change is fascinating to me, and it seems to be largely unexamined. We should be talking about what impulses drive it, what its historical antecedents and social influences are, and especially what it hopes to achieve.

Enter that grant program from the National Science Foundation, which invites proposals for research into innovative evaluation methods in formal or informal STEM education. Don’t worry, it took me a few seconds to sort out the self-referentiality there, too. When I got my head around it, and especially when I saw that there was a grant category for organizing a conference, I realized that this could be an opportunity to bring the best minds in the field together to discuss both sides of the coin:

What is good public science? / What good is public science?

In other words, what does engaging, energizing public science look and sound like? How does it differ from its implicit opposite, professional or inward science, and from the traditional ideals of classroom-based or museum-based STEM learning? How does it relate to other domains of cultural production and engagement?

And the flip side: what is public science meant to achieve, and for whom? What kinds of social, civic, or individual goods are at stake? Most relevant to the NSF grant guidelines, how can we tell if it’s working? We could use this dream conference to come up with new evaluation metrics—or, to use that trendy term, a framework—sensitive to these new forms that science is taking all around us. ...

What if we gathered some of our favorite practitioners of public science—physicists like Brian Greene and Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrobiologists like Peter Ward and Seth Shostak, radio producers and podcast hosts like Jad Abumrad and Steve Mirsky—and asked them, What is it you’re doing, and why are you doing it?

What if we threw in a few great science writers and bloggers? And people from NOVA, Discovery, and National Geographic? Sociologists and philosophers and historians of science? Organizers of science festivals (a category that includes Greene and his wife, the journalist Tracy Day) and citizen science initiatives? A radical or two from the worlds of classroom science pedagogy and informal science institutions? Not to mention a couple of funders and philanthropists who support these new strands of public science?

What if it weren’t a formal symposium, with pre-written talks and structured panels, but something more in keeping with Plato’s Symposium: informal, opinionated, passion-fueled and wine-lubricated, running late into the night.

What a conversation we would have. And what a book it would make—a volume of essays on the nature, value, and future of public science engagement, with chapters emerging from debates at the conference.

In addition to the book, of course, we’d emerge with that evaluation framework, which would reflect the group’s ideas about the purposes of public science. We could also develop a research agenda to test the new framework in a variety of settings and with a variety of audiences—including people whose forms of engagement aren’t usually included in evaluation studies (e.g., podcast listeners, book buyers).

Who would you invite to such a conference? What’s the perfect institution or organization to host it? Help me dream it up, and, if this is your field, let me know if you’d like to be involved. But don’t dally; proposals are due on January 25.


Top: Tracy Rowland, Story Collider storyteller. Photo Bryan Derballa for the Wall Street Journal [article].

Middle: Radiolab hosts Jad Abumrad (recently a MacArthur "genius award" winner) and Robert Krulwich. Photo Marcus Lau, Los Angeles Times [

Bottom: Celebrity string theorist Brian Greene with his wife Tracy Day, an award-winning Journalist; the couple founded the World Science Festival in New York. Photo Chris Lee, New York Magazine [

Elizabeth Merritt — December 07, 2011

Must have science writer: Carl Zimmer
Must have Quantum physicist/author: Seth Lloyd
Must have Invertebrate Paleontologist: Nigel Hughes

James Bryant — December 08, 2011

Nigel is a good choice, Beth.
I would like to see an effort to remind people that science is an inherently human activity, not something invented by academics. It has really only been since World War II that most science disciplines have been dominated by career academics. Without what we tend to call the "amateur scientist", most bodies of scientific knowledge would simply not exist.
Too many celebrity scientists would, I fear, kill the public engagement element. Instead, there would just be an audience showing up to see the "big guns" do their "star turns".

Peter Linett — December 08, 2011

Thanks, Beth -- I love Zimmer, and for some reason the theoretical phsyicists and their various subspecies are well represented in this contemporary wave of books and podcasts.

And great points, James. Celebrity is only one element of what's going on, and I don't want it to dominate the conference. But it's important to explore, because it's new and old at the same time. I'm imagining an invitational, small-ish gathering with the list balanced across lots of dimensions. A roomful of peers, not gawkers.

I couldn't agree more (and have written before) that science is a human, social, cultural activity. Professionalization has had upsides and downsides. Amateur (with its etymological roots in "love") enjoyment needs to be modeled by scientists field before it can be felt and mirrored by the rest of us. Some of the best ones never forget their own passion and personality along the way -- Feynman was a great example, and Greene and Tyson are latter day cases.

Can you think of interdisciplinary university centers or science institutions that would make a great host?

Matt Matcuk — December 12, 2011


I think this is a fantastic idea.

A few thoughts/questions.

It's easier to describe the appearances and characteristics of this new approach than it is to understand what's driving its current levels of creation (and consumption). On its surface, this new mode:
-- is story-driven
-- celebrates subjectivity
-- exploits the fundamental differences between formal and informal science education; which are too many to list here...
-- plays with notions of expertise and authority
-- recognizes the politicization of science
-- demonstrates how central the affective dimension is to our learning processes
-- adapts itself to the changed sense of scale that we bring to stories.

But what's brought us to this point now? What's driving/feeding the trend?
-- proliferation of participatory media
-- relative scarcity of content [as the channels for creating it expand]
-- increasing scientific literacy levels of the public
-- importance of subjectivity in a postmodern world
-- re-birth of the centrality of story
-- and about twenty other factors...

In a more self-interested light, what do these changes mean for the way we bring science to the public in informal learning institutions such as museums? What are the core elements of this approach that we should incorporate and adapt?

Finally, I think that you're right that this new approach requires additional modes of evaluation. In contrast to traditional evaluations of cognitive gains, I'd say that this approach would seek to measure:
-- the affective goals of an experience
-- the ability of the experience to evoke attitudinal change
-- the degree to which participants in the experience respond to it, personalize it, and share it with others.

Look forward to hearing more about your proposal.

Leah Reisman — December 29, 2011

The Exploratorium in San Francisco seems like it would be a great institution to involve in this project-- it's a fascinating place that does a great job of blending the boundaries between science, art, and personal experience.

Matt Wasowski — July 29, 2012

Chris and I (the Godfather and Big Boss of Nerd Nite, respectively) would be happy to attend any event!

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