Now there’s a question! It seems there’s never a shortage of discussion about what separates science communication and pubic engagement. And for good reason – depending on where you look and what you find, it can be utterly confusing. Have a quick search online for clarity and you’ll probably end up with more questions than answers.
Science communication and public engagement are often mentioned in the same breath and, even knowing the difference, we can see why. Because good science communication should be engaging! It should be targeted at an appropriate audience and, if possible, tested with that target audience to make sure its key messages are clear. It should educate and inform, inspire and entertain, so that it does ultimately engage those people. And there, it seems, lies the root of the confusion - that word ‘engagement’. Maybe to really see and understand the difference we need to look at it from another angle, so let’s try ‘involvement’.
The very definition of communicating something is to impart information and, at its core, that’s what science communication aims to do. And there are lots of different and brilliantly imaginative ways people are finding to do this. If you’re doing it properly, you might make amends to the messaging or call to action based on feedback to make sure your communication will be effective. But even with all the targeting and testing in the world, you’re not truly ‘involving’ people because, essentially, the communication is still driven by you. It’s something that you have decided you want to tell people about; you decide what they need to know and what you want them to do about it. It’s pretty much all one-way.
Now that’s not a bad thing, it’s simply that real public engagement couldn’t be more different. From start to finish, it’s about two-way communication and involving others. It’s identifying and bringing together a group of people, bound by a common interest or issue, to achieve a goal by sharing ideas, knowledge and experiences. You might be the lead for a project, but the people you involve are the ones that help shape and guide it. Whether your aim is to consult or collaborate, through an ongoing exchange and dialogue, they help identify the heart of the issue and they inform what action you should take to address it. Get it right and everyone involved benefits.
Science communication can be done by a lone person or organisation, but any form of effective public engagement should always be a partnership. So, if you’re still wondering whether you’re ‘doing’ science communication or public engagement take a minute to ask yourself who’s actually involved: Are the people you want to target occasionally chipping in on the route, but waiting for you at the end of the road? Or are they guiding the path and talking it through with you as you walk it together?
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