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Engaging the unengaged in science? Try a little harder

Like many Australians, you may have recoiled in horror or laughed heartily when the results of the Australian Academy of Science’s science literacy survey surfaced last month. You may have had a similar…

Studies suggest around 30% of people are “generally unengaged” with science. Suarez Leandro

Like many Australians, you may have recoiled in horror or laughed heartily when the results of the Australian Academy of Science’s science literacy survey surfaced last month.

You may have had a similar reaction – although hopefully not – to last week’s position paper by Australia’s chief scientist, Ian Chubb, in which he urges a strategic approach to science, technology, engineering and mathematics in the national interest.

But worse than any of the above: you may not have reacted at all.

It might sound like it’s been lifted from an old Ripley’s Believe it or Not headline, yet the strange but true fact is: not everybody is absolutely fascinated by science, nor thinks it is vital.

Indeed, according to research conducted in 2011 by the Victorian Department of Business and Innovation, as many as 30% of the Victorian population are unengaged on science issues.

That’s three in every ten people lined up at the check-out at your average local shops who probably haven’t once thought of Brian Cox nor dinosaurs nor space, yet alone basic chemistry, in the last year!

The study, which was similar to others done in the UK and New Zealand, divided the public up into segments by their interest in science and technology and their ability to find and understand information on it, and came up with six key population groupings.

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Two of them – who we might refer to “the active and interested” and “the generally active and generally interested” – make up the bulk of those who watch science programs, read science blogs, take part in science public events and so on (about 55%).

We could call them the True Believers, but it might be more relevant to call them the Low Hanging Fruit, because they are the members of the population most easily reached with science communication activities and who by far the bulk of activities are designed for.

The middle 15% or so are from the segment that looks for information on science and technology but, when they find it, don’t understand it well – individuals who can usually be reached with a little bit more creative effort and clarity of language and so on.

But the last three segments together make up the nearly 30% or so of people who are generally unengaged and tend to be mutual strangers to most science communication events and activities: they don’t value them, understand them nor see the real point of them.

These people tended to be younger, female, less educated, more likely to think government funding for science should be cut and that science was out of control. A comment that emerged from one of several focus groups held with the unengaged, conducted in Melbourne by the Department of Innovation, was:

Why do you think it so important that we know about your science?

The answer is obvious, of course! Because it’s vital! Because it’s interesting. And because it is – well – it’s science!

It’s very easy to get carried away with a belief that we are doing a good job when we get great attendance and great responses from the science fan club, or those who easily engage on particular topics of interest. But against any measure across the wider society, those people are not representative of the whole population.

According to Inspiring Australia’s Developing an Evidence Base for Science Engagement Expert Working Group, published in 2011:

It’s essential to recognise the diversity within and among the Australian public, including non‐traditional audiences who are difficult to reach and are usually unengaged with scientific issues, such as indigenous communities, migrant communities and English second‐language speakers.

We also tend to miss people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, we tend to miss too many young people, and we tend to not even know who the others we are missing are.

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The Victorian study mentioned at the outset of this article found the three main reasons for having a lack of interest in science among the unengaged “segments” of the population were that respondents:

1) had never been interested in it (25%)
2) found it hard to understand (16%)
3) had other priorities in life (14%)

Focus group studies into the unengaged conducted by the Department of Innovation since 2009, and by CSIRO this year (using targeted recruitment and paying incentives to participate) found there were some interesting and unexpected common themes that emerged among scientifically-unengaged members of our community:

  • Nearly all reported a negative experience of science at school – although it’s not clear if it was the experience that drove the negative attitude or an existing negative attitude that drove the negative experience.

  • While the word “science” was a bit of a sleep-inducer, “technology” had a lot more appeal to it.

  • People did not actually want to know about how a technology worked – they just wanted to know that it did work, that it was safe, and that it would solve the problem that it was intended for.

Interestingly, when asked who they most trusted to tell them about a science or technology, the focus group members cited friends, relatives and even talkback radio hosts, often without reference to any expertise.

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So what do we do?

The unengaged and disengaged segments of the community have not been well-researched but appear to have quite different values, interests and levels of awareness of science and technology issues, compared to those people science communicators regularly engage with.

They therefore need to be reached with differently-framed communication, education or engagement activities. In my view, these should include:

  • going to where unengaged people are, rather than expecting them to self-select to come to you
  • not talking about the science and technology itself, but talking about outcomes such as water uses, energy or health; and then concentrating on how the technology is used and why.
  • understanding that talking about an application can lead to talking about science ideas, but not the other way around.
  • trying a little harder, then evaluating things and sharing your successes with others

It will be a challenge to do better, to reach those not so easily reached, but it’s a challenge we should all be prepared to step up to.