Viewpoint: Peter Trevitt
- Current role:
Peter Trevitt works to design science exhibits and develop new forms of outreach in his role as CEO for Techniquest, an educational charity based in Cardiff. Its mission is to engage people with science and to motivate them to learn more, as well as address science-related areas such as maths, engineering and technology. The Techinqiuest Science Discovery Centre in Cardiff Bay has over 120 hands-on exhibits to entertain and educate visitors of any age, and also has a theatre and planetarium. Techniquest designs, builds, installs and maintains almost all of its own exhibits, as well as offering a consultancy service and a “design and build” capability for clients, both in the UK and overseas.
What does good public science engagement look like?
This article sets out some of the lessons that 20 years of experience in science communication has taught me. Looking back, the learning has been quickest when the science is particularly controversial perhaps because the exercise is tested more severely. The lessons apply in other cases too however, because there will always be some people who will hold strong views, and for these people any weaknesses in the exercise may be amplified.
First, consider your audience. This is all too easily missed out. Who are they? What do they know? What do they think and why? What vocabulary do they use? What variations are there? Plenty of consultation is needed and some of this work benefits from expert advice. As with all advisors and contributors, check for and avoid any conflicts of interest they may have.
Consider the role of the host organisation. Engagement works best when there is space for the audience themselves to air and debate their views in an informed and reasoned environment. The host should be a facilitator, not a teacher or an expert, and should be seen as a trusted, neutral party. Going further, the engagement can be deeper if the audience can see a meaningful outcome to the experience - the hosts of some of the best schemes anticipate this by negotiating mechanisms for passing the audiences’ views on to third parties, for example politicians or industry. Caution is needed, however, to not exaggerate the impact this may have or trust may be undermined.
A level of background information must be offered to participants, and deciding the extent and content of this is a particularly important. Compromises will be essential as there will be differing views, particularly when the subject is clearly controversial. Too much information that overwhelms or confuses is pointless, and considerable skill is needed to research, edit and present the information. Ideally it should be fairly comprehensive, but layered so that individuals can easily find what suits them without sacrificing too much balance – a task in which institutions such as good museums or science centres excel. It should include different views and ideas and not be afraid to describe them in a fair and factual way.
The balance of this background information is critical, especially when the issues are controversial. For me, there are some do's and don'ts. It's tough, but a position on the issues should, if possible, be decided and defined by the host organisation, as it undermines credibility to duck this. However, it may not be necessary to state this to the audience: its value is mainly in guiding the editing and development. A range of expert and influential people should be involved in compiling the information – experience shows it is best to consult with them on a 1:1 basis rather than as a group.
Choosing your advisors
The choice of specialist advisors needs considerable care, research and discussion. Advisors should cover the whole spectrum of views if possible, and some will have opinions you may personally disagree with. Once chosen, there will be tensions, especially in areas that are highly controversial, and these need extra dialogue. A useful target is to try to avoid any of the advisors withdrawing during the planning period or, if this proves unavoidable, to at least work to delay their departure. Their willing involvement for, say, half of this period may make the difference later on between them attacking the exercise publically and being neutral.
Attention to detail
Whether or not the matter is generally very controversial or not, some people will have strong views. Criticism of the host can undermine public confidence in the whole exercise and even make future engagement on different issues more difficult. Attention to detail in terms of both the background information, and the way in which the audience’s views are aired,, will help ensure that the focus is where we want it, on the issues and the science.