Over July 27 – 28, science journalists, public information officers, PIOs, and scientists ‘gathered’ online at the #SciPep conference to discuss strategies for communicating basic research to the public. WD&E’s Communications Coordinator Ingrid Ockert reflects on what she learned during the conference.
SciPEP (Science Public Engagement Partnership) was organized by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science and the Kavli Foundation. They came together to support “ a common interest in ensuring that basic science engagement is supported, sustainable, and effective.” From all accounts, it was a roaring success. Over 2,300 attendees ‘showed’ up from over 80 different countries for the two-day conference. The conference ran for two days and was completely free for attendees.
Several questions framed the conference, including:
What sparks curiosity, wonder, and awe?
How can we communicate basic science to audiences?
How can we ensure public engagement in basic science is equitable and inclusive?
These are questions that have vexed science communicators for decades. (Indeed, some of the attendees recalled that the DOE held a similar conference twenty years earlier). As a science writer and someone who deeply cares about outreach, I feel like #SciPep helped me make some headway in thinking about these questions. Despite the virtual nature of the conference, I felt completely immersed. In addition to the seven plenary sessions, there were open chat rooms that attendees could visit, as well as poster sessions. Much like an in-person conference, I found myself racing from room to room, trying to participate in every conversation. (And yes, like a real conference, a few times I found myself alone in a room, having misread the schedule).
Berkeley Lab also had a large presence at the conference. Science writers from across the divisions were there, including ALS, Biosciences, and Strategic Communications. It was delightful to ‘bump’ into other writers from Berkeley Lab throughout the day and compare notes on the sessions. During the poster session, I caught up with Jenn Tang, Director for Federal and Community Relations. She represented Berkeley Lab during a poster-session on the second day of the conference. Strategic Communications organized a poster about the Lab’s The Next 90 campaign, a multi-part series that has included an interactive website, podcast, and ongoing newsletter. Tang told me:
Many people across the Lab helped bring the 90th anniversary campaign to life, and it was rewarding to see those efforts recognized by the conference organizers through their selection of the Lab as a presenter in the poster session. As a conference attendee, I listened to several plenary talks and deep dive discussions, which were inspiring and thought-provoking. I look forward to putting into practice what I learned!
I was similarly inspired by the plenary talks, especially Plenary #4. Featuring stunning talks by two experts, the fourth plenary asked the audience to reconsider our perspective on the words that we often use to describe science: wonder, awe, and curiosity. The first presentation, given by Dr. Tania Lombrozo, a psychology professor at Princeton University, encouraged us to rethink the idea that curiosity is a ‘trait’ that only some people have (which is a traditional way of looking at science outreach that I’ve never particularly liked). What if everyone is curious, Lombrozo suggested, and curiosity is actually a state of mind? Her research showed that if someone is curious about science and they get a ‘satisfactory’ answer about science, then they are likely to want to ‘dive’ more into that subject. Good science communication, her research suggests, can jump-start a cycle of curiosity. Key to this, she emphasized, is that an audience believes that they can understand a scientific explanation. If they ‘give-up’, then the cycle is broken. Daniel Silva Luna, a graduate student at the University of Otago, gave the second presentation. He encouraged us to think of the science communication landscape as a multicultural mosaic. Key to this, Luna suggested, was understanding how every language has its own version of the English concept of ‘awe.’ He pushed us to reconsider the many different forms of ‘awe-types’ in English-language science communication and the emotions that each type evokes. How does the ‘awe’ of watching an experiment unfold compare to the ‘awe’ that someone feels in nature? The speakers were excellent and, themselves, awe-inspiring. Nobel-prize winner Dr. Jennifer Doudna also participated in a fun Q&A with NPR’s longtime science journalist, Joe Palca.
There were also excellent plenaries focused on equity and inclusion. Dr. Beronda Montgomery, a biochemistry professor at Michigan State University and a cofounder of Black Botanists Week, called upon the larger community to prioritize inclusive practices. “Inclusion is not about just inviting people to share ideas at the table, it’s about reformulating the table itself,” she commented. She noted that it simply isn’t true that academia can’t change. Look at COVID, Montgomery noted. In less than a week, every university department in the United States pivoted to online teaching, without years of committees. Surely, Montgomery noted, we can change on equity & inclusion, too, if we commit resources.
Many of the outreach teams that I chatted with during the poster sessions also hoped that their projects would create greater equity and inclusion in the scientific community. One of my favorite conversations was with Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute’s group. The Zuckerman Institute is a neuroscience research center in Harlem, New York. Starting in 2019, they began a collaboration with a CBO, the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, and nonprofit Arts & Minds. Over time, they expanded to include The Studio Museum in Harlem, Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance, Harlem International Film Festival and the Dance Theatre of Harlem. The Zuckerman Institute works with these institutions to create science/arts programming in person and online. The team emphasized to me that they don’t direct the events themselves; instead, they are guided by the expertise and leadership of their community partners. They stream across Facebook Live, YouTube, and Zoom. Since 2019, the Zuckerman Institute has produced 36 events (all but three have been virtual). Some of these events have paired live jazz performances and conversations with a neuroscientist. Other events have included dance demonstrations, meditations, and film screenings. The Zuckerman Institute group had great success; even with the challenges of COVID, audiences showed up. Workshop attendance ranged from 16 to 108 people. Up to 2,900 users viewed their live streamed events. “Despite the challenges of shifting to a virtual environment,” they reported, “The advantages have included reaching larger audiences from a greater geographical area than would have been possible in a physical space for the same budget.” Remote events had enabled a larger, more diverse community to participate in events.
As I wrapped up the conference on Day 2, I felt like the biggest takeaway was that science writers are only just grasping our new tools of engagement. Digital technologies, like the conference software that helped us attend the event, really will help communicators reach new audiences. We’re only just figuring out the best practices to reach them. Part of my role during the conference was to moderate two live discussions; some of my session attendees tuned in from the cities in the United Kingdom, India, and Romania. Some people were getting ready for bed; others were playing fetch with their dogs from a park. To me, it was incredible how all of us could be so far apart and yet very much intensely present with each other for two days.
For many years, video-calling technologies were somewhat of a daydream, but I feel like the technology has finally caught up. As science writers, we are tasked with communicating the future; yet, the future is very much going to dictate how we communicate science.