Charting a Path for Public Engagement in Basic Science

When it comes to engaging the public in science, there is a lot of attention, practice and scholarship about science communication and public engagement in science generally, yet almost none has been specific to basic science. Through SciPEP, a partnership between The Kavli Foundation and the Department of Energy Office of Science, we embarked on a year-long effort to explore some big questions: Where should scientists turn to develop meaningful, effective public engagement around the basic science they are doing? Are the few resources about communicating applied science and technology that are grounded in social science applicable to basic research? And if we identify or develop resources, how do we make sure they are grounded in the best communication and engagement scholarship? How could we ensure that these efforts would be valued and sustainable not just by our scientists but in the basic research landscape writ large?

After a year of analysis and reflection, on these and many other questions, including a two-day virtual conference, we confirmed the paucity of evidence about communicating about or engaging with basic science. We also discovered more complexity around the social and societal questions of engagement around basic science. Offsetting these challenges, though, is our recognition that SciPEP has struck a resonant chord among our colleagues in science, communication, and scholarship. The sheer magnitude of the Communicating the Future: Engaging the Public in Basic Science conference (more than 1,200 attendees!), and the deep, rich discussions there, provided all the reinforcement we needed to know that this is what the community is hungry for: evidence-based tools and resources for basic science engagement.

Based on input from an outstanding and diverse conference steering committee, literature review authors, and colleagues with special expertise, we developed a prospectus – A Path for Public Engagement in Basic Science that landscapes public engagement with discovery science and the questions we want to surface for future work at SciPEP and for community consideration as well.

“Our next steps are to use our convening power and expanding relationships in these communities to stimulate and facilitate the discussions needed to identify the most productive areas for future scholarship and practice, as well as identify new future research areas to pursue that can deepen our understanding of people’s relationship with basic science,” stated Brooke Smith, director of science and society, The Kavli Foundation.

Science and Society