Carl Sagan once said, “we live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.” For most places in the United States, this statement still rings true today. Science outreach, now more than ever, is a critically important endeavor. Experts needed to engage the public in hopes of helping society make informed decisions for the future.
Scientists today have access to tools that were not available during Sagan’s lifetime. No longer do households have encyclopedias on their bookshelves (some of us are old enough to remember when we asked questions as a child, our parents would direct us to the many volumes of the household, hard copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica!).
Today, the world is digital, wireless and on mobile devices. The new communication methods of social media, live streaming, blogging, and wikis offer opportunities for individual scientists to engage with the others like never before, and a growing number of scientists are using these digital tools for outreach. Online, outreach efforts can and must play important roles in educating the public. A recent study found that people with knowledge gaps in science overwhelmingly used the Internet to increase their understanding and knowledge levels .
The need for science outreach is apparent; yet, scientists are often unable to prioritize public engagement efforts. Reasons for not participating in outreach include little support or incentives to do so. Many scientists also claim that a contributing factor for outreach inactivity is a lack of time for such efforts. One problem with the individualistic approach is that science outreach efforts rely solely on a single scientist’s willingness to participate. Ecklund, James, and Lincoln note, “Half of academic scientists are engaged in some type of outreach though 5 percent of the most active public scientists do half of all outreach.” Also, scientists view “outreach as something that must be done on one's own time, outside of ‘real’ research”.
If there was a way for a group of experts to come together for outreach efforts, collective outreach, perhaps the burden and time commitment could be overcome. Here, we present a new concept for scientific outreach that addresses these issues. We tested the concept at the recent 2017 3rd Euro-Asia Zeolite Conference (EAZC), and as described below, the outcome was very positive.
Specialized Scientific Meetings and Outreach—the Current Situation
Unlike large conferences, specialized scientific meetings are often overlooked and underreported by the media. Ideas that are exchanged at these small, specialized meetings are most typically confined to those in attendance (unless of course an impactful discovery is announced). Some participants may take it upon themselves to live tweet sessions so that others may reap the benefit of what is being presented. However, the problem with this approach is that the individual’s attention is divided between learning and tweeting—he or she may not absorb as much information and/or misunderstand content while attempting to simultaneously do both tasks. Furthermore, Ekins and Perlstein note, “the success of live tweeting appears dependent on the engagement of conference organizers with Twitter and its active encouragement before, during, and after the meeting…surprisingly few conferences are actively encouraging scientists to tweet.” At specialized meetings, journalists may be in attendance to cover news from the meeting, but their reporting often is seen only by a select few, as their articles appear in society newsletters or other field specific outlets.
Specialized Scientific Meetings and Outreach—a New Approach
What are characteristics of specialized scientific meetings that can be exploited to provide meaningful outreach to the public? First and foremost, these meetings bring together a group of experts (and most often the inventors of the field) in a focused area of science. Second, these meetings typically have some type of poster session or gathering other than oral presentations that are used to disseminate the latest, and often, the most interesting information in the field. These more informal situations are typically where the greatest exchange of information occurs, as participants are not impeded by the timelines and guidelines of the more formal oral presentations (e.g., groups of people will gather around a particular poster and together discuss and argue the points presented in the poster). Here, we describe a new concept for performing scientific outreach that was created to take advantage of specialized scientific meetings. The question we addressed is “how can the collective knowledge of small gatherings of experts be used to create high quality content that is available anywhere in the world?”
At the 3rd EAZC, held in Bali, Indonesia January 2017, we tested the idea of what we are calling collective outreach. We define collective outreach as a group of experts in a specialized field who work together with the common goal of creating open access, accurate content in terms that are understandable to those that are not highly trained in their area.
Collective outreach can be done in various ways, and at the EAZC, the goal was for attendees to improve the public’s understanding of zeolites. Zeolites are solids that have a very wide variety of commercial applications that range from making gasoline to providing portable oxygen generators for patients who need increased oxygen for medical reasons. The multi-billion dollar zeolite applications and industries are little known to the public. In order to target outreach to the public on the importance of zeolites to modern society, we selected the 3rd EAZC to begin. In a Plenary Oral Presentation, one of us (MED) explained to the meeting participants the concept of collective outreach and invited participation. In a poster session, SMM presented the poster “Improving the Public’s Understanding of Zeolites through Collective Action Online.”
During the poster session, SMM orchestrated groups of zeolite experts to collectively create new and accurate content that for the Wikipedia page on zeolites. Wikipedia is the seventh most visited website in the world, and has ca. 8,000 views per second. Additionally, Wikipedia is now considered to be as reliable as the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Since Wikipedia is open access and available worldwide to the public, we considered it an important resource to use in developing our concept of collective outreach. Substantial edits were made to the Wikipedia page during the poster session, as scientists worked together to create new content, fine tune the language of the new and existing content, and add references. Everyone who participated in the exercise remarked at the ease in which one can create an account and edit pages. Several people said they would be willing to do edits on their own, and all remarked that they would be willing to participate in a similar exercise in the future.
In addition to enhancing the Wikipedia presentation of zeolites, video content was created by live-streamed the exercise to the public via Periscope (a free live-streaming application that is typically accessed from smart phones). The live-streaming showed scientists working together to create Wikipedia content and interviews of zeolite experts from places like MIT, University of Tokyo, Valencia, Spain, etc., speaking about their research and why it is important to the public.
The interviews provided others with direct access to scientists that they would not normally hear about and from. People from around the world viewed the live-streaming interviews (Periscope shows audience participants in real time, and these viewers can type in questions or comments throughout the stream), and the archived video can be accessed at a later time. Explaining highly technical research in this format proved difficult for some of zeolite experts, but all saw the value of participating in such exercises.
New technologies such as Periscope offer tremendous opportunity for those who wish to engage in outreach, and at this time, it remains a mostly untapped resource by experts. Unlike traditional forms of broadcasting, live-stream applications have a low barrier of entry and high potential for impact. All that is required is a device with the free application and a good wireless Internet connection. Experts can easily broadcast to the public in solo outreach or collective outreach activities. In observing the participants at the EAZC, we found that first-time Periscope users were much more comfortable when engaging in a group conversation rather than speaking directly to the camera. For this reason, we see great potential for collective outreach activities on live-streaming applications.
Outreach Expanded—Benefits and Opportunities with Collective Outreach
For scientific communities: The number of commitments that scientific experts have is not likely to decrease anytime soon. We often hear them say that they have a desire to help educate the public, but do not have the time to do so. In order to bridge the knowledge gap Sagan described many years ago, we must change our approach to outreach. The exercise we tested at the 3rd EAZC showed that, given the opportunity, experts are willing to participate in collective outreach. Many of the people who participated in the exercises had not used social media before or engaged in outreach programs.
By making outreach easy, accessible, and not time consuming, scientists are much more likely to participate. Collective outreach also takes the burden off of the individual. It allows individuals who would normally not participate in outreach on their own do so as a collective. The concept of outreach at specialized meetings could be accomplished independent of fields of expertise, as almost all specialized meetings have poster sessions and topics listed in Wikipedia.
For the public: The scientific communities must engage the public in healthy ways to provide information that can be trusted to be truthful and accurate. Repositories of such information, like Wikipedia, provide free access to enormous amounts of information. The concept of collective outreach enables top scientific experts, including those who have created the new information and technologies, to engage in creating content that can benefit all of society.
We present the case for collective scientific outreach and believe that implementation will lead to a “win-win” situation for both scientific communities and the public.