People Science & Policy Ltd (PSP) was commissioned by The Royal Society, Research Councils UK and The Wellcome Trust to undertake the “Meeting the Challenge: Factors Affecting Science Communication” project. There were six aims:
- To establish the relative importance of science communication to UK researchers
- To examine the amount and type of science communication activities undertaken by UK researchers
- To explore factors that may facilitate or inhibit science communication
- To explore the extent to which researchers may wish to undertake further science communication
- To explore the views of funders, senior academics, social scientists and other relevant groups on factors affecting research scientists engaging in science communication activities
- To provide evidence about how universities, other research institutions, and funders can promote effective science communication.
The survey was hosted on the PSP website and potential respondents were invited to take part via a personal email setting out the objectives of the survey and providing each potential respondent with their own hyperlink to the website. The survey was only accessible to those with a link to ensure that the sample was statistically representative.
The sample is designed to be representative of scientists and engineers undertaking research in UK higher education institutions (HEIs) and used a two-stage sampling procedure. Sixty-six HEIs were invited to take part in the project and 50 agreed to do so (a response rate of 75%). Three thousand research staff at these HEIs were invited to take part and the achieved response rate is 52%, allowing for deadwood, that is, email addresses which bounced back as not having reached the intended recipient and people who told us that they were not eligible or no longer in post.
The survey was fielded in the week beginning 5th September 2005. Participants were sent an e-mail inviting them to take part in the survey, with a hyperlink, containing a unique identifier, to an Internet-based version of the questionnaire. Two reminders were also sent by e-mail to non-responders in the main university sample.
Rim weighting was applied to the data to ensure that the demographic profile of the survey respondents matched that of the target universe.
In addition, 41 in-depth interviews were conducted with a subset of respondents, key science funding organizations and others influential in higher education.
The main finding is that researchers do not give priority to science communication activities because they feel they need to spend their time on research, although the majority of scientists wanted to be able to spend more time engaging with the public. The in-depth interviews found that success in research and obtaining funding for their department are the keys to career advancement. Researchers, especially in their early careers, therefore focus on these. Another key point is the willingness of researchers to get involved in activities organised by others.
At PSP we see the main conclusion as being the need for researchers to be rewarded in their careers for undertaking public engagement activities. This means demonstrating that they are contributing to their department’s success as well as science communication activities being important on CVs.
The survey has also revealed a very real role for science communicators and university press officers in organising activities where researchers can take part as professional scientists. For many, developing and delivering a science communication activity is outside their expertise and takes them away from research for too long.
The key findings of the survey are summarised below.
- Engaging with non-specialists is needed to promote public understanding of science so that the public become better informed and understand the relevance of science to everyday life.
- The most important audiences to engage directly are policy makers, schools and industry.
- Three quarters of those surveyed had taken part in at least one science communication or public engagement activity in the last year.
- There was a strong positive relationship between the number of activities undertaken by a scientist and their perceived importance of public engagement.
- The need to spend more time on research was the most likely reason for scientists not to be involved in public engagement; the impact of the RAE was also highlighted in relation to this.
- A fifth of respondents said that taking part in public engagement activities was perceived as a barrier to career progression by their peers.
- The majority of junior staff would participate more if it helped with their career and they had the support of their heads of department.
- The best incentive for public engagement would be that it generates more money for a scientists’ department.
- Funders should support public engagement activity, although this should be an optional rather than a mandatory requirement of funding agreements.
- Most of those surveyed had no media, communications or public engagement training.