PCST Network

Public Communication of Science and Technology


Preaching to the economically advantaged, educated and scientifically converted
UK science festivals as a method of public science communication

Eric Jensen  

Scientists are increasingly subject to pressures from funders and institutions to communicate their work with a broader audience beyond the academy. Moreover, scientists and outreach organizations have invested huge amounts of time and resources in public science communication events. Although their aims may be admirable, this study presents evidence that some of these ambitions are going unrealized. Using data from in-depth evaluations of several UK science festivals, we demonstrate that such events are disproportionately reaching economically privileged and educated audiences that are already invested in science. Given the increased prominence of public engagement on the agenda of scientists, scientific institutions, and their funders in recent years, it is important to assess what is being achieved and for whom. In many ways our findings are unsurprising: Those attending science festivals do so because they are already interested in and comfortable with science, and tend to be privileged on a number of socioeconomic dimensions. These observations are unlikely to be new, even if they are rarely articulated in published literature or prioritized for discussion in science communication practice. The problem of exclusion in public science communication is chronic and long-term, requiring the attention of the larger scientific community and its funders to ensure it is addressed. Nevertheless, this study raises red flags about current science communication practices, which should occasion a re-assessment of public engagement policies, methods and assumptions. Scientists, funding agencies, and public science communication organizations need to acknowledge these problems, re-focusing their efforts on the types of people they reach and with what effects. Meanwhile, funding agencies must insist on more robust measures of diversity at public science communication events, tracking progress over time and emphasizing that raw visitor numbers are not their singular priority.

A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.