The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences
A new grant solicitation from the NSF has me thinking about how and why scientists communicate with laypeople like us, and how and why some laypeople get excited about it. I’ve blogged before about what makes that connection work, but I don’t think there’s been a national conversation about it. Maybe it’s time.
After all, the proliferation of new science content — much of it of a kind you wouldn’t have seen even five or ten years ago — is remarkable. From podcasts like Radiolab and StarTalk and live series like the scrappy Story Collider or the star-studded TED Talks, to new approaches in old-media outlets like Scientific American and PBS, not to mention all those books for the “general reader” that scientists and science journalists are writing, there’s a new energy and a new flavor around science communication. Human narrative is becoming more central, as is humor. Personality and subjectivity are breaking in. The limits of science, and its blurry boundaries with mystery and speculation, are coming out of the closet.
And the whole thing feels less like “science education” than like...well, a cultural phenomenon. Creative intellectual expression meets audience enjoyment. Science as song.
The nature of this change is fascinating to me, and it seems to be largely unexamined. We should be talking about what impulses drive it, what its historical antecedents and social influences are, and especially what it hopes to achieve.
Enter that grant program from the National Science Foundation, which invites proposals for research into innovative evaluation methods in formal or informal STEM education. Don’t worry, it took me a few seconds to sort out the self-referentiality there, too. When I got my head around it, and especially when I saw that there was a grant category for organizing a conference, I realized that this could be an opportunity to bring the best minds in the field together to discuss both sides of the coin:
What is good public science? / What good is public science?
In other words, what does engaging, energizing public science look and sound like? How does it differ from its implicit opposite, professional or inward science, and from the traditional ideals of classroom-based or museum-based STEM learning? How does it relate to other domains of cultural production and engagement?
And the flip side: what is public science meant to achieve, and for whom? What kinds of social, civic, or individual goods are at stake? Most relevant to the NSF grant guidelines, how can we tell if it’s working? We could use this dream conference to come up with new evaluation metrics—or, to use that trendy term, a framework—sensitive to these new forms that science is taking all around us. ...
What if we gathered some of our favorite practitioners of public science—physicists like Brian Greene and Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrobiologists like Peter Ward and Seth Shostak, radio producers and podcast hosts like Jad Abumrad and Steve Mirsky—and asked them, What is it you’re doing, and why are you doing it?
What if we threw in a few great science writers and bloggers? And people from NOVA, Discovery, and National Geographic? Sociologists and philosophers and historians of science? Organizers of science festivals (a category that includes Greene and his wife, the journalist Tracy Day) and citizen science initiatives? A radical or two from the worlds of classroom science pedagogy and informal science institutions? Not to mention a couple of funders and philanthropists who support these new strands of public science?
What if it weren’t a formal symposium, with pre-written talks and structured panels, but something more in keeping with Plato’s Symposium: informal, opinionated, passion-fueled and wine-lubricated, running late into the night.
What a conversation we would have. And what a book it would make—a volume of essays on the nature, value, and future of public science engagement, with chapters emerging from debates at the conference.
In addition to the book, of course, we’d emerge with that evaluation framework, which would reflect the group’s ideas about the purposes of public science. We could also develop a research agenda to test the new framework in a variety of settings and with a variety of audiences—including people whose forms of engagement aren’t usually included in evaluation studies (e.g., podcast listeners, book buyers).
Who would you invite to such a conference? What’s the perfect institution or organization to host it? Help me dream it up, and, if this is your field, let me know if you’d like to be involved. But don’t dally; proposals are due on January 25.
Top: Tracy Rowland, Story Collider storyteller. Photo Bryan Derballa for the Wall Street Journal [article].
Middle: Radiolab hosts Jad Abumrad (recently a MacArthur "genius award" winner) and Robert Krulwich. Photo Marcus Lau, Los Angeles Times [article]
Bottom: Celebrity string theorist Brian Greene with his wife Tracy Day, an award-winning Journalist; the couple founded the World Science Festival in New York. Photo Chris Lee, New York Magazine [article]
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