Public engagement: far from the Great Unwashed

At a recent scientific conference staged in a casino complex, a couple of cocktails emboldened me to chat to the guy sat at the bar table next to me. He was a big guy, with matching height and girth and looked like he was out enjoying a buck’s night. I thought I would try to engage rather than try to educate. After my introductory sentence about my research area – the early origins of human disease – he replied “do you mean that…” and proceeded to succinctly summarise my research better than I could in two sentences, finishing with “well., it’s just common sense, isn’t it? Gobsmacked, I continued my conversation with him with renewed respect for “the public”. Far from being the “great unwashed”, they are the great informed, intelligent, sensible and pragmatic, probably mixed in with the opinionated and the skeptical, which is fair enough.

Fast forward to a talk today from the US-based Frameworks Institute who’s role is, by engagement, to bridge the gap between scientists and the public. Not surprisingly, they and others (here too) have found that the public, including those affected directly or indirectly with specific diseases, can have different research agendas from researchers. By understanding what the public understands about a particular research area, we can gain an insight about how best to engage and thereby add power to, and communicate, our research findings.

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The rules of engagement are simple and follow themes of values and metaphors. Values help by the public about medical research may differ from country to country but may include common themes of the common good, future prosperity and workforce equity. Often, the public comes to the table with pre-existing cultural biases, which Frameworks calls the Mind Swamp. Biases can include mistrust of science and scientists, the “good old days” and genetic determinism. It is up to us as scientists to survey the swamp for each country and culture to determine where the starting point for engagement should be.

The next step is the use of metaphors. A good metaphor can easily be used to introduce a scientific concept, such as the early life origins of disease (we can help tip the balance of the see-saw of good vs bad environments for kids) or even something more complicated such as epigenetics (the musicians who play the symphony of life on your genes). For my research area, Frameworks discussed ideas such as weaving the strands of early life in children to produce a strong rope in adulthood, and comparing the green light of acute positive stress to the red light of chronic toxic stress.

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On the side of caution, we were warned of the pitfalls to avoid when communicating medical research. No giving more and more examples – too much already; it doesn’t work. No myth busting – people often remember the myth and not the bust. Be careful with stories that resonate with people – they may also provide mixed messages. Caution, too, about pressing the message home at length. Keep it simple.

So if you want to win over the public with your message of medical or other research, first get inside their heads. Turn to the guy or girl in the bar and engage. Your research will benefit and maybe you may learn something.

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