Public Attitudes to Science 2014: what we learned about and from social media


March saw publication of the BIS Public Attitudes to Science 2014 report.  I watched and listened with interest from the sidelines on this one in contrast to my direct involvement with the previous two studies.  There were some great infographics that really seemed to be appreciated on Twitter.

The results are positive, showing that the vast majority of the population recognise that it’s a good thing to be interested in science and technology, with 91% agreeing that young people’s interest in science is essential for our future prosperity, and 76% agreeing that scientific research makes a direct contribution to economic growth.  People are keen to hear about new scientific developments, and for scientists to discuss their work, although yet again the situation remains slightly more complicated as people often don’t want to be involved themselves.  There was – for me – an interesting new insight showing the influence of women in promoting informal science learning.

But, I was particularly interested to read what the study would tell us about how people were getting their information about science.  As I asked on one of the project blog’s posts, would people get more of that information online now compared to earlier studies?

infographic onlineThe infographic above shows that nearly a third of people are now getting their news about scientific discoveries online (a higher figure for younger people), although TV still remains the most popular way in which people hear science news.  I was surprised that women were less likely to get their science insights from online sources (with 20% mentioning online  as one of their two top sources, compared with 25% of men).  There are some interesting nuggets that suggest that many people don’t quite yet see content posted on social media as trustworthy and serious.

There’s also a great chapter, “Discussing science in a digital age”.  The research behind this is a great example of a policy team taking insight from online discussions as I discussed with one of the research team in an interview almost a year ago. This part of the study looked at how people discuss and share science stories and content online.

While for many, science will be a key part of their consumption of social media, in the grand scheme of things it’s discussed relatively little compared to celebrity news for example.  And traditional news media can still drive online conversation.  Given that the previous study showed that the Late Adopter category – who can come to science via their own ethical concerns and interests –  were particularly active on social platforms, the point was made that discussions can involve strong partisan views.  Generating engagement with science content would seem to be a challenge – but unsurprisingly, the point is made that stories are more likely to be shared if they’re funny, visually appealing, or have a public health link.

That’s just a quick canter through some of the results – but if you’re involved in communicating science online (and off!) the full report is definitely worth a read.


First impressions and reaching out: on podcasting and blogging BIS science

“First impressions and reaching out” is the title of our second BIS science podcast, following on from our first released during National Science & Engineering Week. This “episode” focuses on science policy advice with reflections from Leila Luheshi, a science policy maker on a secondment undertaken specifically to see how science advice filters into the policy making process, and the initial reflections of Sir Mark Walport, and what can be expected from his time in office as Government Chief Scientific Advisor.

Interestingly, he doesn’t see too many differences with the Wellcome Trust (perhaps “yet” is an operative word here, as Leila pointed out to me on Twitter), while Leila herself thoughtfully reflects on the differences – both unanticipated and not – with her academic role. It was great to see her blowing some misconceptions – eg around joined up working – out of the water.

Indeed, what’s hopefully coming through from both of our episodes so far, are those surprising snippets that humanise policy makers, and shed new light on roles and responsibilities. I hope others agree.

But, this particular podcast is also interesting for me, as it shows how things have moved on since my time working on the last Public Attitudes to Science study. My ex-colleague Karen also appears, giving a bit more insight into the science and society review, but also detailing what to expect from Public Attitudes to Science 2014! There’s an appetite for blogging that research, much earlier in the process this time round, and I’m sure that social media will feature both in the research itself, and in spreading the word about its results.

Reviewing science and society

BIS’s science and society team have embarked on a review of their programmes and activities.  The first stage of that process sees updates to the Action Plans that were published as part of their expert group process.

It’s a little weird watching from the sidelines on this one, as I was involved in a lot of the  previous activity that has eventually led to this point – from the Science and Society consultation, through its analysis, and to supporting the Science and Trust Expert Group in developing its Action Plan (can that really have been published 2 and a half years ago?), and implementing some of its actions, for example through the Public Attitudes to Science Survey.  And I also have to thank that initial consultation process for my own (at that time fledgling) digital engagement, as I began to see what digital tools could actually do.

At the heart of the current review process is a WordPress-based microsite developed as part of that earlier work (my predecessor commissioned it from Puffbox, while I was at that point one of the team responsible for requesting that update from a previous consultation site, so it’s all a bit small-worldish).  The site’s suffering a little from age and a relative lack of flexibility vis-a-vis some of our more recent developments, but it still works.  And more importantly, it’s something I can just leave the team to update themselves.  The site’s currently open for comments and views, so if you are involved in provision of science and society type activities, or just generally interested, head over and see what’s happening.

Working with the team and comms colleagues, we’ve introduced the hashtag #BISscisoc2012, as well as simple inbox listening  to help the team keep track of comments that arise as part of the process. We’ll also be  encouraging those who are active online to discuss the action plan updates via their social media channels.  While this post is part of that, I won’t use it to add my voice to the debate about what Government should or shouldn’t be doing, as that wouldn’t feel quite right.  While we were actively discussed online, on Twitter for example, previously, it’ll be interesting to see how that conversation has developed, and is different from that of even two and a half years ago.

Scientific literacy

through the looking glass

A visitor’s view on energy policy spins around a giant wheel shaped piece of art at the front of the London Science Museum.

I was on Radio 4 last night talking about why I don’t think calls for scientific literacy are the way to solve problems of science in society.

It’s fifteen minutes long. You can listen on iPlayer or you can download it as a podcast (which also comes with some bonus Q&A at the end) and there is a shorter, text based version on the BBC News site.

As I hope I made clear in the podcast, I’m all for people learning more about the world. I just don’t think you can train people up with a basic tool kit of science and then say those people are all set to manage modern life. I think that tackles the problem the wrong way around. It also reduces science to…

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Public engagement with particles

Today was one of those days when past and present roles collided with BIS’s interest in the announcements from CERN (and yes that pun was intended!)

That organisation – and the particle physics community as a whole has done a brilliant job over the last few years in engaging – both on and offline – the public (publics) in its quest for the elusive HIggs Boson particle.  (I know that the LHC is about much more than that, but it’s that search that has caught the imagination).  As a result, I probably understand more about what they’re up to and what the particle is than I ever did about some of my GCSE physics.

From a digital perspective, CERN have really embraced openness (without compromising methodological integrity), so live blogging and tweeting were the order of the day, while #Higgs (and possibly even the wonderfully named hashtag Higgsdependce) deservedly trended throughout the day. 

Audioboo came into its own from the BIS perspective, with the ability to capture instant reactions of some of the UK science and science funding community (including one from BIS’s own Head of research funding). And by sheer serendipity, one interview – meant to capture what the announcement would mean for public engagement with science – took on a more personal twist.

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Watching the online webcast live from was a somewhat curious affair, although I now (think I) know that five sigma is a high statistical standard of proof that gets scientists excited!

Public attitudes to science: lessons for digital engagement?

For more than a year up to May 2011, I was exercised with (managing the) measurement of Public Attitudes to Science (more correctly, the sciences and research) in the UK – and beyond that talking about the process, thinking how measurement could be improved, and what else could be usefully examined.

And the key message in relation to publics’ attitudes to the sciences: broadly positive, but it’s complicated!  It’s not always easy to distil a consistent narrative, as attitudes are shaped by people’s’ seeming ability to hold multiple points of view about very similar topics (cognitive polyphasia – a phrase I wish I had the opportunity to use more often).

One thing that the UK series of studies have in common is their segmentation of the population into attitudinal groupings.  These aren’t hard and fast groups, rather ways of categorising tendencies to fit into a particular category.  Admittedly, I’m not an expert on the ins and outs of cluster analysis, but the groups do seem to stimulate genuine debate over their make up, what they mean for communication of science and science policy, and how people are and can be influenced to take an interest in the sciences.

The results of the survey also give those of us involved in any sort of comms activity an insight into public perceptions of consultation and participation, for example, and effectively demonstrate some of the prejudices that exist.  They also suggest that many  people want to know that someone is being consulted or involved in policy making, even if they themselves aren’t interested in getting stuck in themselves.

The Attitudinal Groupings

The six categories identified in the 2011 study can be summarised as follows:

  • Confident Engagers tend to have a strongly positive attitude towards science.  They want to be more involved in decisions about it, but are also keen for Government to put more of an emphasis on expert advice and evidence rather than public and media opinion   More likely than average to read broadsheet newspapers, they also get their information from a variety of media, including science blogs and websites. They tend to be relatively digitally engaged already and participate in social networking.
  • Late Adopters. This group tends to come to science once their formal education is over.  Their engagement is filtered through their daily lives and personal ethical and environmental concerns. They want to hear scientists talking more about the social and ethical implications of their work. They are also more likely than average to have internet access, and also more likely to be active social network users.
  • Distrustful Engagers are less trusting of those that work in science, and less confident in the Government‟s ability to regulate them. They tend to think the public should play a bigger role in decision-making on scientific issues alongside experts. They are also interested in personally becoming more involved in this.. Just like the Confident Engagers, this cluster is more likely than average to respond to engagement online, through  science websites and blogs. They are not however especially likely to use social networking sites.
  • The Indifferent tend to be much older than the other groups, with the majority being above pension age. While they are less likely to feel informed about science, they are not especially negative or worried about it. They tend not to be as interested in science as other clusters, and tend to be a lot less inclined to get involved in public consultations on science.   They tend not to use the internet, but find their information and news from TV and newspapers.
  • The Concerned  have strong views on the limitations of science when compared to other clusters.  They  are more likely than the other attitudinal groups to read tabloid newspapers and less likely than average to check websites specifically on science and technology, although their internet usage is otherwise close to average.
  • Disengaged Sceptics  tend to be less well-educated than other clusters, and feel less informed about science. While they tend not to be keen get involved themselves in decision-making, they would like the Government and scientists to listen to the public‟s opinions on science issues.  Television is a more important source of science information for Disengaged Sceptics than the internet, which they are less likely to use than average.

So, an interesting spectrum in terms of attitudes to science, but also willingness to get involved in social media and consultations.

Here’s the Digital Bit…?

Given that my role is about identifying where digital could help shape discussions around policy issues, knowing that these groups even exist can help in at least two ways:

  • Firstly, they’ll be relevant in trying to foster any conversation around science-related issues, so I’ll have them at the back of mind when developing digital engagement plans;
  • Secondly, they’re also potentially relevant when selling digital engagement as a concept, and assessing willingness of teams or individuals to use social media tools.   As the categories are broadly representative of tendencies within the population at large,they give some clues as to the range of attitudes that are likely to be encountered, and equally the strategies that can be adopted to promote usage further.

Selling Digital Engagement to the Different Attitudinal Groupings

  • Confident Engagers & Late Adopters: from a digital engagement perspective, these two groups could probably be combined into one – they’ll be the individuals in a Department who are potentially engaging online already, some of them possibly for work, others like late adopters in support of a particular cause In many respects they would make useful Champions or case studies whose confidence and enthusiasm could prove infectiousThey won’t necessarily need to be persuaded of the benefits of social media although they may need to be reminded that, to engage in a civil service work context has different connotations from engaging in a personal one.  This is especially true in the case of Late Adopters, where their personal usage could be overtly political.
  • Distrustful Engagers.  This group will already recognise the value of digital engagement to the extent that they already get some of their information from blogs, and may be prepared to engage online for work-related purposes.  While they don’t necessarily engage currently on social networks, they may be persuaded through combining an approach to monitoring which incorporates insights from blogs, with social networks being introduced at a later stage.
  • The Indifferent.  Given their age profile and the fact  they’re not that exposed to or experienced with the Internet, the Indifferent might not be such a large or identifiable group in a work context where internet usage is common. Where they do exist, this group will be the hardest to persuade about the value of engaging differently, and may need more concrete evidence through, for example, evaluation, case studies and individual testimony in an area that is close to their own particular interests.  They will likely need a more structured approach to developing skills and confidence if they are to progress further with using social media.
  • The Concerned and the Disengaged Sceptics would probably also benefit from a similarly structured approach.  One of the defining characteristics of disengaged sceptics, for example,  is that they want to know that Government is listening to and involving people in decision-making, so any approach to incorporating digital engagement should focus on its ability to achieve this.

And finally…

Of course, this is an artificial exercise and it won’t always be easy to identify some of these groupings in an organisational context.  They do, however, give some useful pointers to the types of approaches that could be adopted in encouraging and further embedding digital engagement, as well as highlighting some of the different types of evidence triggers that may be needed to influence behaviour, attitudes and uptake.

A digital National Science & Engineering Week

An alternative title for this post could have been “A return to Science & Society”.  It’s been quite a week in the BIS Digital team as we’ve supported the Department’s inovolvement in #sciweek.  That has coincided with other high profile events including Women in Boards: One Year On, and a focus on mentoring.

But back to Science Week, and some of us have been puzzling all week how the Department’s STFC CERN window display was made.  It accompanied a display  on the Large Hadron Collider, and itself generated a bit of excitement on Twitter. Professor Jon Butterworth came to talk to staff about his work on the Atlas experiment at CERN, and we captured some of his enthusiasm in a quick Audioboo.

The week started off with a blog from the secretary of State announcing a new contract for the Sciencewise programme – signposting a renewed focus for the programme with a citizens panel potentially informing both the shape and choice of projects, and support for business dialogues. The early Sciencewise programme had some interesting collaborations with business so this could be an area to watch.

Given that early focus on Sciencewise, it was apt that Kathy Sykes – former co-chair of the Sciencewise steering group came to talk to BIS staff about public dialogue on scientific issues. That was an inspiring session as we got some insight into her rationale for committing to public engagement.  We were also able to give her a bit of an introduction to Twitter.

This year I missed the Big Bang Fair, which is currently seeing 60,000 young people, their teachers and parents, coming through the doors of Birmingham’s NEC to be inspired by science and science careers,  but young(ish) people were the focus of one of the most inspiring events of the Week.  Live tweeting part of the Society of Biology’s Voice of the Future mock Select Committee event not only gave me some insight into the sheer organisation and orchestration that goes into a Select Committee hearing, but also showed just how tuned in young scientists and engineers – including from schools – are to the key science policy debates around science careers, use of scientific evidence, and engaging their peers with science.

Ada Lovelace Day

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, when people are asked to blog about inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and maths.  It also coincides with the day that I leave my role in science and society.  So, this short blog post is just a tribute to all the women – whether in sciencey jobs or behind the scenes – who’re working hard to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Presenting at Science Communication Conference 2011

One of my first tweeting extravaganzas was at the 2009 Science Communication Conference.  Someone pointed out to me today that there were only a handful of us tweeting that conference (I had actually forgotten about my trusty old ipod touch when I started writing this!).  Times have changed – someone suggested that there had been over 1000 tweets on 1 day of the conference, while I was able to assemble my own storify of the session I hosted (the slides are below). 

It felt natural to see people tweeting – now I guess the challenge would be to tweet and present without feeling self-conscious about it!  It gives such a rich conference experience, and lets people interact long after the final session has finished.

Here’s the presentation I gave – again, slideshare using way of making the slides available after the event.