Author: Achintya Rao – UWE Bristol, Switzerland

Erik Stengler – UWE Bristol
Christine Sutton – CERN
Emma Weitkamp – UWE Bristol
Clare Wilkinson – UWE Bristol

In the extensive study of the relationship between science and society, academia has often addressed fields of research that have the potential for having a direct or an immediate impact on day-to-day human life. Such a narrow perspective, despite the diversity of fields studied, has resulted in an orthodoxy within some science-communication discourse that sees two-way engagement as an ideal that must be upheld by all In this paper, we argue that fields of research that are farther away from affecting daily human life (areas of fundamental research or the so-called “basic sciences”) are not necessarily in a similar position vis-à-vis their relationship with wider society as fields such as climate science or biomedicine. We construct a concept known as “relevance-distance”, noting that most academic research into public engagement draws upon examples from fields that have a “Proximal” relevance to everyday human life. We explore, through empirical data collection, how particle physicists at CERN conceptualise their relationship with the so-called “outside world”. We further explore whether these scientists find their own research influenced through public engagement (the outcomes of two-way engagement) and whether they consider it possible for members of wider society (non-specialists) to participate in particle-physics research. We find that the community perceives a large distance between itself and the public. Our findings indicate that particle physicists largely feel that the public is not able to contribute to scientific research, and that they do not particularly benefit (scientifically) from engagement with the public.

The author has not yet submitted a copy of the full paper.

Presentation type: Show, tell and talk
Theme: Science
Area of interest: Comparing science communication across cultures

Author: Achintya Rao, CERN, Switzerland

Co-authors: Kate Kahle, Ayelet Baram-Tsabari, Aviv J. Sharon, Lauren Biron

Particle physics provides an especially challenging topic for science communication: It is abstract, esoteric and dependent on massive and publicly-funded machines, yet it can be uniquely awe-inspiring.

Physicists and physics institutes are increasingly being called upon to engage with the public through social media. However, little is known about the ways in which lay audiences interact with physics content on these media. Open questions include: What do social media users want to know about particle physics? How does social media shape public engagement with physics? This paper explains how an in-depth analysis of CERN social media grew from CERN’s communication strategy. It examines the characteristics of scientific items on social media that attracted high engagement and draws conclusions for shaping future content.

Author: Achintya Rao, University of the West of England, Bristol / CERN, Switzerland

This paper will present early results from research into the attitudes of the particle-physics community towards science communication (specifically, towards “public engagement” or “outreach”). The project explores this community’s motivations for, and barriers to, participating in science-communication activities, and how the attitudes, motivations and barriers vary across age, nationality, gender and academic position.

Much research into the attitudes of scientists towards public engagement has involved fields of research with either a direct or an immediate impact to human life and society (e.g. climate change, genetically modified organisms, nuclear power), but the literature is lacking when it comes to fields that are less accessible or “every-day” to a lay public, such as particle physics.

To represent the population of particle-physics researchers, the sample chosen is the CMS Collaboration, which discovered the Higgs boson in 2012 at the Large Hadron Collider located at CERN, the European laboratory for particle physics. Named after the Compact Muon Solenoid particle detector, the collaboration counts among its members over 4000 scientists and engineers from nearly 200 institutes representing more than 40 countries. The international but close-knit nature of the collaboration makes CMS a unique source of rich, novel data into cross-national and cross-cultural attitudes towards science communication.

The paper will focus on analysis of quantitative data, which were collected via an in-depth online survey distributed to the entire CMS Collaboration in early 2015. Over the four-month data-collection period, 374 members of the collaboration responded to the survey. Analysis of these data will address the conference theme “Evaluating public communication of science and technology”.

The project is part of the author’s research towards a PhD in Science Communication.