I think we are shaped as researchers by what society finds acceptable.

Dr Alan Goddard interview by –

The reader will likely be familiar with the litany of barriers to bringing scientific work to life: Identifying need, securing funding, and broadcasting that research are themselves very tall orders (all this with no mention of the actual doing of science). ‘Doing science’ is difficult enough, right? So how do we go about doing science … responsibly?  

There may be many answers, but doubtlessly all involve some consideration of the ways scientific research impacts society. It is, after all, society that is transformed by the products of scientific knowledge (the internet, anyone?). But what about the inverse? How might society influence the production of scientific knowledge? 

No doubt the experienced reader will be familiar with ‘public engagement.’ The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) defines public engagement as ‘intentional, meaningful interaction that provides opportunities for mutual learning between scientists and members of the public.’ Among the many purposes of public engagement is the creation of scientific processes that are, in a word, responsible. Public engagement, then, has become a staple of scientific research in the modern era. And is it any wonder? On issues ranging from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to climate change, the scientific community and the general public don’t always see eye to eye. The need for public engagement seems a matter more important now than ever. 

What, then, does ‘public engagement’ look like in practice? Is it simply bringing the product of scientific knowledge into public view? If we take the AAAS’ cue, public engagement seems something considerably more: It must be ‘intentional,’ it must be ‘meaningful,’ and it must provide opportunities for mutual learning. Setting aside exactly what might be ‘intentional’ and meaningful’ interaction here – perhaps the terms are subject to interpretation – how might scientists and the public go about doing mutual learning?’

This is an important question to Dr Alan Goddard. Goddard is a Senior Lecturer in Biochemistry in the School of Biosciences at Aston University, where his research focuses on proteins and the lipid membranes in which they reside. Increasingly, Goddard’s energies are spent on public engagement. These have ranged from interactive sessions in schools about forensic science, through interactive immunology sessions with Girl Guides to full on citizen science projects. Eager to find out more, we sat down with Goddard to learn from his experience bringing his research in biochemistry into public view.

The interview began on a cautionary note: To understand public engagement within the sciences, it is worth understanding its difficulties. One, to our surprise, can be found in the very institutions where science is conducted: the academy. Goddard invited us to consider academic life and the decisions necessary to be successful in it:

How do you spend your time in academia? What do you want to focus on? Personal benefit vs. societal benefit? There are people that don’t get a promotion because they’ve spent their time on other things that are worthy – important things – but that doesn’t tick a box on a form.

Given that one would hope personal and societal ambitions are aligned, it is striking that Goddard experiences career promotion as a zero-sum game. At issue is the allocation of scarce time and resources. How the scientist chooses to spend both has important effects on their career trajectory. As Goddard makes clear, not all paths lead to promotion.

If only we could stop there. As Goddard would go on to say, the issue is more present (or, of public engagement, concerningly absent) than in career checklists. Public engagement is not always a priority among the institutions that fund scientific research. To be sure, this is not to say that funding bodies don’t value public engagement – different funding bodies will have their respective priorities, of course – only that they often tacitly signal that time and energies (and money) spent on extensive public outreach should instead be spent on scientific research. This is all well and good. Unless, of course, among one’s objectives is engaging the public in scientific research:

More people would likely engage with the RRI agenda if it was a key focus of research applications.

>Why? Left unsaid, but apparent to us in the interview, is that any observable deficit in public-facing research may be the result of funding bodies simply failing to make it a priority. Funding bodies, after all, determine what science gets done and therefore act as gatekeepers to the production of knowledge. It is, then, critical that funding bodies value public engagement.

With Goddard’s experience as our guide, we began to uncover the link between scientific research and social priorities:

Funding priorities are not removed from what the government – what society, the public – wants … Science moves in the winds with what is trendy and fundable.

And so, we may identify two institutional barriers to ‘intentional’ or ‘meaningful’ public engagement: Sometimes public engagement – a critical part of developing responsible research – isn’t rewarded by promotion or grant money. Of those ‘boxes checked,’ too few involve meaningful engagement with the public.

Here, if the reader is at all like us, things feel a little grim. Funding bodies determine what research is conducted, but there seems a simultaneous deficit in public facing – or publicly engaging – research. There must, then, be a lack of interest to fund responsible research among those funding bodies. If responsible scientific research is to be conducted, those gatekeeping institutions (and the individuals that comprise them) may reconsider their funding priorities – or, so Goddard’s experience suggests:

If you’re going to embed public engagement as a wider practice, it has to be from the very top. The funding councils have to recognize that it’s an important thing to do and (at least partially) base their funding decision on that.

If the objective of public engagement is a more responsible science, there is good reason to think hard about the ways institutions affect the practice of public engagement. This is especially true, as Goddard later mentions, because of another barrier to public engagement: Public uptake – the investment of time and energy by laypersons. Here is a difficulty dissimilar to the gatekeepers of the academy or funding bodies. There is, in Goddard’s experience, often a critical barrier in public interest to participate in the production of scientific knowledge.

During his Crowdsourcing SuperYeast project, for example, Goddard encountered many difficulties (partly linked to the Covid-19 pandemic) of recruiting participants. The idea of the project was to invite contributions of yeast strains that may have desirable biotechnological characteristics. Generally, face-to-face recruitment at targeted events was really successful. Recruitment via e.g. social media, though, proved much less so. At issue here is the public’s interest in scientific processes. Regarding this research, Goddard describes this difficulty:

Another barrier to uptake is public understanding … [some scientific research] is not very marketable … not very interesting to the general public.

The solution? For Goddard’s part, it is simple: capture the public’s interest. To do so, some public outreach is necessary; some means of convincing the public that some specific research is worth doing. Here again, we encounter public engagement and how it is properly done. We asked Goddard how he managed to engage the public with his research; how he communicated those important stories to garner public interest: 

A lot of what I do is explain to people why these things are important and why they should be interested in them. [This means] having those stories to tell people about why your thing is interesting … If your story says, ‘this is why you should be interested’ or ‘if we can do this, it will improve people’s lives by doing that’ … it grasps most people.  

The solution to a problem of public uptake, then, seems multifaceted: Of course, universities and funding bodies should make public engagement a priority, but researchers must also convince members of the public that one’s scientific research is worth doing; that it is interesting. This is public engagement, right?

We couldn’t help but feel something missing from this notion of public engagement. Sure, uptake would necessarily involve winning over the interests of laypersons. But is public engagement merely about capturing people’s attention? Is it simply convincing the public that X research is worth doing?

Sensing that we’re approaching something important here, we dug further. What is ‘meaningful’ and ‘intentional’ public engagement? Or, to put it a different way, how might we conduct truly good – or responsible – science? Here, we began to discover what might have been lacking in the ‘scientist convinces layperson’ version of public engagement mentioned above:

Co-creation, for me, would be the way to go because it’s a dialogue; you can see how both sides get something to add to it.

The student of STS is by now thinking: ‘Yes, this is the fundamental observation of Science and Technology studies!’ No doubt this is true. But what Goddard’s experience taught us is the observations of STS are realizable in the day-to-day practice of public engagement. For Goddard, true public engagement evinces a co-creation model, wherein experts and societal actors cooperate in the production of knowledge. Far from merely presenting scientific knowledge to the public, this model suggests a cooperative approach, involving both the scientist and the layperson, mutually engaged in the knowledge production process. 

Such a model may make for a more engaged public, of course, but it also makes for better, more beneficial science. Goddard recounts from his experience doing citizen-science the objective of his public engagement: 

There’s not as much point in doing citizen-science just for the sake of it… as much as there is doing it when it directly impacts the research. Then both people benefit. Otherwise, [the scientist] benefits from having done it and ticking a box to say ‘I’ve done it!’ rather than benefiting the science.

‘Public engagement,’ then, involves more than merely successfully ‘marketing’ scientific research to laypersons. Far more importantly, responsible research requires the active engagement of the public, wherein more perspectives are included to shape the process of knowledge production. The result? A more engaged, responsible scientific culture and, with luck, a more socially responsible – that is, more widely beneficial – science. 

These are not mere abstractions. In his SuperYeast project, Goddard’s research was purposed with identifying strains of yeast that were more tolerant of stresses that yeasts encounter during fermentation. In this process, Goddard and his team crowdsourced strains from a sizable selection of public participants and, thanks to their participation, were able to identify more durable yeasts that would be subject to later analysis and, importantly, aid in greater understanding. Public involvement in this project was crucial, as Goddard’s describes:

We would not have obtained these strains without public input.

So, what’s the lesson to be learned here? If what Goddard says is true, responsible research requires a sort of public engagement that is cooperative; that allows for scientists and society to simultaneously determine the goals and values embedded in scientific research. This is true dialogue, not the mere presentation or marketization of scientific work to a wider audience. 

We were struck by a point Goddard made in closing: 

You can’t underestimate the interplay of society and what science gets done … We are shaped as researchers by what society finds acceptable and interesting.

And so ‘public engagement,’ Goddard’s experience tells us, takes on a more profound meaning wherein scientists and society are engaged in mutual learning. The academy and funding institutions should take note. Scientific knowledge developed without real public engagement misses something critical about responsible research. There is much work to be done in the years ahead. Will it? If Goddard’s experience is any indication, there is certainly reason to hope so.