Open-Up Science!

Back in May two of our researchers, Dr Caitríona Sheridan and Dr Nic Hylton, were invited to attend a very special, open-up science, workshop in Munich. Held at the world famous Deutsches Museum the event investigated how to engage citizens with energy research and create a true, two-way, dialogue between researchers and the public. The two have joined forces to write us a blog post on their time there and what they took away from the meeting.

Making citizen input on energy research significant to scientists

The Deutsches Museum by Max-k muc
The Deutsches Museum by Max-k muc

Generally, when researchers think about engaging with the public we focus on outreach and dissemination of information. In the forefront of our minds is the desire to help the public understand our work and its importance; but should we also consider how scientists could better understand the interests and priorities of the public? The open-up science initiative aims to seek how the public can engage with researchers and enable them to influence the research and innovation process, as part of Europe 2020.

This is also an important consideration for researchers as the Horizon 2020 funding calls place emphasis on public engagement. In particular highlighting the importance of “the establishment of iterative and inclusive participatory multi-actor dialogues between researchers, policy makers, industry and civil society organisations, NGOs, and citizens” for responsible research and innovation.

The main idea of the Open-Up Science workshop series then is to investigate how established science museums could be used as the forum for this two-way communication. The series consists of three workshops: one focusing on life sciences, one on basic science and one for energy research. As part of the consultation stage we were invited to join the Science Museum team attending the energy-based workshop at the Deutsches Museum in Munich.

Over the course of two days we discussed the topic of making citizen input on energy research significant to scientists with museum curators and other researchers from across Europe.

Day One

Prometheus stealing fire from the Gods, depicted on the ceiling above the workshop: an early mythical example of harnessing energy
Prometheus stealing fire from the Gods, depicted on the ceiling above the workshop: an early mythical example of harnessing energy

We were introduced to our European counterparts and workshop coordinator Jack Stilgoe, lecturer in Science and Technology Studies at University College London. Our discussions started on the basis that as researchers we shouldn’t just think about getting the public to understand science, but also getting scientists to understand the public. The main topics of discussion therefore looked at scientists’ understanding of the public and how that relationship could be improved.

The topic area was energy and the workshop broke out into groups to discuss answers to the question: what energy ideas or research will impact the public in the next 20 years? Even within the relatively small group size of the workshop there was a large variation in the interpretation of ‘energy’, from transport/mobility and fuel for vehicles, through food as an energy source, to energy generation for electricity and heating supplies. Each group proposed several ideas and one of the main themes was the need for an affordable transition to sustainable energy generation. This included energy infrastructure and the balance between living, health, and food and water. The day closed with some new open questions arising from the group discussions: Could awareness of public knowledge impact science? Is informing the public a key action/impact of research? Why should museums be the forum for scientist/citizen interaction?

Day Two

Our discussions during the second day of the workshop picked up on these questions by investigating what role the museums could play in engaging two-way communication between the public and researchers.

The Deutsches Museum presented some of their outreach activities which included placing a live lab within the museum, an interactive exhibition allowing the individual to determine an energy future, and a policy simulation game for developing a sustainable energy system. These activities were discussed and critiqued on their suitability to enable the public to influence active research. Several issues arose from these discussions.

For the case of the open nanoscale research lab one of the key problems the organisers encountered was recruiting senior researchers to take part. Most of the time the lab was staffed by undergraduate and masters students, so although the project provided a very direct way for public/scientist interaction, the feedback did not directly reach those who plan research and write funding applications.

In the case of interactive exhibitions and policy simulations there is great scope to collect data with the aim of informing policy decisions and research priorities. However, close control over transparency and privacy is required in these situations. The workshop concluded that the opportunity for the museums to collect data that could then be used in research and to influence government policy and the allocation of research funding was a good outcome, provided it is open and transparent.

 

Summary

The transition to sustainable energy is a complex multidisciplinary issue, and communicating associated research to anyone, scientist or public, is an important part of this transition.

The UK Science Museum Group, along with the Deutsches Museum, Museo Nazionale Della Scienza E Della Tecnologia “Leonardo da Vinci” and Museum national d’Histoire naturelle will now plan new exhibits, taking steps to close the feedback loop between scientists and citizens. Informed by the Open-Up Science workshop series their aim is to increase the impact of civil society on the governance of research.

Watch this space…

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