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Science communication strategy aims to broaden public engagement

Research for SFI shows strong desire among public to hear from scientists about research

Public engagement with research and inspiring increased participation in Stem are among the key areas of focus in the recently-launched Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) strategy for 2025. “Scientific research is better when the public it serves is involved in shaping the questions from the beginning,” says SFI director of strategy and communications Dr Ruth Freeman. “When we broaden the participation in science, research and innovation, impact from these will be greater, stronger and more beneficial.”

She explains that thinking on public engagement with science has changed in recent years. “The way technology is evolving and having an impact on our lives we have to ask if it is in danger of going down paths society doesn’t want it do or not doing the things society wants.”

She points to machine learning and artificial intelligence as examples. “In reality, these things were in our homes and our pockets long before we understood what they were. There was very little discussion about the potential use of these technologies as they were developed.”

This makes the case for greater public input into the research process. “It would have been very good if we had public discussion forums on the development of the internet and had people asking questions about what it might mean in future,” Freeman adds. “It’s not about the public telling scientists what to do. There will always be a need for scientists at the vanguard of research and for funding for curiosity-led, blue-skies scientific research to push the boundaries of scientific knowledge.”


The key is to involve people. “If people are left out for any reason you have a deficit of democracy. We are at a low level of engagement at the moment, and we must do more.”

And people do want to have a say in how scientific research develops, according to a study carried out on behalf of SFI between July and September last year. Undertaken by Qualia Analytics, the SFI Science in Ireland Barometer revealed a strong desire among the public to hear from scientists about their research. It showed that 85 per cent agreed that scientists have a professional responsibility to talk about research findings with the public, and 65 per cent agreed that people who will be directly affected by scientific research should have a say in how it develops.

SFI currently supports a range of public engagement initiatives including the primary school SFI Discover Primary Science and Maths awards, continuing professional development training for teachers and large-scale engagements such as Science Week.

“Some of these activities we undertake ourselves, but most are delivered through our partners who support these through the SFI Discover Programme. The purpose of the programme is to support projects that encourage people of all ages and from all walks of life to be informed, inspired and involved in Stem. Competition for funding is highly competitive.”

Funding round

The latest round of funding under the programme has just been announced by Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris with 49 education and public-engagement projects receiving €5.2 million between them. Many of them will reach new and diverse audiences with a number of them specifically working towards engaging minority groups and harder-to-reach audiences, promoting science to girls and working with the arts.

Among these is the Irish sign language Stem glossary project. “We are delighted to work with them again this year,” says Freeman. “We didn’t have signs for scientific terms before they started their work. I suppose you might spell out the words in sign language but why should you have to do that? They have been creating 200 signs a year up to now aim to increase that to 500. Science communication is so much more effective if you have proper signs. If you have any group in society that is not properly engaged, you can miss out on a great many good ideas for research. Funding calls like this are incredibly important and we will run another one this year.”

Further SFI Barometer research will also be run this year. “It won’t be a full version, but it will be interesting to see the results in the context of the incredibly rapid development of Covid-19 vaccines. But as we come out of Covid we should not forget the other huge issue facing us, climate change. How do we keep that engine of scientific research running to tackle that problem in ways that continue to improve our lives? It is important for the public to have a role in how that happens.”

Barry McCall

Barry McCall is a contributor to The Irish Times