Mikhaila CALICE, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Department of Life Sciences Communication, United States
Becca BEETS, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Department of Life Sciences Communication, United States
Luye BAO, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Department of Life Sciences Communication, United States
Isabelle FREILING, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Department of Life Sciences Communication, United States
Dominique BROSSARD, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Department of Life Sciences Communication, United States
Dietram SCHEUFELE, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Department of Life Sciences Communication, United States
The relationship between science and society is intertwined with many complex factors that are especially evident in times of crisis when reflexive science communication is a necessity. For example, scientists around the world have played a crucial role in informing public policy and communicating with the public about precautious behavior adoption throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Effective science communication depends, in part, on scientists choosing to meaningfully engage with the public. There is a substantial body of research surrounding factors that influence scientists’ participation in public engagement with science in the U.S., such as various types and goals of engagement, individual motivations and barriers for engagement, and participation in science communication training. However, much of this research uses survey questionnaires that ask about scientists’ attitudes toward public engagement under pre-determined categories, which may not comprehensively represent the views of scientists in their own words. The perspectives from scientists as science communicators are particularly important, especially with the ongoing changing culture of public engagement practice. Additionally, previous research largely focuses on the individual factors—rather than institutional ones—that impact individuals’ decisions to participate in public engagement. Such exclusions beg the question, is public engagement research naming the real issues that underly scientists’ willingness to engage in the first place?
To explore this question, we conducted focus groups with faculty at a large public university in the United States in May and June 2020. The focus groups used a two-by-two design based on faculty tenure status and level of departmental engagement. Departmental engagement was determined by findings from a previous survey at the same university that categorized departments as low or high engagement depending on how often faculty participated in engagement activities. This approach provided an opportunity to include faculty perspectives of and experiences with public engagement.
Our findings indicate that there are significant institutional barriers at higher education institutions in the U.S. to engaging with the public, mainly due to the expectations in the promotion process for professors. However, we also find that junior faculty and graduate students are perceived to be ushering in a new wave of attention to public engagement that is challenging the status quo. Essentially, we see evidence for a “trickle up” effect in which junior faculty and graduate students expect institutional support for public engagement. These findings highlight the need to further consider how institutional factors and graduate students influence faculty members’ decisions to participate in public engagement activities.