Blog: Using social media to connect scientists and the public

Published: 30 Aug 2018

Author: Heather Doran
Blog: Using social media to connect scientists and the public

The use of social media around the world has skyrocketed over the past five years. As the Public Engagement Manager for the University of Dundee’s Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science, I want to explore how digital tools can connect scientists and the public in ways that haven’t been possible before.

Scientists travel around the globe on expeditions, and explore under the sea, above the earth and everywhere in between. They have access to incredible places, but these are places that seem remote to many of the general public. In fact, unless you live close to a university or a research company, your opportunities to connect with science might be very limited.

It’s important for science and society to learn from and contribute to each other. On a basic level, research scientists want the public to understand the value of their work and, in the case of those working in universities like myself, they want to make sure the public know that this is a valuable area for governments to continue to fund. It’s also important for aspiring scientists to have access to role models to which they can relate, to inspire the next generation of researchers.

Perhaps most importantly, society must be able to hear the voices of scientists on issues that raise difficult ethical and political questions, such as climate change and the use of genetic modification.

Below: Heather Doran

Heather Doran

In 2015 and 2016, I travelled to the USA, China and Japan on my Churchill Fellowship to find out how scientists in these countries are using social media. In many instances, scientists I met had started using social media simply because of their own interest in it, but I also identified examples of co-ordinated approaches and the use of new tools enabling more people to connect with science.

Some academic support teams I met had at one time advised scientists not to use social media, having been wary of the risk of reputational damage to their institution. More recently, they had switched to giving guidance on approaches they felt worked well, providing training opportunities and offering access to social media experts. Scientists who hadn't adopted social media early on were being encouraged to get up to speed and explore the opportunities that social media might open up for them.

Since my Fellowship, I have been part of some great projects connecting scientists with the public. I led the social media campaign across Scotland for Explorathon, an annual celebration bringing together researchers with members of the public in 300 cities across Europe. More recently, I was involved in pitching for the international Public Communication of Science and Technology conference, the biggest of its kind, which will come to the UK for the first time in 2020.

I am now part of the organising team that will bring the conference to Aberdeen. It’s exciting to imagine what we might discuss at the event in two years’ time. With the pace of change so rapid in both fields, who knows in what ways science and social media will have developed by then?

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