Chiara Ceci, Royal Society of Chemistry
We have a long tradition of communicating chemistry to the public, and many of you are very passionate about this topic. Member surveys over the years have shown that you’d like us and our community to do more to help the public understand that chemistry is a force for good. But what does this really mean and how do we go about doing it?
We know that it’s important to work with young people to inspire the next generation of scientists and citizens, but public communication isn’t about ‘teaching some chemistry to the public’ – it goes far beyond education and outreach activities. This is why our Influencing public attitudes to chemistry campaign is not an education campaign. And instead of directly embarking on a host of activities, we are going to begin by conducting rigorous, pioneering research. This will help us understand the fundamentals of how we talk about chemistry by identifying and recognising people’s opinions, misconceptions and semantic issues.
Knowledge must inform actions
Unlike our policy campaigns, the aim of this campaign is not to change government actions. Instead, the objective for our campaign is to influence public attitudes to chemistry. However, the truth is that we don’t actually know what the public thinks and feels, so how can we try to shift opinions and influence attitudes?
We proudly carry the flag of science and of the scientific method and champion this approach, for example, by advocating evidence-based policymaking. And yet, when we talk about public activities, our theories and strategies are mainly based on anecdotal evidence. We know that doing activities with and for the public ‘is a good thing’, but what does it really mean? What are we trying to achieve and how do we measure our success?
For our ambitious campaign to be successful, we can’t base our activities on anecdotes. It’s critically important that we research people’s knowledge of, interest in and engagement with chemistry. Benchmarking attitudes and opinions is also important in order to measure our success over the years.
Adding the necessary knowledge
There is extensive literature about the public image of science, and studies on public attitudes in relation to science are commonly carried out in some countries, including the UK. But nobody has ever specifically researched public attitudes to chemistry at this level before. For our research we are working with a group of leading experts in the fields of social research and public communication of science, including Professor Martin Bauer (London School of Economics), Professor Massimiano Bucchi (University of Trento) and experts in communication of chemistry Professor David Phillips (previously our president and director of the Royal Institution) and Dr Mark Peplow (previously editor of Chemistry World and chief news editor at Nature).
We will develop this research in partnership with a leading market research company, Taylor Nelson Sofres British Market Research Bureau (TNS BMRB). Their team of researchers has an extensive expertise in complex, multi-method research on public needs and attitudes around scientific and technical issues.
What will we be doing?
Before we begin this research, we need to develop the scope, which we are currently doing. We are beginning with a multi-method development phase to ensure that we build on the existing knowledge and expertise of our members, staff and the wider community. This will help us to ask the right questions later on and to develop hypotheses about potential opportunities for public engagement and communications.
This first phase includes a literature review, some targeted interviews, and an online qualitative research to provide a forum for discussion, bringing multiple viewpoints together for further debate. We want to involve our members at all stages of this research, in this phase by taking part in an online survey and forum. Our researchers are eager to learn from your experiences in communicating chemistry to non-chemists.
Robust and insightful data
Building on data and insights from the scoping stage, TNS BMRB will conduct research with the public to investigate people’s ‘starting points’ in relation to chemistry. They will use a two-pronged approach: robust qualitative workshops which will then inform a quantitative survey.
The qualitative part will include eight UK-wide public dialogue events where we hope to understand real attitude drivers. Our researchers will use a range of engaging techniques, personal response tasks and group discussions to understand what kind of automatic associations the audience currently holds with chemistry, and how strong these are. They will also explore emotional ‘needs’ in relation to chemistry, related to trust, capability, inspiration and engagement.
The findings from the workshops will help to develop questions for the quantitative survey. In the face-to-face omnibus survey we will engage with 2,000 individuals above sixteen years of age and gather data representative of the adult population in the UK using computer-assisted interviewing.
During this primary research we will also engage with you, our members, using another online survey to gather your views on the public’s current level of understanding and engagement with chemistry. In the upcoming months we’ll keep you informed about this next stage of the project and how you can get involved.
What our next steps will be
We know that even the best research is only valuable if it drives thinking, decisions and actions. We believe that these data about public opinions and attitudes towards chemistry will be fundamental to strategically focus our public activities and maximise our efforts.
By the end of the research phase, we aim to have a rounded understanding of public views on chemistry and we’ll be able to look at different segments of the population to identify opportunities and ‘hooks’ to capture the public imagination.
All findings and recommendations will be made available to everyone on our website. But before we publish those results in spring 2015, we are going to develop a public communications toolkit that brings together insights from all stages of the project. Comparing professional and public perspectives on chemistry we’ll highlight key research findings and offer targeted advice on public communications.
This is a landmark step for the Royal Society of Chemistry; one that will position us as true global experts on communicating chemistry, and will provide a powerful evidence base as a foundation for future public communication strategies.