Most researchers struggle to find time to engage in public outreach activities, despite recognising the importance of communicating their work. Sharing scientific findings can have important implications for environmental protection and technological advancement and reaching non-specialists is crucial for building a supportive public opinion and fighting misinformation.
Be it building websites or attending fairs, science outreach is usually done in a non-structured way and as and when opportunities arise, sometimes consuming more time than if the activities had been planned more efficiently. Like any other project, researchers can take a more tactical approach and define an effective Science Outreach Strategy in advance. In an age where outreach and impact assessment has been gaining increasing importance in grants and fellowships applications, planning strategically is a wise move. Here are my five tips to create an effective Science Outreach Strategy:
1. Define your goals
The most critical step of your strategy: you won’t be able to do everything, or reach everyone. Therefore, make sure you clearly define your communication priorities based on the framework of your own research programme. A focused strategy will show professionalism, boost impact and help convince funding agencies to support your case.
2. Target your audience and establish your key messages
Communicating effectively means giving your audience the information that interests them. Avoid jargon and tailor your language and materials to age, background and expertise. Predefining your key messages helps you to keep on track, as you’ll establish what you’ll be communicating about and how. And if you decide in advance on how you’ll communicate your goals, this will give you a clearer idea on how to do it.
3. Plan your programme
Creating well-defined milestones based on your availability, budget and personal interests will help establish a successful communications programme. Engaging with the public can be fun, so avoid falling into the trap of over promising and overdoing it, as both the budget available and your time might be limited.
4. Select the tools to reach your goal
Carefully selecting the communication tools you’ll be using helps optimise your time and budget. Be smart, research and adapt: local institutions may already offer a range of collaborative events where you can contribute, such as science fairs, museum open days or library seminars. Perhaps you have a talent for digital design and prefer to create cartoons. Whatever path you choose, put your skills to work and have a collaborative mindset.
5. Assess your impact and report on it
In exchange for a small token (e.g. badges, stickers), the public is usually keener to answer “feedback surveys” on the activities they just participated in. Or perhaps if you use social media platforms, other users will be engaging with you. It’s critical to assess the impact of your message, reflect on what you and the audience learned and to report on it. Funding agencies will appreciate your feedback and you’ll be able to better evaluate your success.
Finally, don’t forget that Heriot-Watt provides outreach training and support. For more information contact the HW Engage Team.
About the author: Dr Ana I. Catarino is a NERC Research Associate at the Institute of Life and Earth Sciences at Heriot-Watt University, UK. She is currently working on the micro- and nanoplastics ecotoxicological effects on aquatic
organisms. She is the Project Leader in Scotland of Native Scientist, a network of international researchers that promotes bilingualism through science outreach. In the past Dr Catarino worked as a science communications consultant at Sustainability Consult in Brussels, Belgium. Ana loves mountain hiking and is fluent in four languages. She tweets @Zebrazuli.