By Barbara Bailus

The past decade has seen a dramatic decline in government science funding, affecting all sectors of scientific research including universities, private institutes, and even industry. The Buck Institute has not been immune to this decline in public funding, and like universities, relies on private donations to help meet funding needs. For the first time in many years, the general public has the ability to influence the direction of scientific research. However, most of the general public has a limited perspective on what scientific research actually is and what scientists do every day.

The Buck Institute for Research on Aging.

The Buck Institute for Research on Aging.

Public opinion of scientists covers an entire spectrum, from equating scientists to wizards, to CSI agents, to the aloof snob sitting atop a pile of textbooks. To help change this image of the aloof scientist, the Buck Institute hosted an Open House a few weeks ago, in which the public was treated to a day of science talks, posters, and kid friendly experiments-all presented in an simplified and accessible manner with no science jargon allowed. Over 500 people showed up to this event, indicating a strong public interest to learn about science when given an opportunity. With the pivotal role that the general public could play in the coming years for scientific funding, it will be important to address a few key points: how does the public currently view scientists, how much should we engage the public, and how do we engage them?

One of the first steps toward engaging the public is for them to comprehend what daily life in a lab consists of, understanding this would make scientists far more approachable. At the Buck’s Open House, one of the most common comments I heard was, “I don’t want to sound stupid, but could you explain…” This makes me believe that science is still a mystery to many people, and they feel a bit intimidated by the scientists. However, once the initial hesitation was overcome, it was inspiring how enthusiastic and appreciative the public was at the event, listening attentively and asking insightful questions about our research. At the Buck, we do an excellent job reaching out to elementary school children and mentoring high school and college students, but what about those without access to such excellent programs? How can scientists be more accessible to the public and inspire them to support the progress of science instead of fear it?

Buck Institute Learning Center for K-12 science education.

Buck Institute Learning Center for K-12 science education.

A central question to ask before making efforts to engage the public is should we? Considering that the public currently funds a large amount of the research in this country, either by private foundations or by tax dollars, the answer would appear to be a simple “yes”. But as scientists, we know that no answer is ever as simple as it appears. By engaging with the public, we have to consider carefully what aspects of our research we share, considering how some areas may be deemed objectionable. Given the right venue, sharing ones research with the public can be a fulfilling activity. Overall, I have found the public to be very supportive, curious, and awestruck by what is now possible in science.

Aside from the personal satisfaction gained from hearing excitement about your work, there is a practical aspect to engaging the public. By interacting with the public, scientists are able to demystify what is actually possible and what a patron’s money will support. Many institutions do an excellent job with outreach for school age children, but this outreach effort diminishes for adults at most institutions. Adult-focused outreach would benefit both sides: the scientists would find their work better funded and the public would better understand what they are supporting and that scientists are approachable individuals who enjoy discussing their research.

So how do we as scientist engage with the public? I think the Buck Open House is an excellent start to such endeavors. One of the main features of this event was the focus on engaging adults and explaining our scientific research to them. As scientists we can’t afford to ignore the adult population when doing science outreach as they are the ones who contribute and vote on science funding. If we want school age children to remain engaged in science as adults, then there needs to be places for them to interact in a friendly, open, and educational manner. I was impressed with how understandable the posters at the Buck Open House were and how the informal environment allowed the public to feel comfortable asking questions and even attending scientific talks. These events also help the scientists who participate by building their communication and presentation skills and enhancing their ability to work outside the laboratory. I am hopeful that events similar to the Buck Open House will continue spread to other institutions. Everyone has a right to understand, participate, and feel empowered by the scientific research that is possible due to public contributions.