Public Engagement Introduction
Our greatest human practises achievement this year was the establishment and maintenance of the Think of the PLoSibilities blog in partnership with PLoS Journals. Over the years, PLoS Pathogens and other PLoS family journals have led the way in open-access publishing, ensuring that the latest research reaches a global audience, without restrictions. With shared values, and a belief that all research should be openly available for anyone to access, PLOS and the iGEM Foundation have already worked in partnership to publish iGEM team synthetic biology projects, via the PLoS-iGEM Collection. Open-access publishing provides excellent opportunities to reach lay people, however, many of the articles are packed with scientific jargon. Our iGEM team wanted to help extend the reach of PLoS articles by writing engaging, scientifically-accessible summaries for the general public. We recognized that clear lay science writing is key to engaging the general public and promoting science literacy. Prior to each publication, the blog posts are reviewed to ensure that there are of high quality. We have recruited writers from our team with diverse backgrounds such as computer science, microbiology, and immunology. Over the past several months, Think of the PLoSibilities has gained a following, with 300+ international readers and even re-posting to other blogs. Moving forward, we plan on growing the blog. We have used social media and face-to-face outreach in multiple undergraduate classes at Dalhousie University in an attempt to grow our base of contributors. Furthermore, we have begun discussions with science communication professors at the university to establish the blog as part of the curriculum. We plan to report back to PLoS leadership in the coming months, to thank them for their support, and to demonstrate the value of Think of the PLoSibilities. We are also planning on writing a post for the PLoS “Speaking of Medicine Community Blog” to highlight the benefits of journal clubs. By sharing our experience at the Giant Jamboree in creating and implementing Think of the PLoSibilities, we hope that other iGEM teams will follow our lead in future years, creating a network of blogs under the PLoS banner. Our team would like to play a lead role in coordinating these science communication activities.
In 2014, a survey by the Canadian Council of Academics found that 42% of Canadians had a basic level of scientific literacy. This statistic put Canada first in terms of scientific literary amongst 35 countries with similar available data, but it shows that half of all Canadians are not able to read and interpret science-themed newspaper articles. Following these results, the Canadian Council of Academics made three suggestions to boost Canadian science culture: increase informal learning opportunities, increase inclusion of minorities, and increase scientist’s communication and public engagement. The human practises and public engagement portion of our project was formulated upon recognizing that there is a need to start open conversations with the public and to provide science-based educational opportunities for everyone.
Science communication and literary are weaved throughout our entire iGEM project and thus it is not surprising that our theme has also manifested within our public engagement initiatives. We developed three initiatives for public engagement this year: science communication, education, and media. In each of these sections our goal was to encourage conversation surrounding science, facilitate learning, and to engage populations that may not have regular access to science. In all aspects of our public engagement we attempted to keep in mind the three recommendations from the Canadian Council of Academics.
For the communication aspect of our engagement program we sought to reach a larger audience of people not necessarily within our own circles. This is why we started the Think of the PLoSibilities blog. The blog also allows students to practise their own science communication by writing blog posts that get edited by faculty members. Since inception, PLoSibilities has reached over 300 people and it has a regular audience from around the world. While we are not certain about the age or gender demographics viewing the blog, we are pleased that it has such a global spread. In addition to practising communication on the blog, we participated in the iGEM-PLoS Collection following the jamboree in 2016. From this collection we have morphed our iGEM 2016 project into a manuscript currently being reviewed by PLoS for publication. We are eagerly waiting for the manuscript to be published.
For our education programs, we interacted with a variety of students of all ages. The purpose of these programs was to provide activities and topics that fostered curiosity and promoted scientific inquiry. Over the course of the summer, we learned how to communicate complicated scientific concepts, and how to lead discussions so that everyone can be involved. These were probably some of the most fun and successful activities we held throughout the year. To quote a young participant at the Discovery Center during the strawberry DNA extraction, “science is cool.”
For our media program, we engaged with a diverse group of agencies to reach a broader audience that may not have been previously aware of our team. The Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation Journal and Genome Atlantic were two of our financial supporters whose articles were read by their immediate viewership. The Chronicle Herald is a local newspaper and The Signal is the King’s University Journalism Radio Program which both research very diverse audiences. It was here that we practised effectively communicating our project using the skills outlined in our integrated practises section.
Our public engagement and human practises should not be thought of as a separate entity from our wet lab/dry lab project. In our engagement efforts, we not only continued our conversations with programs we established in previous years (ex. SuperNOVA), but began conversations with new outlets such as the Discovery Center and SHAD Valley. These programs, however, were not just for the benefit of the participants but for us too. Over the course of this project, we have learned and practised being effective science communicators whether that be through the PLoSibilities blog, the manuscript, the various interviews, and the interactions with the public. We hope to keep these conversations going to ensure that the public stays informed and that we continue to better ourselves as communicators. With 82% of surveyed Canadians saying that they “would like to know more about science and how it affects our world,” we have a mighty mission in front of us, but we look forward to being part of making Canadian science literate.