Attitudes Towards Outreach within the Particle-Physics Research Community

Achintya Rao1, University of the West of England & CERN


  1. achintya.rao@cern.ch

Abstract

This paper presents early results from research into the attitudes of the particle-physics community towards science communication (specifically, towards "public engagement" or "outreach").
To represent the population of particle-physics researchers, the sample chosen was the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) Collaboration, one of the four large collaborations performing research at the Large Hadron Collider located at CERN, the European laboratory for particle physics.
Named after the Compact Muon Solenoid particle detector, the collaboration counts among its members over 4000 scientists and engineers from nearly 200 institutes representing more than 40 countries.
The paper focuses on analysis of quantitative data, which were collected via an in-depth online survey distributed to the entire CMS Collaboration in early 2015.
Over the data-collection period, 391 valid responses were recorded.
The results shown here relate to two topics among many covered in the survey:
(1) Concerning outreach activities, the majority of the respondents stated that they had participated in some form of outreach in the past.
(2) When asked to classify potential audiences, colleagues were ranked as the most important, the most knowledgeable and the easiest to communicate with, when it comes to matters of their (the respondents') research topics.

The survey was part of the author's research towards a PhD in Science Communication.

Introduction

Much research into public engagement has involved studying fields of research with either a direct or an immediate impact on human life and society (e.g. climate change, genetically modified organisms, nuclear power), but the literature is lacking when it comes to fields such as particle physics that are less accessible or "every-day" to a lay public.
For example, a recent Ipsos MORI project in the UK studying public attitudes to science presented the following research areas to participants to determine how well informed they were about these topics: Climate change, Vaccination of people against diseases, Human rights, Renewable energy, The use of animals in research, The way the economy works, Medical ethics, Nuclear power, Research into human behaviour, Genetically modified plants (GM crops), Ensuring the UK has enough food, Stem cells research, Clinical trials, Radioactive waste, Nanotechnology, Synthetic biology. (Ipsos MORI, 2011)
Fields of fundamental research, such as number theory or cosmology, are conspicuous by their absence.

Anecdotally, the author has found that science-communication efforts within fundamental sciences are criticised for being "deficit-style" approaches, or ones that seek to educate -- rather than engage -- the audiences being communicated with.
While this might be a valid criticism, no solutions seem to have been proposed for having so-called "upstream" engagement in these research areas.
It is therefore pertinent that fields such as particle physics are sufficiently represented in science-communication discourse, in order to ensure that the conversation, and subsequent policy recommendations, are not biased by areas of research that are comparatively closer to everyday human activities.

Representing particle physics

CERN, the European laboratory for particle physics, is the premier research facility for high-energy physics.
It is estimated that around half of the 20,000 or so particle physicists around the world conduct their research at the laboratory.
Science-communication research involving those working at CERN can therefore be thought to be applicable to the particle-physics community as a whole.
To represent the population of particle-physics researchers, the sample chosen for this study was the CMS Collaboration, which is one of the four large collaborations performing research at the Large Hadron Collider and which discovered the Higgs boson in 2012.
Named after the Compact Muon Solenoid particle detector, the collaboration counts among its members over 4000 scientists and engineers from nearly 200 institutes representing more than 40 countries (as of June 2015).
The international but close-knit nature of the collaboration makes CMS a unique source of rich, novel data into cross-national and cross-cultural attitudes towards science communication.

Defining public engagement

For the purposes of this project, the term selected to refer to "public engagement" is in fact "outreach", since this latter term is used both at CERN and within the wider particle-physics community to refer to activities ranging from working with schools to direct dialogue with the public to disseminating information through the media.
Indeed, a recent re-structure of the laboratory's departments saw the creation of the "Education, Communication and Outreach" team, while global public engagement in the field has long been coordinated by the International Particle Physics Outreach Group.
This choice of the term "outreach" is also supported by others such as Crettaz von Roten (2011), who acknowledges that it is used to refer to all science-communication activities "designed for an audience outside academia".