Editorial | Published:

Reach out

Nature Ecology & Evolution volume 1, Article number: 0155 (2017) | Download Citation

The scientific community can engage productively with the public in a wide range of ways.

Earth Day, whose theme this year is environmental and climate literacy (http://go.nature.com/2njIs1p), is on 22 April, the same day that many of us will be joining the March for Science (https://www.marchforscience.com/). It's a good time to take stock of the different ways in which ecologists and evolutionary biologists can reach out to the wider public.

Public outreach has two main strands — involvement in the formal education of non-specialists, primarily children, and attempts to engage the public with science in a non-educational setting. Both are crucially important, as getting science into the lives of the adult public is extremely difficult if they have no formal training in the basics, and conversely, an interest instilled in childhood will wither and die if not nurtured during adulthood. In this issue, we interview the members of the EvoKE team (article no. 0143), an organization set up to pursue both these goals for evolution outreach in Europe. Problems with public perception of evolution do not receive as much attention in Europe as they do in the United States, but that does not mean they do not exist, and public understanding and acceptance of evolution vary considerably across the continent. One major issue is that teaching evolution is not easy, even for evolutionary biologists. Interestingly, the EvoKE team members point to a human-centric view of the world as one of the major obstacles, which suggests that engagement with the natural world is in itself a help. We gave teaching evolution a shot ourselves (http://go.nature.com/2nDr3o4), with hopefully some degree of success, but the more important thing is to enable non-specialist teachers to do the job. There are simply not enough evolutionary biologists to go round.

One step in the right direction towards enabling teachers is having an adult public that is engaged with science, and which is kept reasonably up to date with the latest research. This type of engagement is a central goal of the March for Science, which is scheduled to take place in multiple locations globally on Earth Day. This is a laudable exercise, but like many outreach exercises, participants need to make sure they are not just talking to an echo chamber of those who are already highly sympathetic to the cause of science in public life. Such concerns can be levied against various forms of outreach, such as science festivals, TED talks or the press releases we editors spend time crafting about papers in our journals. There is a danger that these things get consumed primarily by a well-off, well-educated and ethnically non-diverse minority. A recent blog post (http://go.nature.com/2mSMLFC) offers march participants some advice about refraining from showing off scientific cleverness to the echo chamber, and instead going for an inclusive celebration of what science can offer the world.

“A more engaged public will be less receptive to the kind of dangerous pseudoscience that threatens the entire scientific endeavour.”

There are also subtler forms of outreach that could reach much larger audiences. While we often bemoan the difficulty of engaging the public with technical topics in environmental science or evolutionary biology, there are swathes of the public who engage in a less technical way. The large memberships of nature conservation organizations don’t all consider themselves aficionados of biodiversity science, and the readerships of publications on food and gardening outnumber those of popular science publications. It should not be difficult to make ecology a key part of these forums as well. Part of the perceived barrier may be one of compartmentalization. Something is considered to be either overtly about science or the environment, and therefore gets sidelined as specialist interest, or it is a general interest story, in which case the scientific details are downplayed. We should be less purist about what we consider outreach, and try to engage these wider audiences.

The way we interact with the public is increasingly a two-way process. Citizen science is a great way to give non-scientists a tangible stake in research projects, to which they make a direct contribution. Projects such as iNaturalist (https://www.inaturalist.org/) mean that this can be done anywhere by anyone with internet access.

Another innovation in outreach is to mix up both adult and children's, and formal and informal genres. Scientific journals for schoolchildren, simplified but not dumbed down, can introduce the actual process of doing science, as well as scientific knowledge itself, into everyone's general education. For example, a recent paper on the effects of palm oil on deforestation and biodiversity loss (V. Vijay et al., PLoS ONE 11, e0159668; 2016) was accompanied by an accessible version in the Environmental Science Journal for Teens (http://go.nature.com/2oeIuwt). Conversely, the popular children's Ladybird series has been commandeered to explain topics such as evolution and climate change to adults (as reviewed by us here: http://go.nature.com/2ocfo0e), deftly capitalizing on the earlier success of entirely humorous adult Ladybird books. On this note, we should pay respect to perhaps the master of serious scientific outreach using children's toys, the development statistician Hans Rosling, who died recently. His legendary use of Lego bricks (http://go.nature.com/2oCcz5x) to explain population growth and sustainability has reached a wide audience.

For the Earth Day environmental and climate literacy theme, we will be hosting discussions of outreach on our community site (http://go.nature.com/2olatr6). We encourage readers to contribute their outreach experiences or any other ideas on how to disseminate ecology and evolution more widely. A more engaged public, who understand the value of our research, will be keener to fund it and less receptive to the kind of dangerous pseudoscience that threatens the entire scientific endeavour. Indeed, a recent paper (A. C. McLaughlin & A. E. McGill, Sci. Educ. http://doi.org/b42f; 2017) shows that scientific thinking has beneficial effects in reducing belief in ‘alternative facts’ when taught in humanities courses as well in science itself (http://go.nature.com/2nDPv8H). It is worth trying to remember all these strengths of science when out on the march.

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