I realised this week that there’s something I’ve been taking for granted, that’s been a big part of this project. Online chats.
The very wonderful I’m a Scientist kindly made us a ‘Nappy Zone’ and lend us a chatroom for our chats. They have just got a new chat engine, so we were excited to have our first chat in it this week.For some of the Nappy Science Gang project we had an online chat with a different expert every week. This just involved us all going to a chatroom and typing at each other for about an hour. We had everyone from the washing machine testers from Good Housekeeping, to detergent chemists, to a psychologist who studies disgust.
Our volunteers could ask all they wanted about the expert’s work, and what’s known about the subject. They could also ask advice and feedback on their experiment plans. It’s amazing access for a community science project, but it only takes about an hour of the expert’s time, and they can just log on from their desk. Our ‘Apatite for Destruction’ group had two chats this week and came away fizzing with ideas after each one.
And then the write-up of the chat goes on our website, and is a permanent record of what these various experts – on cleaning washing machines, on normal infant sleep, on potty-training – had to say to a load of questions from parents. Which is hopefully useful to a bunch more people.
It’s pretty good value.
Because I used to work on I’m a Scientist, Get me out of Here! I think of online chats as a really obvious part of the public engagement arsenal. But actually, when I go and talk to people about public engagement, I’m reminded that that kind of direct, immediate contact between ‘publics’ and ‘experts’ is pretty rare.
I did a workshop recently at an Open Academia Hackathon, about citizen science. Many of the researchers there had a lot of questions about citizen science. They really wanted to open up their research and involve communities in shaping it. But they didn’t know where to start.
Here are some of the reasons they came up with for wanting to do it:-
- Making sure your research is relevant/useful
- Giving people a say/voice
- Users know more about your research
- Open channels, get more data
- A reminder for you that data comes from somewhere – real people!
- Can generate new ideas
- Can help build links between communities
- Giving back to the communities you work with
- New channels and technologies make it easier now than ever before
Looking through that list, I can see that as a starting point, an online chat between researchers and some of the people affected by their research would be a very easy and painless first step. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from running Nappy Science Gang, it’s that running a user-led citizen science project takes a lot of time and resource – it’s not a money-saving way of doing research! So the full co-production research project takes a lot of commitment.
Whereas if you can find a group of interested volunteers, then an online chat isn’t too hard to organise, and doesn’t need to take up much time. Or there’s other similar formats, things like Reddit’s AMAs. They can give the volunteers a great insight into the science. They can get answers straight away to questions it would take them ages to research online (even assuming they had the skills and commitment to winkle them out of the scientific literature). They can tell you a bit about their experiences and what’s bothering them.
The expert or scientist can also find it helps them see their research in a new light, the questions can prompt them to see things they hadn’t seen before and they can learn a lot about the community their work affects. There are good reasons that it usually takes years of training to become a researcher. But there are also good reasons why breakthroughs are often made by people who’ve transferred into a new research area. When everyone has the same training background, you can take things for granted that are actually assumptions. You have blind spots. Talking to people outside your field can help illuminate them. And talking to people who (for example) are affected by the disease you study can show you things about their day-to-day experiences that you wouldn’t get any other way.
Every expert who took part in an NSG live chat would happily take part again, and would recommend the experience to a colleague. Some of the words they used to describe the experience were ‘fertile’, ‘energising’, ‘thought-provoking’, ‘fun’. I know that I’m a Scientist have similar data from hundreds (thousands?) of scientists over about ten years.
This isn’t to say that you should all hire I’m a Scientist’s new, improved chatroom from then (although I can certainly recommend that). I imagine there are plenty of online tools out there (or even things like WhatsApp). But this recent workshop made me realise that a lot of researchers want to do more public engagement, but they don’t know where to start.
In terms of having a lot of impact for a small input, something like an online chat could be a really good (and cheap!) place to start. And even for a larger project like this one, it can be an essential part of how science feeds in to your group, and how your group feeds in to science.