Reassessing dialogue: reflections from an amateur astronomy event

Curtis, Vickie (2012). Reassessing dialogue: reflections from an amateur astronomy event. In: PCST 2012 12th International Public Communication of Science and Technology Conference: Quality, Honesty and Beauty in Science and Technology Communication, 18-20 Apr 2012, Florence, Italy.



The discourse of public engagement with the sciences is based on the oft-cited premise that publics will, a priori, value ‘two-way dialogue’. Despite the rhetorical emphasis on ‘two-way dialogue’ in the UK, research has illustrated that many science communication events retain an ‘educational framing’. Do publics desire dialogue or education when they engage with the sciences? What do they value in a science outreach event? By investigating a specific event this study aimed to explore these important issues in more detail.
I studied a weekly ‘Open Evening’ organised by the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, UK. Each event typically consisted of a lecture aimed at general audiences followed by questions and answers. Guided observations of the night sky with the local amateur astronomy group followed if the weather was clear.
A mixed methods approach resulted in a combination of data being collected. Participant observation through field notes complemented the collection of both quantitative and qualitative data from questionnaires. Audience demographics were analysed and participants were asked a number of questions relating to their general attitudes towards science outreach events and whether they wished to see more opportunities for dialogue.
Feedback from the questionnaires demonstrates that this is a popular event run by a committed team of scientists and amateurs. Most of the participants are well educated. Many attended regularly, often travelling great distances to do so. Overall, the majority of those questioned attended to learn something new directly from practicing astronomers, and 'to be enlightened'. The lectures were often cited as the most rewarding aspect of the event. This is in contrast to the policy rhetoric promoting ‘two-way dialogue’. It suggests that the educational framing of the event was valued by attendees.
Views regarding dialogue were not always straightforward. ‘Dialogue’ meant different things to different people; some were unsure how to answer, and there seemed to be a low level of awareness regarding different types of approaches available in the public communication of science. While a number of respondents were enthusiastic about the potential for more interaction with scientists, many were not sure how such an event could be structured. Overall, these findings indicate that further work could usefully explore how publics understand and value different forms of engagement.

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