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  • Where science engagement and communication meet

    An interview with Ivvet Abdullah-Modinou, Head of Engagement for the British Science Association and Director of the British Science Festival.


    If science communication and engagement clearly benefit the general public, researchers also gain from seeing the world outside their lab instead of down their microscope. The era of the one-sided speech by scientists has evolved into a more sharing environment that elevates all parties according to the science engagement specialist Ivvet Abdullah-Modinou. 

    “I never really tell people I’m a scientist because I don’t feel I am one. It was such a long time ago”, states Ivvet Abdullah-Modinou.  Ivvet has been Head of Engagement for the British Science Association for the last five years now, and sharpens her skills managing public programs across the UK, such as the British Science Festival and British Science Week. 

    Although Ivvet started out working as a budding geologist in Hawaii, she rapidly moved away from lab work with a masters in science communication. Since, she’s worked in journalism, in radio, in newspapers and spent a decade working at the Natural History Museum in London, hand in hand with scientists to help them develop narratives for the general public. “My time working in science engagement at the museum really taught me to see what works and what doesn’t while engaging the public; and that practice carried through with me,” she explains.           

    And although being a scientist didn’t shape Ivvet‘s career, it did help in some ways. She explains: “having a science background made a difference in how scientists view me. They see me as an ally, but actually if you think about it, public engagement or science communication practitioners are always the audience’s advocate.” 

    According to the professional, science engagement is about what the audience needs or want, what content best suits them and interests them: “So I actually don’t think you need a science background. I think you need an interest in the subject, as you would in any job. Controversially, I don’t think you need the knowledge of everything. You need knowledge if you think science communication is telling people stuff but I don’t think that is what science communication should be about.”

    So what is science communication? The answer probably varies slightly from one professional to another and each one’s work experience. But according to Ivvet, it is more about conveying an idea around science that you know or you are passionate about; whether that is on the television, doing a talk, or presenting at a festival. Not to be mixed with science public engagement which doesn’t necessarily have an outcome set beforehand. “Say you are organizing a debate around a scientific topic, you need to think about equity in that conversation. It is not about the scientist being elevated above the audience. You need to make sure all voices are equal, everyone is heard and being engaged in the way they want to be. It is a nuance but an important one”, explains the specialist.

    Although slightly different, both occupations help scientists see the world outside their lab. “It is important that scientists communicate and engage with people who are not like them, that they be put in situations that are slightly uncomfortable or outside of their area of expertise, because that is where the real learning happens,” points out Ivvet. 

    “Doing public engagement might never change the way a scientist looks down the microscope but it may change the way they see the world around them and understand more how other people see their work and research. They may never have had that realization before so it is a really nice opportunity to understand more about the public.” 

    And over the years, public engagement has shifted from a one-sided speech to a two-way discussion, which has encouraged researchers to embrace art and social sciences to improve the way they communicate their work to the wider public. “There has been great support from the research community in the UK. Scientists are really up to sharing what they do. They like being involved, they see the value and the importance.” 

    But unfortunately, this part of the scientist’s work is rarely celebrated and recognized. There are real shortfalls when it comes to rewarding and promoting public engagement work by scientists, beside their academic research. “I think there is still a lot that scholarly publishers could do in that direction,” adds Ivvet. “Promoting open science, for example, making sure abstracts are readable and engaging, so that when anyone does have access to it, they can actually read and understand the science, just like they would a news story. They are an intermediary. I don’t think a journal necessarily needs to be the one engaging the public but in the same way, the public don’t always need to know the ins and outs of science publishing. What they do need is to have an appreciation of it and the content in the journal.”

    And although science might seem far from everyday life, some of the content in these journals could really help people make changes in their lives. The specialist is eager to share: “There is nothing more rewarding than to see people use science to make their lives better, whether through their diet, or putting up an air pollution monitor. How science can make people have agency to change their lives is really exciting.”

    One of the biggest hurdles of the sector is getting the public interested, when some don’t immediately identify with science. To engage all members of society with science innovation, “you need to accept that some people have full and happy lives and don’t need to engage with science and that is ok,” adds Ivvet. It is about creating opportunities and experiences for all people to engage with science on their own terms. “But when you do find that space, when those groups, those communities, those audiences find some proximity to science or finally get how interesting or fun or unusual science can be, that is when it is all worth it,” she concludes.  


    This blog post is distributed under the . The illustration is by Hindawi and is also CC-BY. 

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