Star performers

If we can understand which institutions are engaging with the public exceptionally well, then we can learn how to reach a wider audience.
APEX_Stands_Sentry_on_Chajnantor. 560 747jpg
APEX Stands Sentry on Chajnantor ESO/B. Tafreshi (CC BY 2.0)

Why are astronomers so effective in public engagement? Dr Marta Entradas of the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science finds lessons for other sciences in the communications strategies of astronomy.

Dr Entradas’ interest in astronomy was sparked during her PhD studies a decade ago at University College London through her supervisor, an astronomer himself, Professor Steve Miller.

The experience inspired her latest research project to understand the culture of public communication of astronomy. Dr Entradas and her collaborator Professor Bauer, ran a survey of over 2,500 astronomers from around the world, building on other studies to create the first global dataset that allows comparisons of astronomers behaviour in different regions and countries.

The research confirmed Dr Entradas’ view that astronomers are particularly adept at communication, which may put astronomy amongst the highest performing of all the natural sciences, in terms of public engagement. Numerous anecdotal examples of public engagement, such as night sky observations, public lectures, and exhibitions, showed an academic community that is driven by strong intrinsic motivation and sense of duty to engage with the public.

The survey showed that astronomers across the world shared a similar appetite for public engagement. But it was astronomers based in regions with the least resources, such as Africa and South America, that were the most active.

Dr Entradas offers an explanation of necessity for why astronomers from these regions surpassed the more established academic environments of Europe and North America. Remote locations in the southern hemisphere tend to be the most common locations for the infrastructure required for astronomy, such as large telescopes and observatories. These visible and expensive facilities can encounter local opposition on how it changes the physical landscape and diverts resources.

Dr Entradas says: “Astronomers operating in these areas will have to work with the local people to gain their acceptance for what they are doing. This means building the kind of relationships with the community that perhaps aren’t necessary in other areas of scientific research.”

“In 2015, when I was in Hawaii attending a conference, astronomers were targeted by protesters who objected to a telescope that was being built on the top of the Mauna Kea volcano, where the remains of their ancestors lay. So while astronomy is not really thought of as being controversial, these kind of projects do meet political opposition that needs to be overcome.”

This explanation shows the importance of contextual and environmental factors behind astronomers public engagement efforts.

Another finding from the research was no evidence of a gender divide between men and women; all astronomers tended to engage with the public with equal enthusiasm.

Dr Entradas says: “It is quite common for men in academia to speak in public more often. The fact that this was not the case shows how strong the tradition of public engagement is within astronomy, both sexes see it as a duty to communicate, part of the vocation of the discipline.”

The lessons from the project will help inform the next project in Dr Entradas’ pipeline; a much larger piece of research on how academic institutions engage with their public around the world.

Dr Entradas says: “I’m interested in understanding how universities engage with society. This is a really big issue, the disconnect between expert opinion and public opinion has become very apparent in the past few years. If we can understand which disciplines and institutions are engaging with the public exceptionally well, then we can learn how to reach a wider audience.”

“I think that all academics could learn something from astronomers; they make every effort to communicate with the public and engage.”

Behind the article

Bustling public communication by astronomers around the world driven by personal and contextual factors by Marta Entradas and Martin W. Bauer was published in Nature Astronomy in December 2018.