I sat down this morning to write a light-hearted blog about the UK government’s “Science: So what? So everything” campaign.  The angle was going to be:

Why write about this when people want to read about this?

But the more I dug around, the more apparent it became that this is an initiative that seems to have lost its way – and in need of more than a cheap quip about substance (ab)use…

The “Science: So what? So everything” campaign was launched with a flourish by the British government Department for Business Innovation and Skills last January.  It was aimed at engaging people in science, and shaking off the perception of science as being elitist.  A string of celebrities – including Terry Pratchett, Bill Bryson and David Attenborough – put their weight behind the campaign as Prime Minister Gordon Brown kicked it off.

According to the British Science Association,

A key aim of the campaign is to reach and spark interest in science among a wider audience, dispelling the myth that science is too difficult or out of bounds for all but scientists. The involvement of well-known figures from the media and popular culture will help to convey this message. As well the help of celebrities, the campaign has enlisted the support of UK research councils, learned societies and other government departments and hopes to extend its reach with the involvement of business and other organisations outside the world of science.

So what has happened since then?

I ask because British Science Minister Lord Drayson as just embarked on a review of the campaign.  As he announced on Twitter earlier this week:

Drayson_Twitter_091124

I’m afraid as a scientist I don’t fit into Lord Drayson’s target audience here.  But his tweet – and some of the responses to it – did drive me back to the Science: So What? campaign to see what was going on.

And I must confess, what I found was a little disappointing.

The “campaign” (more about those inverted commas in a second) revolves around the Science: So what? So everything website.  This is a slick website – it’s attractive, it’s neatly laid out, it draws you in to a series of articles that are related to science.

But it’s a website, not a campaign!

In fact, the more I browsed, the clearer it was that the Science: So what? website is little more than a mediocre popular science portal, with a hint of government science evangelism about it.  I’m not even sure I would have known that this was the hub of a campaign if it hadn’t been for Lord Drayson’s tweet, and archived news coverage of the launch (the original BIS press release isn’t available by the way as far as I can tell – links like the one here lead to dead ends).

If this is a campaign, where’s the action plan?  Where are the deliverables and the indicators of success?  More to the point, where are all those celebrities who were brought in to launch it – and the accompanying publicity machine?

So let’s forget about the “campaign” for a moment, and just look at the website.

The website is certainly visually attractive and functionally smooth.  But does it succeed in reaching out to an audience and engaging people – does it, in the words of mjrobbins, “add value?”

I’m not sure it does.  There are a ton of great science websites and blogs out there – most of them offering far more in the way of reader-oriented content.  If you want information on the latest science news, to be titillated and entertained by science and technology, or to to be enlightened by the view from the lab bench, you are spoilt for choice.  So why would anyone visit – and re-visit – Science: So what?

I’m struggling with this.  It’s not that the content is bad.  It’s just that there’s equally good or better stuff elsewhere.  The articles are limited compared to what you get at New Scientist, the BBC or Discover Magazine (for instance).  There is no community here – a key driver of site visits and loyalty (where are the links, the guest articles, the commentaries, the controversial discussions?).  The “events” page seems rather limited in scope. There’s a DIY Science page with three (three!) articles on it, two of them discussing that old chestnut of putting Menots mints in coke.  And the “get involved” page – judging by the number of comments received – hasn’t inspired many to actually get involved.

I don’t really want to diss Science: So what? – it’s a laudable effort to address a very real issue, and the website is trying to make a dent within a tough web space.  And at the end of the day it is an experiment in using new media to reach out on science.  Tim Jones, who publishes the science and technology blog Zoonomian, wrote “I can also see this is something of a sandbox for experiment, so deserves to be cut some slack” on the Science: So what? metablog.

But he also points out the need for review and decision-making on the website, and highlights a number of areas requiring attention.

Looking at where Science: So what? doesn’t hit the mark for me, and where it might do better, two issues scream out.

The first deals with engaging people.  Despite trying to move away from an old-school science communication framework, it still seems to set out to inform rather than engage.  It smacks of messages that someone thinks people should be reading, rather than content that people want to read.  In other words, despite efforts to move away from this rather outdated stance, it’s “preachy.”

Take the opening paragraph on the “about” page:

In the UK, many of us don’t value science as much as we should, but it lives beneath the surface of everything we touch and taste. It’s the key to our prosperity, one of the driving forces of our economy, and it creates thousands of jobs that keep Britain at the leading edge.

This is about telling readers what’s good for them, not asking them what they think.  Okay so it’s a message that I and many scientists have a lot of sympathy for.  But as a first step to pulling people in? I’m not sure I would be so brave as to use it!  The art of selling is knowing what your customers want, not telling them what they should want – something that seems to be missing here.

Of course, I may be wrong and Science: So what? may be thronging with visitors.

I haven’t seen any web stats for the site so it’s hard to speak with any authority here.  About the only indicator of engagement I do have is a post that links directly back to 2020 Science.  As far as I can tell, I have only had one referral from Science: So what? since that post was published (Tim Jones had a similar experience with the link to his blog).  Contrast this to a link to 2020 Science posted in the comments on P.Z Myer’s blog Pharyngula on November 15 – from which I had 148 referrals in ten days.

This is a dubious comparison in many ways, but it does beg the question why an associate professor at the University of Minnesota seems to be engaging people on science far more effectively that the UK government.

Then, there is the problem of this being a government website.

Think about it.  Where’s the first place you would turn to for broad, unbiased, eclectic, entertaining and educating information on science.  The government?  Not me!  If there’s one thing you can guarantee with a government site is that there will be a constraining agenda behind it – and why would I elect to have my science input filtered by an organization I know is trying to feed me specific information for a predetermined purpose?

This brings me back to where I started – my “Why write about this when people want to read about this?” question.  Engagement is partly about building communities that can have the conversations they want – which is why there’s been considerable chatter on the web today about LilWizz’s piece, but nothing as far as I’m aware on the Science: So what? article.

It’s hard to imagine Science: So what? posting pieces about feeding new-borns opium draughts.  Yet without this freedom to truly engage, it’s even harder to imagine Science: So what? reaching out to the audience it so desperately wants to.

So what’s the answer?  I’m not sure I  have any great answers, but here are four things that BIS might think about:

  • Develop a strategic, multi-faceted and transparent campaign to establish science as an integral part of British society, with the web site being just one component of this.
  • Make key celebrities, scientists, communicators and organizations central pillars of the campaign.
  • Support bloggers, producers, broadcasters and other communicators in developing networks and communities around science and technology – without heavy-handed government interference.
  • Further develop efforts to engage people in science and technology – enabling them to be an active part of the process, rather than passive bystanders.

Much more is needed than this if science and technology are to be developed and used effectively within society.  But it’s a start.

When the Science: So what? So everything campaign was launched, Pallab Ghosh wrote on the BBC website

Without a sustained long-term plan, however, there’s a risk that any momentum this latest campaign generates will be lost and go the way of previous attempts to turn the public’s obvious admiration of science into something that’s a part of their daily lives.

Sadly, his crystal ball seemed to be working pretty well that day.  Nevertheless, integrating science into society remains an important issue.  The UK government started well with the Science: So What? campaign.  Maybe it’s now time to get out of the sandpit, and start to build something more concrete.

But don’t take my word for it – check out Science: So what? So everything for yourself.  Talk about it on the Science: So What? metablog.  And don’t forget to get back to the ever-accessible Lord Drayson on Twitter with your thoughts and ideas.