Comparing Virtual Public Engagements in Science

By Robyn Hill

I have recently attended two online public engagement events- both of which addressed important issues in society. One was a live streamed talk about the differences between medical drugs and illegal drugs which was aimed at the general public but targeted towards people with some background in science. This was a Cuppa Science event delivered by Pint of Science:

https://pintofscience.co.uk/event/cuppa-science-ep-6-when-medicines-become-drugs

I have also reviewed the highlights from Celebrate Vaccines Day from the British Society for Immunology. This involved Twitter posts from scientists and doctors discussing how vaccines work and why they are so important. Celebrate Vaccines day showcased a wide range of content but there were specific components targeted at parents and children:

https://www.immunology.org/celebrate-vaccines/engage/celebrate-vaccines-day-26-march-2020#Interactive & creative

The Cuppa Science talk used the background of the chemical makeup of illegal drugs to teach some complex principles such as chirality and solubility. This was done using simple analogies such as a T-Rex in water and on land to represent solubility of molecules in water and oil. Some of the talk may have been difficult for people with no scientific background to understand but the analogies helped to make it more accessible. The event aimed to inform and educate the public but also to show that chemistry is an interesting and exciting subject which may inspire people to consider a career in science. Illegal drugs cause many problems in society; discussing their chemical make-up and how they can be very similar to the medication such as morphine, codeine and nasal decongestants helps to break down some of the mystery surrounding the topic. There was a question and answer session at the end which was an excellent way to receive feedback on the talk and to address new issues. For example, the paradox of opioid painkillers causing addiction was addressed which may help people to become more aware of some of the issues with prescription pain killers.

Celebrate Vaccines Day was made up of a wide range of contributions from scientists and doctors. This included a great video about how vaccines train the immune system to recognise infection using chickens trained to run towards food.

The varied nature of the contributions meant that people could choose what was interesting to them and there was not an overload of information since the individual pieces were short. Some additional fun analogies and videos may have further helped engage children in the content. The aim of the Celebrate Vaccines day was to inform people about how vaccines have changed our society for the better, how they work and why we should make sure that us and our children have received all their vaccinations. This is important because false information about vaccines is often circulated. Many of the posts for Celebrate Vaccines day were shared through Twitter which gave scientists a great opportunity to see what people thought through the comments. However, there were also some examples of polls and quizzes that allowed the public to answer multiple choice questions about vaccines meaning scientists could get an idea what the general public thought.