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2021 Conference

Communicating the Future: Engaging the Public in Basic Science


July 27 - 28, 2021


On July 27-28, 2021, SciPEP convened a virtual conference exploring the unique characteristics of the relationship between the public and basic research, drawing from the experience and expertise of our colleagues in the science and science communication communities. Communicating the Future: Engaging the Public in Basic Science explored why the public and basic science should be connected and what current communication and engagement efforts are taking place, including the challenges and opportunities in this work. Ultimately, we intended to identify how scientists and professionals can work to engage the public with basic research as effectively as possible.

The conference program was organized around the exploration of the why, what and how of the relationship between the public and basic science. The following aspects were explored throughout:

  • Scholarship (e.g. communications research) – whether and how it can be applied to public engagement practice, and identification of new research questions;
  • Training – public engagement skills development for scientist-communicators and the communication professionals who work with them;
  • Engagement practice – activities or programs that provide opportunities for mutual learning or exchange of ideas between scientists and members of the public; 
  • Justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in public engagement; and
  • Evaluating the effectiveness of public engagement activities and programs. 

What we discussed and learned at this conference will also inform future directions of SciPEP and the resources and training we propose to develop for basic scientists.

Steering Committee

Guiding the first SciPEP conference in the important initiative to explore the critical intersection of public engagement and basic research is our committee which includes scientists, communicators, and scholars who study and practice science communication:


Ani Aprahamian
Frank M. Freimann Professor of Physics, University of Notre Dame

Sarah R Davies
Professor of Technosciences, Materiality, and Digital Cultures, University of Vienna

Suzanne Ffolkes
Chief Communications Officer, The Optical Society (OSA)

Tiffany Lohwater
Chief Communications Officer, Division of Computing, Data Science, and Society, University of California, Berkeley

Spiros Michalakis
Mathematical Physicist and Manager of Outreach for the Institute for Quantum Information and Matter, Caltech

Alysson Muotri
Professor, UCSD School of Medicine

Brian Nord
Scientist, U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory

Erika Shugart
Executive Director, National Science Teaching Association

Becky Thompson
Head of the Office of Education and Public Engagement, U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory

Matthew S. VanDyke
Assistant Professor and Graduate Coordinator, Department of Advertising & Public Relations, The University of Alabama

Sara K. Yeo
Associate Professor, The University of Utah

In addition, Civic Science Fellow Karen Andrade helped identify and understand the landscape of basic science engagement projects, identify projects and efforts that help the community think about what it means to engage people in basic science, and encourage inclusive participation in SciPEP.

Pre-Conference Webinar

Science of science communication experts John Besley of Michigan State University and Todd Newman of University of Wisconsin-Madison, together with their research teams, discussed the scope and scale of scholarship about communication and public engagement for basic science.

Day 1

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Plenary 1

8:00 AM (PDT)

Communicating basic science: engaging scientists, engaging the public 

As part of a unique federal-philanthropy initiative, the Department of Energy and The Kavli Foundation have committed to a joint exploration of why and how scientists share their passion for basic research with members of the public at large. Leaders from this initiative discussed the genesis of the project, plans for the conference, and expectations of how the conference will inform public engagement with basic science.


  • Rick Borchelt, U.S. Department of Energy
  • Erika Shugart, National Science Teaching Association
  • Brooke Smith, The Kavli Foundation


Plenary 2

8:30 AM (PDT)

What is public engagement in science? 

What exactly do we mean when we call for “public engagement” with basic science? This session traced the history of public engagement in science programs, unpacked why it is difficult to construct a single definition of public engagement, and explored the general categories of public engagement found in science communication.

Speaker: Bruce Lewenstein, Cornell University


  • Ann Bartuska, Resources for the Future
  • Jayatri Das, Franklin Institute
  • Kirsten Ellenbogen, Great Lakes Science Center

Moderator: Nanci Bompey, American Geophysical Union

Concurrent Sessions 1

9:25 AM (PDT)

How does the broader public view basic science? 

Basic scientific research is a critical component of the innovative STEM ecosystem. What do Americans think about basic science, and what are some potential obstacles when trying to communicate the value of basic research as part of larger scientific engagement programs?

Speaker: Chris Volpe, Science Counts


  • Céleste Frazier Barthel, Oregon State University
  • Clio Heslop, University of Texas, Austin

Moderator: Rebecca Thompson, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory


Do we need to anchor communication about basic research to its potential for future applications? 

Basic research is usually framed as scientific exploration for the sake of knowledge, driven by curiosity rather than specific application. Yet communicators typically frame the importance of basic research only in the context of applications rather than the importance of the basic research itself. Do we always need to ground public engagement with basic science in its potential applications?


  • Marley Jarvis, University of Washington
  • Katie McKissick, The Kavli Foundation
  • Ben Shouse, Government Accountability Office
  • Barbara Theirs, New York Botanical Garden

Moderator:  Sara Yeo, University of Utah


What does two-way communication look like for basic science? 

Mutual learning, bidirectional engagement, and two-way communication in science are terms often used to describe public-centered models of engagement, yet by any measure — relative to applied science and technology — we seldom apply these symmetric models to engagement with basic science. This session explored examples of bidirectional communication in basic science.


  • Ivvet Abdullah-Modinou, Simons Foundation
  • Greg Bowman, Washington University at St. Louis
  • Sarah Garlick, Hubbard Brook Research Foundation

Moderator: Raj Pandya, Thriving Earth Exchange


What did we learn about needs in public engagement by organizing this conference? 

The conference design reflected what the leadership team and steering committee learned from the development of landscape studies, review of abstracts, and conversations with experts and innovators in the field. This session looked under the hood to reveal the fascinating realizations, opportunities, tensions, and knowledge deserts identified in the conference design.


  • Karen Andrade, Science Philanthropy Alliance
  • John Besley, Michigan State University
  • Todd Newman, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Gail Porter, National Institute of Standards and Technology

Moderator: Matthew VanDyke, the University of Alabama

Plenary 3

10:50 AM (PDT)

Exploring the relationship between basic science and the public

This session explored the social context surrounding basic science, including societal perspectives that are relevant to how basic science is done and who does it. It explored common assumptions, (mis)perceptions, and motivations of scientists, science communicators, and members of the public.

Speaker: Shobita Parthasarathy, University of Michigan


  • Marta Entradas, London School of Economics
  • Leslie Krohn, Argonne National Laboratory
  • Susan Renoe, Missouri School of Journalism

Moderator: Samuel Dyson, Science in Society Funder Collaborative

Concurrent Sessions

1:10 PM (PDT)

Why do federal agencies communicate about basic research? 

As the largest funders of basic science, governmental agencies have a major role to play in communicating the work they support to the taxpaying public. Representatives from various U.S. federal agencies discussed their motivations for communicating about basic research.

Speaker: Kei Koizumi, Office of Science and Technology Policy


  • Allison Eckhardt, Department of Energy
  • Josh Chamot, National Science Foundation
  • Barbara Mattson, National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Moderator: Amanda Greenwell, National Science Foundation


Meet people where they are, or invite them over?

The science-interested public has many opportunities to learn about and engage with science, whether watching science-focused TV programming, visiting a museum, or attending a science-themed event. What do we (and don’t we) know about how to communicate basic science beyond the science-interested members of the public? This session explored how and when to draw people to science, vs. bringing science to parts of other settings and cultural events.


  • Paula Croxson, Columbia University
  • Deepti Pradhan, Yale University
  • Mark Rosin: Guerilla Science

Moderator: Ben Wiehe, MIT Museum


Why do scientists engage the public in basic science?

This session explored social science research on scientists’ motivations to do public engagement and the factors that influence their motivations, including the interplay between individual motivation and creating inclusive spaces to engage the public.

Speaker: Nichole Bennett, University of Texas, Austin


  • Paige Jarreau, LifeOmic
  • Todd Newman, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Mohamed Noor, Duke University

Moderator: Adam Fagen, Association of Science and Technology Centers


How can public relations contribute to public engagement with basic science? 

Public relations scholars and practitioners have varied conceptual and operational definitions for public engagement. In addition, more work is needed to fully articulate how research and practice in public engagement with basic science should advance at different levels (e.g., with individual scientists, research institutions and science organizations, and the science enterprise) and in different formats (e.g., social and digital media vs. traditional media). This panel focused on the ideas that public relations theory can contribute to our understanding of public engagement with basic science, and opportunities in theory and practice for advancing our understanding of public engagement with basic science.


  • Jeong-Nam Kim, University of Oklahoma
  • Katherine McComas, Cornell University
  • Katherine Rowan, George Mason University
  • Maureen Taylor, University of Technology Sydney

Moderator: Nicole Lee, Arizona State University

Plenary 4

2:00 pM (PDT)

What sparks curiosity, wonder, and awe?

Basic scientists often mention that they are motivated to share their work because they want to convey the wonder and awe of their research and fuel curiosity. This session covered the current state of knowledge — and frontier of research — from the social sciences about human curiosity, wonder, awe, and similar emotions. It also explored whether scientists sharing their stories to elicit wonder and awe is an appropriate approach for engaging the public in basic science.


  • Tania Lombrozo, Princeton University
  • Daniel Silva Luna, University of Otago


  • Jeanne Garbarino, RockEDU Science Outreach
  • David Kirby, California Polytechnic University

Moderator:  Sara Yeo, University of Utah

Day 2

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Plenary 5

8:00 AM (PDT)

How can we ensure public engagement in basic science is equitable and inclusive?

Equitable public engagement requires elevating different ways of knowing, developing tools to build culturally appropriate science communication strategies, and understanding the nuances of engagement of basic science with populations frequently left out of these efforts. This session was a facilitated discussion that touched on the importance of addressing exclusion and disenfranchisement among both scientists and members of the public, especially in the communication of basic science.

Speaker & Moderator: Raj Pandaya, Thriving Earth Exchange


  • Monica Felieu-Mojer, Ciencia Puerto Rico
  • Beronda Montgomery, Michigan State University
  • Kyle Whyte, University of Michigan
  • Edna Tan, University of North Carolina, Greensboro

Concurrent Sessions

9:50 AM (PDT)

Curiosity, wonder, and awe in science engagement: a deeper dive 

In a moderated conversation, speakers from the plenary session, “What sparks curiosity, wonder, and awe?” discussed the topics that emerged, responded to comments and queries from the SciPEP audience, and addressed remaining questions: What do we know (and not know) about curiosity, wonder, or awe in science engagement, and what further research is needed? What have people’s experiences been with engagement where these emotions are present? What are the pros and cons of thinking of these emotions as important to science communication and public engagement?


  • Jeanne Garbarino, RockEDU
  • Tania Lombrozo, Princeton University
  • Daniel Silva Luna, University of Ontago

Moderator: Sarah Davies, University of Vienna


What are the effects of societal controversy on the communication of basic science?

Basic scientific breakthroughs deepen our understanding of ourselves, our world, our universe, and beyond. While they have the potential to benefit humanity, they also have the potential to raise ethical issues and spark controversy. The discovery of nuclear fission, recombinant DNA, CRISPR-Cas 9, and brain organoids are just a few examples from basic science that raise important societal questions. Some scientists will find themselves facing an engagement imperative – ensuring the public is aware of, and engaged in, discussions about the implications of groundbreaking discoveries like these. How should scientists prepare for this? What are their responsibilities? What partners exist to help navigate the societal discussions about these issues? This session explored these thorny issues.


  • Mikhaila Calice, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Megan Hochstrasser, Innovative Genomics Institute
  • Alysson Muotri, University of California, San Diego

Moderator: David Sittenfeld, Museum of Science


What is the impact of public deference to scientific authority? 

Democratic deliberation and public engagement are critical elements of decision-making and policy formulation. What is the role and nature of scientific authority in shaping and informing policy? This session explored the intersection of deference to scientific authority, deliberative democracy, and public understanding of science and technology.

Speaker: Emily Howell, University of Wisconsin-Madison


  • Ubaka Ogbogu, University of Alberta
  • Eric Kennedy, York University

Moderator: Erika Shugart, National Science Teaching Association


How are justice and equity taken into consideration for public engagement training?

Communication and public engagement training has traditionally lacked diversity, inclusivity, and equity. The communication training community is working to understand and change this. This session explored how justice and equity are taken into consideration in training, and what more needs to be done when supporting basic scientists to develop the communication and engagement skills they need.


  • Alexandra Canet, Wellcome Connecting Science
  • Katherine Carter, National Center for Science Education
  • Alberto Roca, DiverseScholar 

Moderator: Chloe Poston, Institute for Learning Innovation


How do we know if we are making a difference? 

What does “making a difference” mean for public engagement in basic science? What do we know and not know about how to measure and communicate whether we make a difference? Noted communication scholars and practitioners discussed monitoring and evaluating public engagement efforts, accomplishments, and impact.

Speaker: Eric A Jensen, University of Warwick


  • John Besley, Michigan State University
  • Sylvia Leathem, I-Form
  • Karen Peterman,  Karen Peterman Consulting

Moderator: Christine Reich, Museum of Science, Boston

Plenary 6

11:35 AM (PDT)

From ribosomes to revolution: a scientist’s reflections on the life cycle of public engagement in basic research

This conversation between Nobel and Kavli Prize Laureate Jennifer Doudna and NPR’s Joe Palca explored the challenges, opportunities, and responsibilities of a basic scientist committed to engaging the public. We heard about Dr. Doudna’s experiences throughout her career, including personal stories about how to prepare for interactions with the public, from the press to religious groups. The conversation touched on many themes identified throughout the conference, including the social context surrounding basic science, engaging the public in discovery science without known applications, and engaging the public in controversial issues born from ground-breaking scientific discoveries.

Introduction: Brooke Smith, The Kavli Foundation

Speaker: Jennifer Doudna, University of California, Berkeley

Correspondent: Joe Palca, National Public Radio 


Plenary 7

1:00 pM (PDT)

How do we move forward from here?

An astrophysicist, a political scientist, and science journalist turned college dean walk into a public engagement conference, and… what comes next? These thought leaders reflected on the conference and looked to the future, including identifying research gaps and resource needs for the future of communicating basic science.


  • Mariette DiChristina, Boston University
  • Brian Nord, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory
  • Roger Pielke Jr., University of Colorado



Plenary 8

2:30 pM (PDT)

Making science fun(ny) with Science! The Show

Science! The Show is a live science and comedy project that uses comedy, games, and personalization to connect scientists with the public. The team shared their process for transforming a science lecture into a participatory, fun-filled demonstration.


  • Russell Cohen-Hoffing
  • Dylan Farr
  • Alex Shifman


Plenary 9

3:00 pM (PDT)

SciPEP: a look to the future of public engagement on basic science

The SciPEP leadership team looked back on the conference and how it set the table for future discussions of engagement in basic science and what resources our community needs to do it well.


  • Rick Borchelt, U.S. Department of Energy
  • Erika Shugart, National Science Teaching Association
  • Brooke Smith, The Kavli Foundation

Transcript of report-outs.


The SciPEP conference, Communicating the Future: Engaging the Public in Basic Science, included 60 interactive digital “booths” with splash talks featuring public engagement work from around the world. View these short presentations on this YouTube Playlist.