Making the Case for Astronomy at EWASS 2019
The European Week of Astronomy and Space Science (EWASS) is the annual meeting of the European Astronomical Society (EAS) and the largest European conference on astronomy. For the past three years, Europlanet 2020 RI has collaborated with the EAS, ESA and the RAS to convene a session on public and political engagement, “Making the Case for Astronomy”.
EWASS 2019 took place in sweltering conditions at the Manufacture des tabacs, University of Lyon 3 during a heatwave from 24-28 July. The 2019 edition of Making the Case for Astronomy ran for a full day of parallel sessions and was split over three themes: evaluation, engaging with non-traditional audiences, and talking to policy-makers. The sessions included time for questions and wider discussion with all participants attending.
The first session focused on lessons learned from social science and evaluation. Marta Entradas of the London School of Economics, UK and ISCTE-IUL, Portugal, spoke about her 2018 study of the public engagement practices and motivations of 2587 members of the IAU, “Bustling public communication by astronomers around the world driven by personal and contextual factors“, the largest international investigation of astronomy outreach to date. Marta presented a positive picture of self-motivated researchers, who in all regions of the world are striving to engage external communities with their science.
Eric Jensen of the Institute for Methods Innovation, UK, presented an evidence-based approach to public engagement, focusing on how evaluation can lead to more effective communication and outcomes.
We finished the final session with a presentation by Anita Heward on the Europlanet Evaluation Toolkit. Europlanet 2020 RI developed this toolkit with the support of Karen Bultitude and Jen DeWitt with the aim of empowering outreach providers and educators in measuring and appraising the impact of their activities. The kit includes 14 easy-to-use data collection tools and two data analysis tools for deriving more in-depth information from data collected.
The second session started with a review by Mark McCaughrean of ESA’s recent communications activities aimed at non-traditional audiences. Initiatives include “Space Rocks” music events and the “Ambition” science fiction film, which has opened up opportunities to participate in science fiction conventions such as FEDCON.
Jacqueline Campbell of UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory followed this with a dynamic talk on reaching out to people in society – particularly young people – who feel that science is “not for them”. She highlighted the importance of role models and drew analogies with sport in discussing how science can become more accessible by opening it up to society at all levels, and not just those that wish to pursue a career in STEM.
Next, Michelle Willebrands brought a pan-European perspective with a presentation on the European IAU Regional Office of Astronomy for Development (E-ROAD), which has been established at Leiden Observatory and operated jointly by the European Astronomical Society and Leiden University. While astronomy is well established in Europe, the continent faces its own challenges in achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in Europe. The new E-ROAD will of ways in which astronomy can improve some aspects of the European society.
Gina Maffey ended the session by discussing the challenges of presenting radio astronomy to the non-expert, the joys of acronyms within acronyms, and set a practical exercise in communication, where participants were asked to describe their work in one sentence to their neighbours and find out what kind of visual imagery their words evoked.
The final session was opened by Clare Moody, the former MEP for the Southwest of the UK, who gave practical advice on engaging with policy makers. Clare highlighted the timeliness for engaging with the new intake of Members of the European Parliament as they are scoping out their areas of interest. Clare’s top tips included:
Identify a cluster of people to target through your Member State. Look at the backgrounds of MEPs to see who has an interest in science or who has a link to a particular university. This kind of mapping early on can pay dividends in developing good relationships with policy makers.Look at the target committees that will be formed in July 2019 and the appointed rapporteurs. The ITRE Committee is particularly important for astronomy, as is the Budget Committee. As well as developing a good relationship with an MEP, it’s also vital to have a good relationship with the MEP’s office team. The offices are an important part of policy development and are gatekeepers to the MEPs.Be clear about why you are engaging with a policymaker. What do you want to get out of it? What knowledge or expertise can you bring that will help them in their work or make them look good. Tell a coherent story.Keep in regular contact with your MEP and their offices, and with activities within the Parliament. This will make it easier when you need something e.g. a hearing in the run-up to a key decision.
Next, Andy Williams, the External Relations Officer at the European Southern Observatory, talked about what works in creating a favourable policy landscape for astronomy. Andy covered strategies for engagement with political and government actors and sound advice on how to act as a “policy entrepreneur”, understanding the timeline of policy making, building up contextual knowledge of policy systems, and capitalising on external events and successes.
Robert Massey, Deputy Director of the Royal Astronomical Society, gave a perspective on policy engagement during a turbulent time in UK politics. The EU currently plays a vital role in supporting astronomy, which is one of the most international fields of research. With 1/3 of UK postdocs coming from other EU countries and the ERC supporting over 30% of grants for UK space science and astronomy, any form of Brexit is likely to have a huge effect on astronomy in the UK. Policy changes regarding open access are also causing a major shake-up in scientific publishing. Organisations like the RAS can provide a voice for the community it serves.
Finally, Niall Smith of Cork Institute of Technology Blackrock Castle Observatory in Ireland talked about how the conversion of a 16th century castle into a science destination was enabled initially through engagement with decision makers on a local level and has led to partnerships across Ireland and beyond. Niall also discussed how the success of Blackrock Cstle Observatory’s public enagement had played an important role in catalysing and developing Ireland’s first National Space Strategy for Enterprise through our thought-leadership in space policy development.
Many thanks to Karen O’Flaherty (ESA), Mike Bode (EAS), Robert Massey (RAS), Nantia Moutsouroufi (U. Athens) and Eric Lagadec (Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur) for their work in preparing the session. Special thanks to Nantia Moutsouroufi for the images included in this post.
Find out more about previous EWASS “Making the Case for Astronomy” sessions in reports from Prague in 2017 and in Liverpool in 2018.