For many people, the annual Nobel Prize announcement is the only time of the year that they consider the role that discovery science plays in their lives. They use the results of that science every day, from electronics to medicine, but aren’t aware of the underlying research that created the foundation for those technologies – including amazing stories of human achievement.

Telling the Department of Energy Office of Science’s stories of discovery to the many broad audiences outside of our headquarters and the national labs has been an important priority for me since I became director of the Office of Science (SC). It’s critical that scientists have the tools to engage the public about why and how they make their many contributions to the well-being of our communities, our economy, and our national security.

Luckily, our understanding of how non-scientists engage with the process, the people, and the products of science has grown tremendously in the past two decades. The “science of science communication” has well and truly come into its own as both scholarship and practice. Folks in our communications offices here at SC and our national labs have been leaders in both the ideas and practices that map the insights of this scholarship onto how we tell science stories to the public. 

But as we survey the advances in science communication and science public engagement, we see a conspicuous gap – public engagement with basic, curiosity-driven, or fundamental research is rarely the focus of our community conversations. Social science research case studies, examples, or conference sessions often focus on controversial science, applied science, or emerging technologies. The bread and butter of basic science is seldom given the attention accorded these other issues.

Public engagement around basic science is neither well-understood nor well-studied. Perhaps it’s because there is strong bipartisan support for basic science, leading to the perception that we don’t need to actively engage the broader public.  Perhaps it’s just really hard to talk about or engage people in science that doesn’t have a clear utilitarian value or can be framed in terms of tangible outcomes.

I know that we can do better. Many of us who support basic science are interested in deepening our understanding of effective public engagement around basic research and exploring how we can improve this practice. On the philanthropic side, The Kavli Foundation is a major supporter of basic research, especially in neuroscience and cosmology. On our side, SC provides the nation’s largest share of financial support for the basic physical sciences. It’s important to both of our organizations that the general public understands the importance of, and participates in the thrill of discoveries in, our basic research.

That’s why Kavli Foundation President and CEO Bob Conn and I are signing this week a memorandum of understanding to support this mission. Our partnership, SciPEP (Science Public Engagement Partnership), will explore special characteristics and challenges of public engagement in discovery research. It will also create tool kits and resources for scientists and researchers performing basic research to use to engage the broader public as well as stimulate additional scholarship around public understanding and support of basic science.

As part of this effort, we will be convening the first-of-its-kind international conference on engaging the public in basic research next summer. 

Over the next five years, SciPEP will develop and launch training for our scientists at DOE, Kavli, and the labs, as well as for our funded PIs in the academic sector and the science communicators who work with them. The Office of Science is pleased and honored to join with The Kavli Foundation in this important work.  

Dr. Chris Fall
Dr. Chris Fall served as Director of the Department of Energy's Office of Science, the lead federal agency supporting fundamental scientific research for energy and the nation's largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences.
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