China-Italy meeting on outreach: a report


Author: Claudia Cristalli

On November the 4th and 5th the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa hosted the international meeting Science Outreach. A Chance for development. Perspectives in Italy and China, organized by VIS in collaboration with the Confucius Institute of Pisa, which sponsored the event. The cooperation and support of Confucio’s directors Wu Xueyan and Alberto di Minin and staff Giada Alì and Ester Armentano was precious for the good result of the event. The aim of the meeting was to explore what Outreach means and what can be done to render Outreach more effective. Chinese and Italian leading cultural institutions employ different strategies in the communication of scientific results to a larger, non-specialized public; the meeting was therefore a good occasion for comparison. The lively discussion that followed was moderated by Andrea Ferrara, VIS director. What emerged is a strong common perspective on how Outreach activity has to be conceived; its instances, however, are often quite different in practice.

1. The first question on the table was: What is Outreach? All participants in the meeting were unanimous in stressing the wide range of communication tools that this activity requires. “Outreach” is not meant to be just “diffusion” or “popularization” of knowledge, since the popularization-model implies a hierarchical structure, with information flowing from a privileged source (at the top) to a passive mass (lying at the bottom). In fact, what happens during effective outreach – as well as during effective teaching – is that the interest of the auditory is awaken, and at this point listening is anything but a passive activity.

Katherine Isaacs (UniPi), coordinator of the event Bright. The researcher’s night in Tuscany, an European outreach manifestation that finds place every fourth Friday of September, has highlighted three aspects that may define the aims of Outreach: (1) To spread the cultural influence of Universities beyond the boundaries of seminars, professor’s bureaus, and research labs, to the surrounding social tissue; (2) To stress how research and teaching activities are mutually interdependent and able to enrich each other; (3) To elaborate not only a program, but an attitude of responsibility and respect, which has to be a structural component of the developmental strategy of every scientific and cultural institution.

Michele Lanzinger, director of the MuSe of Trento, while sharing with Isaacs roughly the same theoretical background, gave his personal insight on Outreach as based on the MuSe experience. Therefore, Lanzinger spoke of (1) an effective positive repercussion on local economy of the Natural History Museum, of the Astronomic Observatory, and of the daily research pursued by geologist working within the walls of the MuSe or at their African dislocation, among the Udzungwa Mountains, a National Park in the Eastern Arc Mountains, Tanzania. Moreover, (2) the contemporary need of lifelong learning parallels (on the non-specialized side) the need to defend the interplay between teaching and research among professional scientists. A well-organized cultural institution can give some important contribution to both those needs. The awareness of having not only children but also professionalized adults among the public surely makes the case for communicating research outside the boundaries of the Academy even stronger. (3) As a consequence of this, it is of paramount importance to elaborate a new, non-hierarchical standard of communication. Also the terminology stressing the difference between specialized and non-specialized people should be abandoned, since it is of no use in improving understanding of any kind. The ideal science communicator will manage to address simultaneously a wide range of different people, keeping in mind the different backgrounds to which they belong.

Marcos Valdes, VIS coordinator, maintains that the Outreach program of the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa is going in the same direction: “Here in Pisa the people responded very well to our events, with a strong participation both at the public conferences [I’ll tell you the discovery that changed my life] and at the CAVE3D-visits. It means that VIS (and Outreach in general) meets a real need, that is, to get closer to the world of research, either scientific or humanistic (I am thinking now at our digital reconstruction of Segesta’s archaeological site, Sicily)”. Valdes draws on Isaacs’ points while bearing Lanzinger’s results in mind: first of all, (1) the integration between research and communication must also act as a firewall against the diffusion of viral scientific disinformation, which diverts and manipulates the public opinion. Therefore, Outreach has (1.1) to develop a policy of information on the web and (1.2) to foster a critical attitude towards any content prior and above the transmission of any particular content. Secondly, (2) there is an ethical dimension in Outreach which Valdes reports in very down-to-earth terms: since public research is a tax-funded activity, it is the duty of the research institutions to give a feedback to the citizens who are financially sustaining them. Thirdly, (3) a public opinion positively concerned about research and sensible to “good science” may influence political choices and the allocation of resources. Outreach therefore will promote a virtuous cycle between the spreading of scientific information and the assignment of research grants to virtuous institutions, which on their turn will contribute to the general level of scientific awareness in society. And so on.

Briefly put, Outreach can be defined as that attitude of responsibility and respect which pushes a cultural institution to open its doors both locally (via conferences and meetings) and globally (via the World Wide Web). The Outreach activities focus on researchers and scientists as individuals, and actively promote the cultural and economical development of the territory. Moreover, the Outreach program has a political and ethical relevance, since it is committed to the diffusion and defense of a scientific mentality and – more broadly but most importantly – a critical attitude in society.

2. To open Universities and research spaces to the general public: this is what characterizes mostly the Outreach activities in Chongqing. Chongqing is a very populous metropolitan area (29.914.000 inhabitants in 2014) situated in the South-West of China. Together with Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin, Chongqing is a direct-controlled municipality, which does not mean independent governance but a direct control by the central government; it is the highest possible administrative status for cities and their surrounding territory. In particular, Chongqing is by far the largest (82,403 km2) and the most populous municipality. It has a very good Science and Technology Museum, with free entrance for children and high school students, and many other Museums, such as the Natural History Museum. Liu Hui, Physics professor at Chongqing University, described the structure and the timing of Outreach activities: the National Science Popularization Day on the third week-end of September, and the Science and Technology National Week on the third week of May. In both occasions Universities open their doors to the general public, and visitors – mostly children accompanied by parents and high-school students – explore the various panels and scientific installations arranged by both undergraduate and graduate students. Conferences and talks are held by professors, but the greater part of scientific communication happens among quasi-peers, all still school-aged. Also the conferences or open lessons held by professors are mostly visited by school-aged boys and girls: “Adults and retired people are not really interested in those manifestations, and they also come to visit Science Museums only when drawn in by their children or grandchildren. Adults may also actively bring their children or grandchildren to the museum, but only in so far they realize that it is good for their formation. However, since they do not see any immediate utility of such a knowledge in their daily work, they tend not to be interested in it”, Hui said. This attitude towards culture, which, according to Han Zhong, is diffused in the whole Country, has already begun to change: starting from Hong-Kong. As Ming-Chung Chu, cosmologist, reports, “Twenty years ago it was the same by us as well. Our public was almost entirely composed by students. When I gave an open lesson on a scientific topic, my audience was mostly composed by students who were thinking about enrolling in the Department of Physics. Now the situation has changed, and roughly 50% of our audience is composed by adults, workers or retired people, who come without children. They come on their own because they have a personal interest in what we have to say”.

This can be considered the very first step of any Outreach activity: to engage the people’s interest and to awake their curiosity in science and in the persons who do science. How to obtain this first fundamental result is however still problematic.

3. When the question is how to awake the interest of people in science, there are several different approaches that can be considered. Each has both advantages and disadvantages.

Giordano Mancini works for the SNS’s Center DreamsLab which collaborates with VIS on outreach activities, and reported his experience as follows: “We wanted to captivate the interest of our public; therefore, we worked to create a very immersive experience, that is, to present some most interesting results of contemporary research within an extraordinary perceptual context. Therefore, I worked at programming the software needed to exploit the potentiality of our CAVE3D and of the Oculus Rift. We can now visualize the structure of a molecule or of a neural net, walk into a reconstruction of Segesta’s Agorà or travel through time in a simulation of much earlier stages of the Universe’s development. All reconstructions are firmly grounded on scientific data (or biological samples, in the case of the neural net): it is not a big game, even if it may look like a game”. Actually, this is the greatest risk of this communication style: to make science and scientific research nothing but a pleasant entertainment, or an emotional experience. A second risk is that of shifting the attention of the public from the scientific content to the technology used to display it.

Davide Dalpiaz works as cultural mediator and is in charge of the digitalization at MuSe. He has therefore an experience of the use of technology to communicate science on a much larger scale than VIS. Even if his experience is very positive, both Dalpiaz and Lanzinger are looking towards new challenges: “We wanted to give each visitor a digital instrument that would have allowed her/him to organize the visit in a free and autonomous way. Thanks to this instrument [iPad mini] it is possible to watch at a story on many of our exhibits, just while stepping by them. However, we now have many visitors alone looking at a screen and not interacting with each other. How can we make the MuSe experience to become not only a private experience but also a shared experience?”. Technology seems to need the corrective action of games, especially role-playing games. However, this strategy also presents several limits, among which the most obvious one is the fact that it is not clear how much of the scientific attitude towards a problem can be satisfactorily communicated by a game.

4. A different but complementary proposal comes form Elisabetta Baldanzi (INO, National Optic Institute – CNR, National Research Center). Baldanzi is a researcher in photometry (the measurement of the intensity of light or relative illuminating power) with interests in vision’s psychophysics and spectrophotometry, and an important figure in the Italian Outreach’s landscape: recently she has been awarded – ex-aequo with Marcos Valdes – the SIF [Italian Society of Physics] prize for Scientific Communication. Her approach to Outreach is based on the will to integrate different culture domains. Enhancing science does not mean to promote scientism, and Baldanzi’s Outreach events are projected together with the exhibition of some works of art or with a concert. The main advantage of this strategy is that, thanks to the composite nature of the content it offers, it is able to stimulate the curiosity of people with very different interests. One person may come because of an interest in lasers, the other because of an interest in the physiology of perception, a third because of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. Moreover, this strategy also gives visibility to the historical dimension of science, thereby contributing to bridging the cultural gap between scientific sciences and human sciences.

5. The meeting thus closes with a number of good intentions from all parts. In particular, everybody hopes for a close cooperation between the CNR, INO, & VIS in Italy, and Chongqing & Hong-Kong Universities in China. In this context, technology could actually have an important role in making the physical distance between the two Countries practically negligible. Marcos Valdes proposed therefore to focus this initial stage of cooperation on the development of more software solutions for visualizing scientific results, especially for Oculus Rift. That is all for now, and the details of the program remain to be written.