&Bullet; physics 14, 102

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed a systemic lack of support for physics departments outreach programs, a trend that the physics community should correct.

Many public engagement programs are in danger of disappearing, taking with them an essential channel of communication between physicists and society as a whole.

“I hated Physics ”is an answer many physicists may know after introducing themselves at a party or on a plane. Typically, the phrase is followed by the person describing a negative experience they had while taking a physics class in high school or college.

As physicists, we know that physics is so much more than the lackluster experiences that one might associate with a formal education. For this reason, we and many other physicists get involved with people outside the field through informal education or “outreach” or, as we call it, “public engagement”. These efforts, which include public lectures, experimental demonstrations, podcasts, and YouTube channels, help non-physicists decouple their specific negative physics experiences from the joy that the field as a whole can offer. These initiatives are also the most important way for non-physicists to understand what physicists are doing. But unfortunately, these activities are often undervalued by the departments they are housed in and – as observed during the COVID-19 pandemic – are in danger of disappearing entirely. Without increased support for public relations programs, physicists could lose an essential connection with society as a whole.

Public engagement by physicists has a long tradition. An early example is a lecture given by Michael Faraday in 1825. (His lecture was the first “Christmas Lecture” given at the Royal Institution in Britain, a tradition that continues to this day.) But these efforts are often fringe activities, which take place, for example, as favorite faculty projects or “extracurricular” student activities. In addition, these are often one-off campaigns or they only last as long as the funding through a specific funding.

Even in relatively small doses, public engagement activities can provide substantial and meaningful experiences for both viewers and organizers: viewers learn about current research efforts outside of class, and most importantly, both groups can interact directly with each other, creating personal connections. These interactions are often the only way the audience can come into direct contact with physicists. In addition, our research has shown that when physics students organize and moderate these events they gain improved scientific communication skills, opportunities for educational practice, and a sense of community, among other things.

Despite these advantages, public engagement programs are typically not treated as core activities within the physics departments. This problem has become particularly evident in the past year and a half. In a study published today, we looked at the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on 15 US public engagement programs at universities and science centers. Almost all of the programs examined reported that they ceased their regular activities shortly after the US COVID-19 lockdown began in March 2020. For example, a program that worked with a local museum to organize “Science Day” events stopped such events completely because the spatial distancing requirements meant that the museum space could not be used. Worryingly, the future of many of these programs remains uncertain, even if some semblance of “normal” life is returning – program directors of nine of the 15 programs we examined doubted that they would resume traditional operations.

However, our study uncovered some good news – four of the programs we examined flourished and expanded during the pandemic. What made these programs stand out was that they all had solid institutional support. All four of these programs have received – and still are – supported both financially and logistically by university institutions, special national research grants, or both. As a result, these programs have been able to adapt to operational challenges during a pandemic, such as loss of ticket revenue and venue closings.

Another conclusion of our study is that the ability of the public relations programs we examined to weather the COVID-19 storm is directly dependent on institutions maintaining their support. In a crisis it can be tempting for line managers to withdraw funds and focus on more “traditional” core activities. However, it is clear from our data that without this support, public relations programs simply cannot survive in crisis situations: once a program ceases to operate, it loses its connection to the community and can lose its staff and even institutional memory extremely difficult for the program restart.

So what can we all do to fix the problem? First and foremost, physicists must view collaboration with non-physicists as a central institutional and departmental activity. This change requires building funding options for engagement efforts directly into departmental budgets. Many physics departments already praise commitment in reports to funding agencies. So we argue that they should also provide the necessary resources to make these efforts robust. Departments must also create incentives for faculties and staff to participate in these programs, for example by making these activities part of the tenure review or by providing visible recognition to staff and students who run these programs. These measures would normalize participation in informal educational efforts rather than portraying them as a distraction from the “real” research. We also argue that departments must support research that evaluates public engagement programs so that the subject can develop a deep understanding of the long-term implications of its engagement efforts.

We are all members of the communities in which we live and work. If we are to change the perception of physics for outsiders, we must change our own perception of the importance of working with non-physicists and the value of such endeavors.

About the authors

Image by Michael Bennett

Mike Bennett is the director of education and human resource development at the Q-SEnSE Quantum Leap Challenge Institute, Colorado. Previously, he served as Director of Public Engagement for the JILA NSF Physics Frontier Center and as a research fellow in the Physics Education Research Group at the University of Colorado Boulder. Bennett has over a decade of experience developing, implementing, and researching informal physics education programs, with a particular focus on how university students’ experiences in education impact their mentoring outside the classroom. Bennett is also a founding member of the Informal Physics Education Research network.

Image by Katie Hinko

Katie Hinko is an Assistant Professor of Physics at Michigan State University (MSU). She is the lead researcher on several NSF projects that focus on studying the effects of informal physics programs on the physicists and physics students they sponsor, on the youth and public audiences engaging with them, and on national trends focus and support in developing informal physics programs. Prior to joining MSU, Hinko was a Senior Research Associate in the Physics Education Research Group at the University of Colorado Boulder. She received her Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas at Austin.

Image by Dena Izadi

Dena Izadi is a senior research fellow in the Physics Education Research Laboratory at Michigan State University. She has a Ph.D. in experimental biophysics. Izadi’s work focuses on the use of qualitative methods to characterize the landscape of physics public engagement in the United States. Her main research interests are developing evidence-based assessment tools and designing and implementing qualitative research practices for equitable and accessible education. Izadi is also passionate about creating hybrid spaces to connect physics with other disciplines, including art and design, to make physics more attractive to non-physicists and the general public.

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