What questions should we be asking the public – and which public should we be asking?

The Judgement of Hercules
Should schoolchildren pick a path of virtue or vice? These days it’s an easy choice.

Over the weekend there’s been discussion on twitter about how to enthuse people about plants. Helen Gazeley kicked it off by asking Will James Wong get gardeners excited?. She’s finding outreach projects where things are presented as exciting and fun a bit wearing. James Wong in response said:

Eoin Lettice asked Is “gardening” killing plant science? and we’ve had thoughts from Howard Griffiths:

I think there’s an important line in Helen Gazely’s post that is very easy to overlook. “I don’t need to be excited to find something interesting, and while I might not be the demographic that James is talking about, I know I never did.” There’s plenty to pull out of this sentence, but one thing I’m sure of is that Helen Gazely is not the target demographic. Nor is James Wong, and it’s not likely to be you either, if you’re reading this.

The target demographic is the people who have no interest in plants (or at least have no particular interest in plants).

To make matters worse there is good reason to think that what worked for you will not work for them. Your interest was sparked years ago. This is a different time. There’s different competition. It might well need different tactics. For example young people have had half a decade of hard education that delayed gratification is for mugs. That’s half their school life. As a recent example from Spain, research institutes that put money aside for use later this year are being plundered to pay for another body’s crisis. If you have a choice between virtue and vice, then the intelligent person might well ask: “How can I make my vices so great that other people have to pick up the bill?”

Our own experience is not a reliable guide to the future. How can we find out what works?

A common idea in university departments is to ask the new students what made them interested in their topic. The danger here is that you find current approaches work. This is no surprise because the sample you’re asking is the sample selected by the outreach methods you’re using. In this case we find excitement works, because this is how we attracted students. By definition, the people where we missed opportunities are not in the sample so don’t know why we failed.

Another problem is we are each one person with our own strengths. Some of us can communicate excitement. Maybe others would do better expressing an almost spiritual connection with the cycle of the seasons and working with the power of nature. For me, if being grumpy and sitting in a dark corner of a pub ever becomes an outreach strategy, then I’m your go-to guy.

There’s also a matter of limited resources of time and money in outreach. There are doubtless many possible strategies, but with the limitations we have, where can we best invest efforts?

Every so often I look around market research companies to see if a survey on attitudes to Botany is feasible. Then I see the prices and stop again. I’ve now found that SurveyMonkey can provide 100 answers from random people for $100. This is tempting, but are random people a good target? Would under-25s be better (you won’t get under-18s on a survey site like this)? When you start adding on these criteria the costs start climbing rapidly.

Following Eoin Lettice’s link to John Warren’s THESIS piece, zoologists coud be botanists who weren’t properly inspired so maybe the best people to ask are the students in the department next door. It’ll require some very accommodating colleagues if you plan to ask “Do you mind if we try to work out how to poach your future students from you?”

There’s also a matter exactly what questions you ask and how you ask them. I’ve had a go at putting ten together, but looking at them I’m not sure how many of questions would give useful answers. Also in the case of a few of them like: Do you agree with the statement: “I’d rather have a career that maximises my personal potential rather than one that benefits everyone else” they also need to flipped round to put the other option first 50% of the time as well. If you’re wondering about the order of the answers on that question, like the others, they’re randomised.

Telling other people they’re doing things the wrong way implies there’s a right way to do it. I strongly suspect there is no one right way and that asking a diverse group of people what could attract them will reveal a diverse range of approaches including some we might never anticipate.

On a related note, today I learned about Pothole Gardening. If I’d known about this while I lived in Derby I could have been busy for years.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wwx8ACwSVTA

Image: The Judgement of Hercules by Annibale Carracci via Wikipedia.