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What the James Webb Space Telescope Can Teach Scientists About Engaging the Public

At the APS Annual Leadership Meeting in January, Matt Mountain, AURA President and JWST scientist, shared his lessons on how to pull the public into science.

Published March 16, 2023
The Tarantula Nebula, captured by Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam).
The Tarantula Nebula, captured by Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam).
NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team

Playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, “The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

For Charles Mattias Mountain, president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) and scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), these are words to live by. During the APS Annual Leadership Meeting in late January in Washington, D.C., Mountain opened his talk by flashing Shaw’s words on the screen.

Although AURA — a nonprofit consortium of U.S. and international institutions — is not part of NASA, the two groups are long-standing partners. AURA operates astronomical observatories for NASA, and the JWST’s science team is housed in AURA’s Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. AURA staff also works to inform the public about the JWST.

Despite the JWST’s fame today, its future wasn’t always secure. In 2010, the mission’s costs were spiraling out of control and construction was years behind schedule. An article in Nature dubbed the JWST “ the telescope that ate astronomy,” congressional leaders were scrutinizing the program’s budget, and some wanted to cut funding.

For AURA, it was a moment of reckoning. “We realized we had to go back around and re-convince not just the public, but our own science community, that understanding the origins of the galaxies was actually important,” Mountain said at the Annual Leadership Meeting. So AURA assembled a communications team to rebrand the mission and persuade the government of the telescope’s value.

It worked. On Dec. 25, 2021, the completed James Webb Space Telescope was launched into space aboard the European Space Agency’s Ariane 5 rocket, from a launch pad in French Guiana. On July 12, 2022, its first images were released to the public. The telescope continues to make front pages across the world.

In just over 10 years, NASA not only rescued the telescope mission, but made “James Webb” a household name. “It was the result of a purposeful strategy,” said Mountain.

During his talk at ALM, Mountain shared five lessons — gathered from years of outreach work for AURA — for other science organizations working to strengthen their public engagement.

Matt Mountain, speaking at the APS Annual Leadership Meeting in Washington, D.C., in late January.
Matt Mountain, speaking at the APS Annual Leadership Meeting in Washington, D.C., in late January.

1. Support “from the top” an outreach team with diverse staff.

Mountain recalled a time in 2009 when NASA’s public affairs team was struggling to connect with the director’s office during a campaign that required a series of last-minute maneuvers in space to transmit live footage of a Hubble deployment. As a result, the director’s office didn’t learn in time that the maneuvers could be done, and instead, the public learned about a quirky space shuttle device: the zero-g space toilet. “We missed that opportunity,” said Mountain.

“We do things differently at AURA,” he said. “We actually put the office of public outreach at the top level of the organization,” so public outreach has “a seat at the management table when we’re making decisions about the institution.” And the public engagement team is diverse, too, comprised of scientists, science writers, educators, artists, and data gurus.

2. Use your active scientists.

Mountain said it’s not enough to simply involve scientists in outreach efforts. The researchers you engage must be “your best” and “your most active” scientists.

He reminded the audience that many scientists aren’t expert communicators. They typically require careful coaching to be effective at outreach, especially if they’re playing highly public roles — for example, being interviewed by reporters or giving tours to members of Congress.

3. Be an expert, but don’t lecture.

The American public is “hungry” for science, Mountain said — but too often, scientists revert to lecturing. To scientists, certain concepts seem fundamental; to an audience member, that “fundamental” concept might be lightyears beyond what they’ve learned.

As in a science classroom, it takes courage for a non-scientist to ask a scientist questions. In those moments, scientists must speak respectfully and ask their own follow-up questions to understand the non-scientist’s perspective and knowledge level.

“Don’t hide your expertise,” said Mountain. “People want to talk to experts.” But “don’t talk down to them,” either.

4. Realize that public engagement takes long-term investment.

Public engagement campaigns for research programs and long-lived infrastructure like the JWST are a long-term investment. That means they also require “a long-term commitment and a long-term strategy,” said Mountain.

Some suggest allocating as much as 10-15% of your funding to public engagement efforts, he said. Remember, the JWST’s success wasn’t accidental — it stemmed from strategies “built over decades,” he said. But funding isn’t everything: For AURA’s outreach team, “attitude and approach” to engaging the public are more impactful than simply having a lot of money or the NASA brand, Mountain said.

“And we measure everything,” he added. Just like the science teams measure progress toward research goals, a public outreach unit should be measuring progress toward engagement goals. The most common metric used by their outreach team is “impressions,” he said, which quantifies people’s interactions with online content, like clicks.

5. Remember, “we don’t do outreach for fun, but for funds.”

“If we’re going to do taxpayer[-funded] science … you have to show some return on the investment and actually engage with the public,” said Mountain. “That’s a duty you’re bound by if you’re going to take taxpayer [money].”

“Sometimes, we’ll cut our engineering team or our science team to preserve our outreach team” when faced with a budget shortage, he added.

Mountain closed his talk by saying, “You need humility to keep reminding yourself that what you thought you did, didn’t perhaps work quite as well as you’d hoped.” That is, perhaps you didn’t know your audience as well as you’d thought, or your outreach wasn’t as polished as you’d intended.

“Go back around that loop again and again and again,” he said, “until you’ve actually found something that works.”

Liz Boatman

Liz Boatman is a science writer based in Minnesota.

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