What’s our impact?

How do science engagement initiatives and public programs like those initiated and supported by Inspiring Australia NSW effectively measure outcomes? How do we demonstrate the societal benefits we create in ways that make sense to our funders – policy makers, government and business?

At this time of year, Inspiring Australia managers around Australia assess the year’s public engagement programs to report on the positive social impact they deliver. We seek to communicate the real world impact of science and technology research to the general public through target engagement strategies. Tasked with fostering collaboration to improve impact, we work closely with communities and network partners using a “national framework-local action” approach. The most successful programs result from a two-way process, involving interaction and listening, with the goal of generating lasting collaborations that provide mutual benefit for scientists, presenting partners and communities alike.

Ensuring mutual benefit is critical to Inspiring Australia NSW’s approach. Working collaboratively has enabled deep and lasting partnerships to develop over the past six years, leading to high quality public engagement benefits for all those involved.

Show me the numbers

Inspiring Australia NSW achieves strong results through long term planning and strategic advocacy. A big focus is to engage audiences who may have little exposure to science. Last year, working with 24 Science Hubs and over 900 partners, we supported the delivery of 770 events that reached 353,000 attendees. NSW grant funding of $260,000 raised a further $560,000 as well as in-kind professional support and venues.

Among 2017 program highlights were:

  • Neural Knitworks, the neuroscience awareness project developed in 2014 with artist Pat Pillai, was invited to be part of Cambridge Science Festival in the UK
  • A Science Tent at Splendour in the Grass provided 40 scientists with access to some 135,000 festival goers aged 15 – 25, and thousands more via online channels
  • 600+ statewide events were presented in National Science Week, including several regional festivals
  • Videos profiling young women in regional STEM careers created by the Orange Cowra Cabonne Science Hub for National Science Week achieved 100,000 views
  • The third Sydney Science Festival presented 180 events delivered by 60 program partners to 70,000 attendees
  • A well-attended Regional Leadership Forum brought together 40 partners from across the state to contribute to Inspiring Australia NSW’s future directions
  • We joined the startup ecosystem as the Research Track Lead for the Spark Festival. Our Commercialising research forum prompted 75% attendees to agree they  acquired new knowledge and useful contacts they would connect with again.

2018 results are now being collated and already look impressive:

  • Sydney Science Festival this year presented 200 events delivered by 90 program partners to 71,000 attendees. Over the past four years, Inspiring Australia NSW has extended the geographic reach of the Festival across the Greater Sydney Region through the establishment of many new partnerships. Presenters are satisfied with their experience of being part of the Festival 100% wish to continue being a part of it.
  • Successful collaborations have continued with Cambridge Science Festival in the UK, City Recital Hall, Splendour in the Grass and the Spark Festival, with another research-based event planned looking at data driven spinouts.

Many programs supported with event funding also create legacy content – a film, a play, an event format or a new network that continue to engage audiences long after the Inspiring Australia project concludes.

National Science Week

Nationally, this year’s National Science Week campaign in August saw 2100 events presented across Australia and 433 registered events in NSW – although we know there were any more unregistered events. There was strong national media coverage with 3130 media mentions reaching a cumulative audience of 32.4 million and $7.6 million worth of media value. This comprised stories across TV (968) radio (740), print (601) and online (821).

An Omnipoll survey found that 21% Australians were aware of that it was National Science Week and 6% of people (around 1.2 million) live in a household where someone in the home visited a National Science Week event.

Science Week ambassadors Adrian North, Jason Sharples, Vanessa Pirotta and Veena Sahajwalla provided 33 interviews that were played by 676 radio stations generating a total of 81 hours of airtime. A Community Service Announcement for TV was also played on Ten, Nine, WIN, Foxtel and regional stations, with the total free media value estimated to be $1.046 million.

In NSW, large-scale festivals and events were presented across the state including in Sydney, Wagga, Bega, Wollongong, the Blue Mountains, Newcastle, Dungog, Cowra, Orange, Bellingen, Lismore, Armidale and on the Central Coast.

We are now in the process of evaluating the overall 2018 results for NSW programs.

What are the benefits?

Through creating community engagement experiences that are relevant, thought-provoking and often entertaining, our Sydney Science Festival, Regional Science Hub and year-round event partners increase the confidence and skills of parents, teachers and young people to engage with the science and technology in everyday life and understand its global applications.

Among obvious benefits for audiences are accessible and welcoming opportunities for learning, gaining new insights, skills and ideas, understanding the scientific process and seeing firsthand what a STEM career looks like. Being inspired by science and motivated to find out more is another reported benefit from program participants.

Inspiring Australia events can lead to new opportunities for researchers, for example media coverage, collaborations and invitations, fellowships and awards. Scientists develop public presentation skills, learn about community concerns, improve their public profile and translate their knowledge for research impact.

The benefits to the organisations we work with include access to STEM talent, funding, ideas and knowledge. They also make valuable connections, achieve media coverage and have access to networking and professional development opportunities. With our support, Regional Science Hub partners present well-attended science festivals and year-round science engagement programs that forge strong local engagement and networks. Many event series have developed loyal audience followings and people in regional areas report looking forward to attending the regular, friendly and informal science presentations and citizen science activities that also offer a much valued social opportunity.

science hub feedbackParticipating organisations describe Regional Science Hubs as:

  • A network of enthusiastic groups and individuals passionate about sharing the wonder of science in their communities.
  • A collective with a shared vision and passion for engaging all sectors of the community in STEM and its potential to improve lives.
  • Dynamic partnerships dedicated to producing engaging science programs that people want to participate in.
  • Influential working groups of passionate STEM champions.

In many cases, programs developed through Inspiring Australia go on to win awards and prizes, secure invitations, raise significant funding and foster further partnerships.

How we measure

Creating an evidence base to science communication was a pillar of the Inspiring Australia initiative when it was released in 2010. The idea was that by measuring what works well, we could figure out what kinds of science engagement programs were effective and stop delivering those that weren’t. Eight years on, have we improved our impact? There’s certainly a lot more activity, but is it making a difference?

In the absence of a national impact evaluation framework, engagement managers like myself assess programs via qualitative and quantitative surveysb that provide us with evidence and audience reflections. This data based on audience satisfaction with an event typically affirms that our grass roots, capacity building approach works. Comments indicate that the creative and welcoming programs we support improve scientific literacy, demonstrate the value of STEM careers, encourage imagination and curiosity and promote the importance of research investment.

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More than numbers

While reporting frameworks involve numbers – numbers of events delivered, ages and participation of event attendees, numbers of scientists involved, value of partner and funding contributions, universities represented and regions covered – opportunities to interpret and report qualitative data are limited. This is an area for development.

Overall, the numbers of NSW programs continue to rise and we attract many new audiences year on year. Our network of participating partners is expanding and generally, increasing numbers of people attend the events and programs we deliver. The program has grown from gathering a small base of 45 regional partners in 2013 to working with close to 1000 organisations today.

Each dollar invested in NSW grant funding yields around three times its value in co-investment. Other benefits include in-kind professional contributions like marketing and administration and valuable assets like venues, access to audience databases and local media coverage.

While we cannot, with confidence, claim that a particular program has created a job or sparked a university enrolment, which is perhaps an outcome funding bodies would like to see, the real value of Inspiring Australia’s work is in our partnerships and the lasting networks we have been able to nurture. They lead to all kinds of other connections and possibilities well beyond our influence.

The way ahead

The NSW funding reports are coming in and I can see the difference the Inspiring Australia initiative makes in NSW through connecting mainstream Australia with scientific achievement. As I review this year’s program activity, I’ll be looking for better ways to demonstrate the value of our incredible, multidisciplinary network. After six years of steady growth, there’s a compelling case for ensuring that public engagement delivered at a local level becomes more prominent in the national effort to progress Australia’s innovation system.

Inspiring Australia NSW’s approach not only showcases science and technology talent, it sparks a creative exchange of ideas that ripples through communities. Our greatest assets are the reciprocal networks we have strengthened over many years, and the trust invested in working within Inspiring Australia’s collaborative model. Our successful annual outcomes show how a holistic approach to science engagement can drive research impact and bring about social change on a grand scale.

If we can effectively capture the difference made by the outstanding programs we support, in particular those presented by NSW Regional Science Hubs at a local level, we will demonstrate the high value of public engagement to drive knowledge translation. By expanding this successful model of locally-driven STEM engagagement, we can change the culture.

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Feature image courtesy of David Vagg. For impact evaluation resources visit Inspiring Australia’s Science Communication Toolkit. There are also a wealth of great ideas and evaluation resources at the UK’s National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement.