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Particle physics and public engagement: A match made in minuscule matter

Rao, Achintya


Achintya Rao


Public engagement with science and technology, or PEST, is a field of growing practice and study. There remain, however, notable gaps in our understanding of the attitudes of researchers towards public communication of science itself, particularly from fields of fundamental research that continue to be under-represented in our literature. The attitudes towards public engagement within the particle-physics community have been investigated in the doctoral research project described here.

The community under study is represented by the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) collaboration at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, sometimes known as the European Laboratory for Particle Physics. The collaboration takes its name from the CMS experiment, a particle detector it operates at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s largest and highest-energy particle collider. CERN estimates that around half of the global community of particle physicists conduct their research at CERN.

The attitudes were explored through a mixed-methods approach grounded in pragmatism, with a collaboration-wide web-based survey, yielding 391 valid responses, followed by 19 personal interviews chosen by purposive sampling and conducted either in person or over a video call. The majority of the survey respondents showed favourable attitudes towards public engagement, sometimes also known as “outreach”, with scientists seeing participation as a duty and participating in public engagement without being required to. Belonging to a large research collaboration was also seen as advantageous for the purposes of outreach participation, partly because a sizeable group of researchers has a sense of shared responsibility towards a specific area of science, allowing resources to be shared and dedicated communications professionals to be hired.

There was a strong pedagogical bent to the types of public engagement scientists seek to participate in, with participatory paradigms ruled out by the majority of both survey respondents and interviewees. The practice of fundamental research was also framed by the interviewees as a cultural practice, taking physics back to its roots in “natural philosophy”.

The thesis concludes by recommending that evaluation of public engagement with science and technology consider the relative “relevance-distance” – the degree to which the field of research in question holds relevance to everyday human life – in determining what modes of engagement are suitable for a given field of research, so as not to paint fundamental sciences with a brush more suitable to applied fields of research. Further, as science-in-society research has made the case for there not being a single, homogeneous “public” but many self-identifying publics, depending on context, interest and relative levels of expertise, the fields studying the interplay between science and society need to think of PEST as public engagement with sciences and technologies, that is, in the plural, and resist the temptation to make sweeping generalisations about the applicability of our research findings and policy recommendations to a single, monolithic, uniform “science”.


Rao, A. Particle physics and public engagement: A match made in minuscule matter. (Thesis). University of the West of England. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Deposit Date Mar 8, 2022
Publicly Available Date Feb 17, 2023
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