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Vaccine engagement part of a BSI Regional Group

We're proud to showcase this case study in our 'Vaccine engagement starts...' series, part of our wider public engagement campaign. Our hope is that, through highlighting a range of the wonderful and impactful activities our members have been carrying out, others will be inspired to begin engaging with the public on vaccines.

BSI member, Dr Brian Ferguson is a Lecturer in Innate Immunity at the University of Cambridge. He has vast experience engaging with the public around immunology and has been working to increase understanding of COVID-19 vaccines. Here, Brian shares his thoughts on the change to public engagement over the past 12 months, how to maximise positive interactions online and the benefits of working as part of a team.

You have been involved in the British Society for Immunology’s vaccine awareness drive for a few years, both as a member and as the Chair of the BSI Cambridge Immunology Group. What type of activities have you been organising and how has your experience changed in the past year?

I’m very passionate about engaging with the public around immunology-related topics. Through my role running the BSI Regional Group in Cambridge, I have been able to carry out different outreach activities, which in recent years have had a particular focus on vaccines. Even before the pandemic, people wanted to learn about how vaccines work so our efforts to try help communities understand them better were really important.

Demand has really exploded over the past 12 months. I wanted to get involved because I know that historically it takes a lot of time and a lot of people to effectively engage with individuals. From my experience, that engagement comes in a lot of different formats. All the way from talking to family, friends and others who have directly reached out, through to radio, news channels and other media outlets, plus working closely with the BSI.

A particular event I’ve recently been involved in is the Cambridge Science Festival. As many others, after years of having a physical presence and face-face activities to raise awareness, this time around it was all online. We spent a long time thinking about how to manage this and what we could do differently to connect with individuals in a virtual setting. I ended up taking part in a biological science masterclass designed for 16-17 year olds in which I gave a presentation about vaccines and answered questions around the science behind it and university applications, and a showcase of the Department of Pathology’s work tackling COVID-19. Both sessions had really good engagement and productive discussions.

The shift to online engagement seems to have been working well in some settings but there is a range of different perspectives and feedback received. In your experience, what are the advantages and disadvantages of this type of engagement and how can we mitigate negative interactions in the virtual sphere?

Public engagement online is completely different to doing something in person as you’re talking to a screen and you don’t see or feel those interactions. On the one hand, you lose the human contact which always facilitates constructive conversations. On the other hand, you can reach more people from a broad range of backgrounds. Overall, I’ve had a really positive experience engaging online and I believe that a lot of good aspects can be taken away from it.

For example, there is safety in anonymity online, which can be seen as a negative factor but can actually enable reaching new audiences as it allows those who wouldn’t usually put themselves forward to do so. Having this type of interface can bring people out and ask questions.

I would say that if the event or activity requires signing up, that can enable productive discussions as there is an added barrier that deters those who might want to interact negatively. For example, I was a speaker at a webinar designed by the BSI for healthcare workers – all the attendees specifically came to engage positively and learn more about vaccination. This is of course different to open social media in which you can encounter individuals who might want to be deliberately negative so, in this context, public engagement can be more of a challenge.

There has been a large number of people working hard to communicate with the public around vaccination, both as individuals and under organisations. Do you usually work collaboratively as part of a coordinated approach and are there any benefits in being part of an organised group?

Being part of a ‘brand’, of something bigger than you as an individual, helps a lot. As part of the BSI Cambridge Immunology Group I can get numerous people involved in public engagement under the BSI banner – there is a protective mechanism and assistance for those who need it. Having others to ask for help is very powerful. The way the BSI has been coordinating public engagement is extremely important as it provides weight behind what’s being said. Plus working collaboratively is a great way to approach public engagement!

There has also been a huge amount of sporadic activity in the last year. As an individual, there are a lot of different ways to get involved – writing a blog, interacting on social media, answering media enquiries. In terms of media work, I have been contacted directly by various media outlets as well as working with the Science Media Centre, who are genuinely fantastic at coordinating a huge amount of news stories between scientists and journalists.

Whichever way you choose, the data around combating vaccine hesitancy is very clear – listening to individuals, making them feel heard, providing information, answering their questions – that’s the most effective way.

What would you say to other BSI members and immunologists who might be apprehensive about speaking to the public about vaccination?

Go for it! 99% of people are genuinely interested about vaccines. If you’re worried about it, find someone to help you before you start so you can get advice and support throughout. So far in the UK the COVID-19 vaccine uptake has been good, but that’s in part because so many people have been working relentlessly to engage with the public and combat misinformation. We need many more of us available to answer questions as the rollout continues.

Follow Brian on Twitter @viropractor

Are you a BSI member involved in public engagement around COVID-19 vaccines? We'd love to hear from you! Please get in touch with our Marketing & Communications Manager, Teresa Prados, to share your experience as part of our new case study series 'Vaccine engagement starts...'.

Click here to find out more about the BSI's public engagement campaign Vaccine engagement starts at home. We’re always looking for members to help bring the expert immunology voice so if you'd like to get involved with our public engagement work, don't hesitate to contact our Public Engagement Manager, Erika Aquino.