Science Online New York (SoNYC) encourages audience participation in the discussion of how science is carried out and communicated online. To tie in with June’s event which looks at how scientists reach out of the ivory tower, communicating science to the public, we’re hosting a series of guest posts on Soapbox Science. We will hear from a range of contributors: scientists, writers, enthusiasts, communicators, events organizers, policy makers and teachers, each sharing details about how they engage and reach out to the public.
Laura Walker is a biological research scientist in the School of Clinical Sciences at the University of Bristol. She spends her days trying to improve lung function during heart surgery, and her spare time communicating science by running Bristol’s monthly Science Café at the Tobacco Factory. Laura is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at UWE, and is passionate about facilitating academics and other researchers in their public engagement activities.
In Bristol, where our Science Café is held, we meet once a month at the Tobacco Factory. Walking through the doors, the smell of freshly prepared food wafts its way towards you over the low din of conversations in the restaurant. We meet in a small side-room, where candle-lit tables and low lighting set an intimate atmosphere for our encounter with the scientific world.
We are in an area of town called Bedminster – not famed for its scientific legacy. This area is an eclectic mix of students, families, young professionals, older professionals, the unemployed and the self-employed. This beautiful mix of people from all walks of life allows for a truly diverse audience. We cover an age range from 15-80 years and attract approximately even numbers of men and women. Some of our attendees are retired academics; others might work in industry and have some background in engineering or a science-related discipline. Yet others have a hobbyist interest – I affectionately call them the “science groupies” – those who diligently attend every public talk or new science communication initiative going. These people are amazingly interesting to talk to – they have such a broad, interdisciplinary knowledge-base. Others have no scientific background whatsoever. And this is the beauty of the Science Café.
This is allowed. In fact, this is encouraged.
I try to make this as clear as possible when reaching out to members of the public, imploring them to attend. The word “science” can put many people off. The perceived elitism and intellectualisation surrounding science is still very real. Whilst trust in scientists’ abilities is required for public confidence, the gap between professionals and laypersons is a difficult one to bridge. But of course, scientists are human too. Take a physicist to a biology lecture, and it’s likely that the science groupie sat next to him, with no formal scientific background whatsoever, will know more about the subject than he will. Our café reaches people through the medium of Twitter, via monthly newsletters that people can opt-in to receive, and via a short advert on a local radio show, featuring this month’s guest speakers. But mostly it is found by word-of mouth. The mouth is a powerful tool.
In a city like Bristol, with its rich wealth of academic endeavours, there is a wealth of public lectures and talks by resident or visiting professionals. In a city so steeped in scientific history, you can easily access new information and cutting-edge research developments. The Science Café offers this too, but beyond this, it provides an informal atmosphere in which these professionals can be questioned. Held up to the microscope themselves, stretched to think about why they’re doing those experiments, and what their research will mean for James – who has suffered most of his life with chronic arthritis? They are challenged to return to the fundamentals at the very centre of their work, and explain them in a clear and interesting way.
As the café organiser, and a research scientist myself, this is the part I find most enjoyable. That moment when a speaker is asked something that stops them in their tracks, something that forces them to stray from their well-worn path of usual answers into the wider, far more interesting fields of debate and possibility.
From speaking with academics and professionals who have taken part in our café , I have been surprised at how much they too have enjoyed this process. One academic wrote to me:
“I meant to email you and thank you for hosting the bash on Monday. Most enjoyable; I’ve told a few of the other guys here how much fun it was – if you run short of names to do future cafés, then come by our building one day and I’ll walk you around the folk who I think would be game and good!”
Feedback I have received from speakers has been overwhelmingly positive, providing me with sufficient proof that Café provide a truly 2-way forum which benefits both the speakers and the public.
I am very interested in why academics get involved. Their motivations can be wide-ranging, from purely altruistic, to entirely self-publicising, or anywhere in between. Encouraging speakers to sign up, and convincing them that it’s worth their time and energy, is the biggest part of my job. My experience in academia has shown me that such forays into the public forum are considered fluffy at best, detracting from the serious business of science. And I can see how this might be true. A poorly organised event, with little consideration of audience or expert, could leave a sour taste in the mouth of even the most altruistic of speakers. However, I believe more must be done to emphasise the mutual benefit of such activities to scientists. The field of science communication may have moved on significantly from the deficit models of old, but my experience tells me that academia has not. Of course, this is a generalised statement, and not applicable to all. I know of some truly amazing, inspirational academics who sacrifice so much of their personal time to communicate their research and engage in debate and discussion with the public. But the key is in that last statement – it is so often in their personal time. The value of such work is still not duly recognised, and thus sufficient time and resources are not provided for it. Universities are doing much to encourage public engagement, but if your line manager is of the view that such things are extra-curricular and not warranting of your salary, then you are forced back to your free time to pursue such endeavours.
It is my hope that the Science Café offers to all who participate, an introduction to the possibilities and opportunities that engaging with such a diverse group of interesting, opinionated, wonderful people provides. And to all who attend, the free rein to let their voices be heard, disagree, and drink beer.