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.
Dan Richards is Manager of Regional Programmes at the British Science Association. Dan manages National Science & Engineering Week and the Association’s programme of 30 volunteer branches of scientists and engineers who engage their local communities with events throughout the year. He earnt his Medical Microbiology BSc at University of Kent and has completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Science Communication from Birkbeck Univesity of London. Dan can be found on twitter @_danrichards.
The stereotypical image of a scientist in Britain is no longer that of a short, hairy old man with protruding front teeth and glasses. Thanks to the recent efforts of the BBC and physics’ latest pin-up boy, Professor Brian Cox, “geek chic” has taken parts of British culture by storm. Since Wonders of the Solar System first aired, I’ve found myself being asked more questions by non-science friends about science – something that would never have happened before. People actually want to listen, and I’ve even heard “Brian Cox” and “man crush” in the same sentence more than once by the most unlikely of guys…
But maybe this just says something about the company I keep. The 2011 Public Attitudes to Science report showed that 82% of respondents “agree science is such a big part of our lives that we should all take an interest.” Only 43%, however, said that they felt informed about science and 49% said that finding out about new scientific developments is easy. Clearly there is still a great deal of work to be done and there are a number of initiatives aimed at breaking down the barriers.
I manage a programme in the UK called National Science & Engineering Week (NSEW), co-ordinated by the British Science Association with funding from the UK government’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. This is a nationwide celebration of the sciences and engineering which takes place each March all across the country. Its objective is to provide inspiring opportunities to get everyone taking part in, talking about and celebrating the sciences and engineering. Essentially, NSEW aims to be a friendly platform for a wide range of organisations to reach out to and inspire their local communities and, after 18 years, it continues to grow and develop.
In 2012, we recorded over 4,500 events and activities that engaged with over 2.1 million people, generating around £1m worth of press coverage regionally, nationally and online. Our evaluation suggested that just under 10,000 scientists and engineers were involved, ranging from students, professional communicators and industry and academic-based researchers.
University of Reading postgraduate science busking in Reading Highstreet as part of National Science & Engineering Week.
During the Week there is a huge demand for scientists and engineers to visit schools, museums, community groups and more and we actively encourage those organisations who wouldn’t normally programme a science event to do so. I have always been a firm believer that taking research out of the institution and into somewhere different is often the best way to reach new audiences. The public don’t tend to visit universities in their droves (though research institutions and some industry have very successful open days); the more engaging and impactful discussions take place in cafes or bars, libraries, village halls and schools. A large number of schools now don’t just run their NSEW celebration during school hours, but reach out to parents in evenings or weekends with a range of hands-on demos for the kids and discussion and debate for parents and grandparents. Linking up with your local school is one of the easier ways of reaching a public audience.
Public engagement with science through events is more diverse than ever and it can be relatively straightforward for scientists to take part, not just during NSEW but all year round with programmes like Stemnet or through University Widening Participation Departments. Getting the message right can be a challenge, and I have sat through several events where the researcher on stage failed to read the email about who the audience was going to be. Aside from sending them home with the wrong idea instead of hitting Google to find out more, they are unlikely to attend a similar event in the future. This is not what you want, and science communication training is now readily available as part of most taxpayer-funded research grants.
There are many ways to engage and one of my favourites is the light and fun option. We have seen an increase in science busking as part of NSEW in recent years; this is where scientists or professional engagers go out into a high street or shopping centre and set up a stand with fun and explosive science experiments. From scientist to street performer is a world away from presenting a paper at an academic conference, but it’s a great way to interact very informally with passers-by and gain confidence in presenting in a different style. Volunteering with other like-minded young academics in a British Science Association Branch can be a great way to get this experience.
For those who shine on the high street, the next step is to take to the stage through year-round stand-up shows like Brightclub and Science Showoff, and then who knows – with the right connections you could be catapulted to celebrity stardom and your subject area’s latest pin-up.
But putting 15 minutes of fame and fortune aside, whether or not you believe scientists have a duty to get out and engage with their community, it’s the public who benefit from advances in science and have the right to choose what products and services they consume. Reaching out of that ivory tower at the early stages of research into a ground-breaking treatment or new technology could help eliminate the types of controversy we have seen with GM food, nuclear power and more recently climate change. Even if it’s just once per year through NSEW, or as a regular contributor to an on-going local programme, any amount of outreach can help lead to a more informed, trusting and accepting public in the future who will celebrate the wonders of science every day.