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 Nature blogs. 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.
James Franklin is Communications Manager at Gresham College, an independent educational institution in Central London which provides over 100 free lectures a year. He has a background in website management and online sub-editing. He is a Master of Philosophy born and raised in the Isle of Man.
For over 415 years the College’s aim has been to provide education through free public lectures. We provide nearly 150 lectures every year on subjects as diverse as science, music and history. We record and release all of our lectures on our website, a resource which currently has over 1,250 lectures available to watch, read or download.
Inevitably we have seen peaks and troughs over four centuries, but we believe that we are currently seeing a surge of interest in public lectures
Gresham College was founded in 1597 and has given free public lectures ever since. Do you think the public appetite for these events has changed significantly in that time?
Inevitably we have seen peaks and troughs over four centuries, but we believe that we are currently seeing a surge of interest in public lectures. The culture of academic learning outside of the formal university setting is really gaining force and people are daily seeking out the type of content that Gresham College provides.
You have eight Professors, all very active in their fields. What do they get out of involvement with Gresham College?
Our Professors relish the atmosphere and audience that they find at the College. Each lecture is attended by a crowd interested and eager to find out about the subject, who have chosen the give up their time to be there. Here speakers can deliver lectures which might not sit so easily within the confines of a formal university.
You have Professors of Astronomy and Physic, but not any of the other branches of science. Do you think those topics are of particular public interest?
There is no doubting that questions about the age of the universe or the state of children’s health are of great public interest. However, the true reason behind the sometimes curious Gresham Professorships is that they date to our founding, when they were considered the extent of the rounded education a Elizabethan Londoner might want. Today we offset the gaps in our Professors’ lectures by countless one-off lectures every year.
Perhaps the only thing that unites them – because education, age or profession never does – is their interest in the subject matter
Onto the lectures, do you have a feel for who your audience is?
Because Gresham College lectures have such wide appeal, they always have a surprisingly wide range of audience. Perhaps the only thing that unites them – because education, age or profession never does – is their interest in the subject matter and their pro-activeness in coming to the lecture.
We find that both the speaker and the audience know where they stand with a formal lecture
This month, the nature.com Communities team is looking at a variety of ways of communicating science to the general public. What do you think are the benefits of the formal lecture?
The hour-long lecture is undoubtedly seen as a very formal structure for science communication today. However, the formality of it is an excellent way to maintain a high level of expectation in the academic content. We find that both the speaker and the audience know where they stand with a formal lecture, and there will always be a justified demand for science communication in that reliable format.
You already make all your lectures available online after the event. With the huge amount of material out there now, how do you see the future of Gresham College developing in the next ten years?
The College has always been very forward-thinking online. Having started releasing videos of all our lectures in 2001, we probably have the most complete online archive of any academic institution in the world. Our plan for the future is to keep up this fine tradition and to continue to keep abreast of the latest developments online, whatever they may be.
Gresham College is obviously holding a huge number of fantastic events. How do you get the word out to the public about what’s going on?
Our primary means of getting the word out is through our website and the annually printed programme of events. Beyond that there is some hard leg-work to keep the many publications and organisations aware of all that is going on at the College, but ultimately it is inevitably word-of-mouth that brings the best results.
And finally for anyone who has never attended an event before, what’s coming up next at Gresham College?
In the last stretch of this academic year our many events include the Lord Mayor’s Annual Lecture in the Guildhall, the Gresham Special Lecture by the Rt Hon John Bercow and the recording of one of the 2012 BBC Reith lectures. After the summer break, the lectures begin in September, including series on astronomy and vision and the eye. All information is available on our website and in our printed programme.
Gresham College was founded in 1597 and hosts over 100 free public lectures every year to which all are welcome. Most events are held at Gresham College’s home, Barnard’s Inn Hall, Holborn, London. EC1N 2HH. Events are recorded for the website, where you can also see a full calendar of upcoming events.