Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Scientists must talk to people other than scientists!

(This piece appeared in substantially the same form in the BSA magazine but the web version has now been taken down so it is archived here.)

I have been sharing my scientific proclivities, in public, since I was 13. My early enthusiasm for science was ignited by space exploration, the rise of micro-electronics, and the promise of unlimited energy from artificial suns. It has continued to be some part of my everyday work almost every day since; in industry and further education; in schools, prisons and drop-in centres for disabled people; at public events and evening classes; in engineering firms, and at the Workers’ Education Association.

I didn’t apply for my first research job until 2001. It was immediately obvious that many academics, who were simply disinclined or already adjusting to the increasing emphasis on undergraduate teaching, saw engagement with the wider public as a mere side-show.

Of course researchers know that the funding councils and big industries don’t print money; that is the money that funds research. They also know that we live in an open, connected society. So any attempt to ignore how the funding bodies get their money is, as described by Professor Brian Cox at a British Science Association Conference recently, ‘myopic’.

You cannot blame academics for being short sighted. We have had decades of short-term contracts, the pellmell pursuit of scarce posts via a good publication record, and increasing pressure to secure funding is piled on to the demand for excellence in undergraduate teaching. And anyway, when I emailed a colleague recently to ask for someone to represent their research group at a university-sponsored public event, he said one of his postdocs might be willing, but that it was ‘outside her job description’.

He is absolutely right – it is; the myopia is, by omission, part of the contract.

I am lucky to be working alongside senior colleagues who can see that there is value in my continuing outreach activities. When the new Cognition Institute at Plymouth University came in to existence, I successfully applied for the first research fellowship at the university that incorporated an explicit public engagement remit. For me, at least, it is inside my job description. I regarded this as a small victory despite the short–term, part-time contract.

Seven years ago I sailed too close to the enchanted islands of the public engagement community and was lured on to the rocks by the sirens (they were called Sharon, Gina, and Timandra). I took part in a Science Communication competition called Famelab, and was a finalist which led to my first invitation to speak at the Cheltenham Science Festival. I had sailed too close to the wider public engagement community and, because I had no one to tie me to the mast, I was lured onto the rocks.

This opened my eyes to many more disparate routes through which academics can develop ideas and cooperate on projects: national competitions, open-mic events, citizen science, and many others. If we are to reach the widest audience, it is essential that the projects we support are diverse and inventive.

Not all academics will want to get involved in any of these, but I have been surprised by how sceptical, or dismissive, many are of their value. This is particularly true of my regular support for science and maths in primary schools, which I have been told recently are ‘pointless’. There is certainly a lot of work yet to be done.

Science needs to foster a joint enterprise with the society that funds it, and which benefits from its work. When I say this out loud I still tend to receive blank looks and awkward silences. This isn’t just about publicity for your research, getting your face in the media, building your CV, or meeting a grant deliverable.

If you believe that democracy is strengthened when the people who vote understand the issues, then it is a matter of citizenship. Only the research community can take responsibility for this, and as a result universities must commit to taking a leading role.