By Claire Asher
You have thousands of samples to sort, a growing stack of journal articles to read, data to analyse and a thesis to write. Engaging the public in your research is not a top priority. But it should be. Taking the time to explain your research to a wider audience, engage the public in science and inspire the next generation of researchers is an important part of your PhD (and your scientific career!). Here’s why:
1. Improve your communication skills
Communicating your science to a general audience will better prepare you for conferences, writing papers and talking to your peers. If you can explain it to a six year old, then you can explain it to anybody, regardless of their background. Good communication is a powerful tool for building a reputation with your peers, making people aware of your research, and developing collaborations outside your discipline.
2. The public is paying you! Get support for important issues
Assuming that you’re funded by a UK research council, then the public is paying, albeit indirectly, for your research. It is part of our jobs as scientists to communicate the results of that tax-payer funded research to them, and to make people aware of how their money is being spent. It can also be a great way to raise awareness about important issues.
“Participating in public engagement activities is a great way to raise your profile and the profile of your work, and such improved visibility can help negotiate the post-PhD years. This can also help with strengthening communication skills, while providing opportunities to reflect on the wider context underpinning what you do and why” – Nathalie Pettorelli, co-creator of SoapBox Science and Research Fellow at the Institute of Zoology.
3. Inspire others to get involved
Engaging with schools and taking part in events like SoapBox science offers the chance to inspire the next generation of researchers. But it’s never too late in life to be inspired – public engagement also plays a vital role in inspiring the general public to be more involved in science and to think more critically about the world around them. The rise of citizen science means public engagement can even turn into new discoveries.
4. It’s fun and rewarding
Public engagement is also great fun and an extremely rewarding way to spend your time. The public’s enthusiasm for new scientific knowledge is infectious, but not only that, their questions can often illuminate new avenues of research and offer a fresh perspective on the issue.
“Participants enjoy the chance to reflect on why they do science, with many saying they feel reinvigorated about their research after taking part. – Antony Poveda, I’m a Scientist
Engagement Comes in Many Forms
There are about as many different ways to engage with the public as there are scientific disciplines you might want to talk to them about. From online engagement tools to running a stall at a science festival, there is something for everyone to get involved in.
One of the main reasons many people want to get into engagement activities is the opportunity to enthuse and inspire the next generation of scientists. There are many schemes set up across the UK to help scientists engage with school children of a variety of different ages. The Brilliant Club, one of the London NERC DTP Associate Partners, is a great example of this, and their award-winning model for school engagement programs has proved extremely successful. The charity aims to widen access to highly-selective Universities for pupils from under-represented groups, by placing doctoral and post-doctoral scientists as tutors in non-selective state schools. They work with over 300 schools and colleges across the country and last year they placed nearly 500 tutors to work with 7000 pupils.
Another opportunity to engage with school children doesn’t even require you to leave the house – I’m a Scientist is a web-based platform that allows real scientists to answer questions and interact with school children from across the country via forums and live web chats. “I’m a Scientist is an online outreach competition where you and a group of scientists are questioned by school students“, explains Antony Poveda, who manages the events. “All of this happens online which makes for a pretty unique engagement experience“, he says. School students can ask the scientists any question they like, from the origins of the universe, to their career path, or even their favourite pizza topping, and this fast-paced engagement tool offers a unique way to interact with enthusiastic students. “The students also get to vote for their favourite scientists to win £500 for their own public engagement activities, so it can become surprisingly intense!“, says Antony.
“You get to connect with pupils all over the country right from your desk or living room, and scientists say they appreciate the rare opportunity to practise communicating with the public over several days. I’m a Scientist runs three times a year, in March, June and November, so there’s plenty of opportunities for DTP researchers to get involved!””– Antony Poveda, I’m a Scientist
Engage with the Public
Engaging with the general public also comes in a variety of flavours. There are opportunities to engage a broader audience from the comfort of your own home – blogging and popular writing being one great example. But even better still is to get out and engage with people face to face, and there are many different events that offer scientists the opportunity to do this.
The prestigious Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition accepts applications from research groups to run stalls at their event. These highly coveted spots showcase the best science from the last year and attract many school groups as well as interested members of the public, other scientists, and pretty much everybody else. If you can’t get a stall there, you can also volunteer to help out at the event – a great chance to meet scientists and members of the public alike. Similar but smaller-scale events are hosted periodically by the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum, and there may be opportunities to host stalls or volunteer at these events.
Other events that accept applications for science stalls include the Cheltenham Science Festival and Einstein’s Garden at Green Man Festival.
Instead of running a stall, another way to engage with the public is to speak at an event. SoapBox Science hosts events around the UK for female scientists to explain their research to a general audience. These highly interactive talks are extremely popular with families and school groups. If you’re not quite ready to stand up on your soapbox and speak, you can also volunteer to help out at the event, which might involve working directly with one of the scientists speaking, or engaging with the public on the ground.
There are countless events offering the opportunity to speak to a general audience – for instance Sceptics in the pub, PubHD, Pint of Science, SciBar, Café Scientifique, and FameLab. There are two cafe scientifiques running in London currently, the Royal Society Cafe Scientifique and Cosy Science.
FameLab is a communications competition which aims to engage and entertain the public with three-minute presentations on science, technology or engineering. The competition first ran in 2005 at the Cheltenham Science Festival, and has since flourished into an international phenomenon. Contestants from around the World take part for the chance to win the coveted title of FameLab International Winner.
Science comedy and performance shows such as BrightClub and ScienceShowoff offer a different format for presenting your science to the public. BrightClub has been running since 2009 and has now entertained over 7500 audience members, largely made up of members of the general public. The events aim to bring UCL research to a broad audience in a way that is light hearted and entertaining.
“Bright Club is a great opportunity for researchers to think about their work in another way with an emphasis on comedy and to engage with new audiences that would not normally come to University events” – Philippa Richardson, UCL Public and Cultural Engagement
Finally, ScienceLive is a new platform that provides a hub for all science engagement activities, and allows you to register your interest in volunteering, speaking or hosting events. It’s totally free to sign up and a great way to find out about upcoming events and activities.
If you’re a DTP student interested in getting involved in public engagement activities and would like some advice, or if you’ve got an event coming up in the future, please get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Especially if you or your research group plan to apply for the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition or the Cheltenham Science Festival – please let me know!
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