“Discussing science with the public – what would I say or do?” – is a wary but quite understandable reaction from many academics. These personal encounters are critical to spreading the messages that science is important, science is fun and that science research is still needed. The key challenge that academics face is to overcome our natural hesitancy and have a go.
My first encounter was to take some experiments into a local primary school, very hard work but fun. Two years ago I volunteered myself again, this time for a public engagement activity at the Brighton Science Festival. I formed a team of ten researchers from the University of Sussex Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Group and we led the audience in a piece of performance art, re-enacting the packaging of DNA. Afterwards everyone was eager for more, so with an expanded team we devised some experiments to take to the Brighton Science Festival “Bright Sparks” event the following year. Here we steered people through two hands-on experiments designed to allow them to experience important scientific concepts about DNA and proteins. Again the response from the team was passionate and members of the public left enthusiastic remarks on our comments boards. Now we plan to return in 2015.
The lessons that I learnt from these experiences are that public engagement is possible and it can be fun and informative for all concerned. But what are the secrets of a successful experience? I recommend the following:
- On own or as a team.
You can engage with the public on your own – groups such as “Skeptics In The Pub”, “Sunday Assembly”, “University of the Third Age” and “Women’s Institute” arrange talks on a range of subjects and may welcome an approach from you, but for hands-on activities it is more effective to work as a team.
- Harness enthusiasm.
You need to start it going, but hopefully the team will sustain this.
- Obtain funding.
Relatively small amounts will help if you want a display or hands-on activity. We started with some money associated with a research grant from the Medical Research Council, followed by funding from the University of Sussex. For 2015 we applied for and were awarded a grant from the Biochemical Society.
Offer your services to an existing Science Event – they know their audience and have event management experience – you will be free to focus on your area of expertise. Plan your content several months in advance with your team. Expensive research equipment will be of little use to you – don’t even rely on having wi-fi available on the day. I suggest identifying between one and three key concepts that you want to get across and then get inventive, Blue Peter style. Test your ideas and get feedback from nearby non-scientists.
Finally, hold a final planning meeting at least a week in advance and have detailed lists of responsibilities and a time schedule finalized.
- Be flexible.
After all this detailed planning you will need to be prepared to be flexible on the day, things will go off-schedule and you will have to adapt as you go. If possible have one team member available as a runner to deal with the unexpected glitches.
After the event discuss the feedback with your team, plan any changes for the next time you run it and book in for the following year – once you have experienced public engagement activities you will want more!