In a world of #alternativefacts, it is more important than ever that we seek to engage the public with our research. By increasing public understanding of science and the scientific process, we have an opportunity to create impact from our research, providing a chance to “change the world” directly.1
By engaging with the public, we have the chance to create immediate impact on society, whereas for many of us, a route from a publication in an academic journal to real change in the wider world may take years or decades.
The public funds research, whether through donations to charities such as Asthma UK or Cancer Research UK, or through their taxes, and we should bring them in to the conversation by explaining what scientific discoveries are being made, and why they are important.
As outlined in the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement’s Manifesto for Public Engagement2 (to which the university is a signatory) and on their website, there are many reasons for undertaking public engagement activities. For example, public engagement can bring significant benefits to universities and to the public though enriching the institution’s research, teaching and learning; helping both us and our students develop transferable skills; and maximising the flow of knowledge and learning between universities and society, enriching the lives of the wider public.
Another key reason is that because of these perceived benefits, funders and policy makers expect universities to do it. For example, RCUK has published a concordat on public engagement3 which outlines the expectations and responsibilities of research funders with respect to public engagement. Not least, public engagement activities can be fun and terrifying in equal measures…..nothing beats the wonder on a 10-year old pupils face as they see their own DNA for the first time!
For the Faculty, Lucy Green in HDH has been working with an Athena Swan Action Committee to gather a catalogue of all the activity in the faculty to understand more about the outreach, engagement and knowledge transfer that we do, to help to understand who is benefiting from it and to work out who is not hearing from us.
There are many opportunities to engage the public with your research, last week I was one of the scientists who took part in a “meet the scientist” session with year 9 pupils from a local secondary school who were visiting Lifelab for the day. This was not my first meet the scientist session, and as I was caught saying to one of the meet the scientist newbies, while challenging, it can really help you think about how you communicate your science.
The evidence also shows that it enables students to form a different view of scientists than those they get from popular culture.4 Though I’m sure that the students who commented just how normal the scientists seemed to be, and not nerds, can’t possibly have been in any session I took!
Other opportunities include becoming a STEM ambassador, running activities at the Southampton Science and Engineering Festival, or for the really brave, taking part in Pint of Science – look out for the publicity for the Southampton events happening 15th – 17th May this year, or publish a podcast (check out The Science Shed podcast from the Evans lab in HDH) or a blog like Lisa Jones who is PhD student in HDH.
Don’t know where to start? There are heaps of great resources out there from the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement website to the Universities own Public Engagement with Research Unit (PERu). Sign up for a Lifelab meet the scientist training day (next one is May 3rd), attend a Researchers Café, just ask a colleague what they do…..
I look forward to seeing you at an event soon!
1 Baron N. So you want to change the world? Nature 2016:570:517-9
2 The Engaged University: A manifesto for public engagement. National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement, 2010. Available here (accessed 06/02/2017)
3 Research Councils UK. Concordat on Public Engagement. Available here (accessed 06/02/2017)
4 Woods-Townsend et al. Meet the Scientist: The Value of Short Interactions Between Scientists and Students. International Journal of Science Education, Part B, 2015