When in South London…

The hottest thing in research right now is being able to transcend disciplines- the Centre for Plastic Electronics is a great example of that, bringing together material science, physics and chemistry. Design Engineering (just about my favourite subject in the world) combines engineering with design, co-run by Imperial and the Royal College of Art. If it were any cooler it would be hard to call it ‘work’ and you might have to pay for it. I had the privilege of spending the morning at the Science Gallery, a neuroscience inspired fusion of scientists, designers and engineers. The Science Gallery will open formally in London Bridge in 2017 in a building that used to be McDonalds. The first exhibition will be taken to schools as interactive workshops; casting tongues in alginate, imaging people’s clefts and working with King’s College Dental School to make people understand their mouths. Beyond “Mouth-E” the Science Gallery will run a series of exciting exhibitions covering topics from addiction to STEM cells. It’s all the brain child of a sensationally exciting and dynamic team including world-leading academics, artists and curators. I can’t wait to see what happens.

Keeping south I skipped across town to Denmark Hill where the Institute of Psychiatry is based (which is where my beloved mom did her medical PhD, ‘MD’). The afternoon session “Public Engagement and Outreach: Engaging with the community” featured a discussion on public engagement funding from the British Science Association, British Neuroscience Association, Royal Society and Wellcome Trust. First up, Anna from the BSA discussed how they best support public engagement. The BSA are brilliant (they run national science week, the science communication conferences and training along with a multitude of branch events) but I wasn’t really sure how brilliant until Anna started talking. The BSA think that public engagement “should be fundamental to what scientists do”, because it makes them (/us) “better scientists”. To the BSA, public engagement is not and add-on, but integrated into the scientific process. To them, the public give scientists a “license to operate”. Anne from the British Neuroscience Association talked us through their work from their Bristol HQ, where they offer annual prizes to those engaging in neuroscience. The BNA support a network of local groups and offer funding twice a year- they’re even hosting a festival of neuroscience (April 2017 in Birmingham). The various societies and institutions start to have a bit of a show-down as to who was formed first, but the Royal Society wins hands down. They were around in the times of Wren and Newton, forming officially in 1660. The majority of RS funding goes to their 700 early career scientists, 300 of which are keen to be more involved with public engagement. Their stance has always been to encourage their networks rather than force them to act, and they work in partnership with various museums across London to support this. Aware of the massive range of activities and opportunities available the public in London, the RS have spent the past year trying to leave the building- taking their researchers to science museum lates and across the country as part of the science & learning centre network. The Summer Science exhibition sees over 15,000 people visit Carlton House Terrace (!). The Wellcome Trust are singing from the same song sheet: “research is a way to understand where we are; to look at the present and design future”. They’re comprehensive fellowship and grant schemes are under review- instead they’re looking to tackle the all too familiar misconception “you need to spend your time in the lab doing your core work, PE is a fluffy extra..”. The Q&A is brilliant- from how to handle participant involvement (the rules and ethics, particularly in medicine) to the image of public engagement in other countries. The UK is regarded as a global leader in science communication and outreach, which is pretty good news. The RS don’t do much abroad- actually, most of the panellists are representing ‘Royal’ or ‘British’ institutions, but the RS do work with the British Council to run Commonwealth science classes.

For the case-study part of the talk we hear from a few cool people who have got public engagement right. Ellie Dommett is a passionate psychologist who spent her PhD and first post docs visiting and teaching in schools. She realised during her travels the best activities resulted in a permanent web resource. Her school trips now involve practical sessions and lecture like components: she teaches students how to make conference style posters and has an award scheme to go with it. The students are invited to the Open University Christmas lectures, where she delivers a lecture based on the scientific posters developed by students. Ellie’s comprehensive evaluation package and her online resources mean that she’s successful in funding applications. Her one piece of advice is to schedule really far in advance. Psychology is phenomenally white, female and middle-class, and Ellie has worked with teachers to run focus groups about how she can best engage a non-typical audience. Next up is Margaret Heslin, who runs a youth award scheme for those who study in a 5-mile radius of where she works. The winners of the prestigious award scheme are given a £50 book token, work experience and mentoring for a year.

Next we hear from the Science Gallery, who aim to attract 15 – 25 year olds through a range of ‘surprising’ events to make them think. This ranges from collaborating with dentists to make saliva crystals, to climate change scientists looking to capture pollution in edible oyster mushrooms. When Louise was studying neuroscience at UCL she worked with the London Brain Project on an artistic venture colour coding seizures, “don’t let seizures stop you flying”. For the science gallery, public engagement improves research and places it in a real world context, providing a room for dialogue between all those involved. It allows science practioners to review and refine what they’re doing, to an audience who are not afraid to be honest. For the scientist it’s great for transferrable skills, well-being and employability. For employers it helps investment, recruitment, brand-name and social responsibilities, along with connecting the department with their local environment.

Last one up is Jamie Upton, who coordinates outreach at the Royal Society but also runs his own public engagement activity, “Art Neuro”. Art neuro pairs artists with neurologists and neuroscience for suitably zany creative results.

Finally, public engagement pro Bryonny Frost takes us from her undergraduate degree in physics to her position leading QMUL’s PE initiative. Public engagement (to Frost) is good for the public, the employer and the ‘engager’. To Bryonny, public engagement improves:

  • Subject knowledge
  • Problem solving
  • Evaluation
  • Construing arguments
  • Self-confidence
  • Networking
  • Funding generation
  • Project management
  • Considering ethical implications
  • Impact
  • Communication
  • Publication
  • Team work
  • Leadership

It’s not only ticking a lot of CPD boxes, but it can be used to support impact case studies in the REF. When writing the ‘pathways to impact’ portion of a grant application, Bryonny suggests asking for money to support your project, whatever it may be.  She argues that astronomy projects in Liverpudlian museums have an economic benefit, that Barts’ medics blogs enhance the quality of life. In Brian Cox’s impact case study Manchester counted the number of telescopes bought in the year he went mainstream.

Bryonny leaves with some advice to the budding communicators- to begin with, start by asking yourself questions:

What can I do? What difference can my research make? Who do I need to engage with? How do I do that? How is the best way to engage with a group to achieve some gains?

Then figure out who is going to pay for it ;).

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