Public engagement, impact statements and the media

27 October 2014 - By: Caroline Wood

Public engagement, impact statements and the media

In txt
Session organisers and speakers:Back row (left to right) : Alun Anderson, Anne Osterrieder, Sarah Blackford; Front row (left to right): Alice Roberts, Liz Granger, Alf Game.


By Caroline Wood

Researchers are under increasing pressure to demonstrate the relevance of their work to the general population – but what does this mean in practice? As this session, organised by Anne Osterrieder, at the SEB 2014 Annual Meeting in Manchester demonstrated, public engagement should be seen as an enriching, creative experience rather than an obligation.

Alice Roberts (Author & Broadcaster, Professor of Public Engagement, University of Birmingham), opened the session with a talk based on “the art of storytelling”. Using examples from her varied media experiences, she stressed how framing scientific information into a narrative is crucial to engage public audiences. She gave the example of how exploring the origins of an exquisite carved ivory bison figurine led her on a remarkable journey involving mammoths, ice-age archaeology and prehistoric human rituals. 

During filming for The Incredible Human Journey, Alice also observed the power of story-telling in Aboriginal tribes, who passed on their understanding of creation through vocal legends. Using stories as information transfer starkly contrasts with the modern curriculum method, with its heavy use of bullet-points. According to Alice, this causes the fascination behind scientific research to be lost – instead, children see science as collections of facts. Although story-telling approaches may seem simplistic, this can draw people into areas they presume to have little understanding of. “You have to focus on the narrative…you can’t just have pieces of science going off at a tangent”, Alice urged. “But if you create a good story, you can fit more content in there”. 

In the second talk, Liz Granger (Society of Biology Science Communication award winner, University of Manchester) also promoted methods that “explore science in a curiosity-led way” as opposed to fact-learning. She advised that researchers should challenge themselves to use any form of engagement which they enjoyed. Besides blogging, this could include producing a three-minute video pitch (FameLab), writing a comedy sketch (Bright Club) or even starring in an open-mic event (Science Showoff). 

The wealth of opportunities means that researchers can find activities that suit their particular skills and personality. Not everyone feels comfortable entertaining children, for example – in which case, an adult discussion forum (e.g. Café Scientifique) might be more suitable. Liz pointed out that one needn’t set up a new idea from scratch. Instead of starting an independent blog, for instance, one can contribute to online group forums such as The Conversation. Hosting a stall at an established science fair is also a good way to delegate much of the organisational effort to another party. Meanwhile, many learned societies have funds available for outreach activities undertaken by their members. With so much to choose from, Liz gave a word of caution: don’t take on TOO much! 

And yet, many pressured researchers still view public engagement as an obligation that cuts into valuable lab time. Against this, Liz argued that in the world of academia, with its heavy focus on publications, demonstrating strong communication skills in other areas could help to set you apart. “There is no career where strong interpersonal skills don’t help” Liz pointed out. She also enthused about the satisfaction such activities can give, as well as the opportunity to leave a legacy for the next generation. “During my research, there were highs and lows but I always enjoyed my work in public outreach” she said. Her final advice was to just “give it a go” – after all, what is the worst that can happen? 

Alf Game, Head of Delivery at BBSRC, then provided the perspective from the funding agencies. Challenging the view that “research councils only fund highimpact research”, Alf argued that impact statements are instead designed to help scientists improve the structure of their research. Taxpayers are also entitled to accountability – “like MPs’ expenses, people demand to know why you are entitled to so much money”. Yet drafting an impact statement need not be daunting; according to Alf, these can be “modest, small and even common sense”. After all, “impact” covers a broad spectrum that includes training, knowledge transfer, informing policy and economic benefits.

In fact, it is very difficult to design a research project that has NO impact whatsoever! According to Alf, Pathways to Impact statements are not lists of obligations: funding agencies understand that “people go the way of their research” and so reward effort rather than delivery of specific goals. He also stressed that “the quality of your research can be improved by talking about it”, citing the example of the Fraxinus FaceBook game, part of the OpenAshDieBack crowd-sourcing project.

The audience were then treated to a series of three-minute “sales pitches” which showcased the various ways in which researchers have interpreted “public engagement”. George Littlejohn introduced “Clumpy”; a CitizenScience Project where members of the public help to classify microscope slides for their degree of “chloroplast clumping” (a difficult attribute for a mere computer to assess!). 

Mike Wheeler then described how the University of Worcester had found that using drama sketches alongside scientific lectures and demonstrations proved “a useful way to get the harder-to-reach students engaged in the ideas of science” and to consider a scientific higher education course. 

Meanwhile, Sam Mugford presented the Benchpress Project, where PhD students help to train non-specialist journalists in scientific ideas and techniques. Finally, Mimi Tanimoto outlined the UK Plant Sciences Federation’s strategy to address the urgent need for more skilled plant science researchers. 

During the discussion, it was felt that many researchers see public engagement as a “box ticking activity”, believing that “doing school stuff doesn’t get you a job”. However, as one delegate pointed out “outreach makes people come out of their black hole, making them better scientists”. 

In addition, as so much of University revenue is based on student fees (at least in the UK), it is imperative to stimulate interest at a young age. According to Liz Granger, “the ultimate goal is to challenge any ideas students may have that are negative about science”. Nevertheless, it was discussed how traditional media outlets are becoming outmoded and scientists should be aware of changing trends. As one delegate lamented “no one watches TV anymore” – suggesting that scientists should tap into the thriving YouTube community instead. Overall, the session provided a stimulating account of how scientists can unleash their creativity through public engagement and the media – and become more enriched researchers as a result. •

Further Information: The Society for Experimental Biology organises an annual Science Communication Training Day each June, particularly suited to PhD students and early career researchers who wish to increase their confidence in outreach activities. For more information, contact SEB Head of Education and Public Affairs, Sarah Blackford at s.blackford@ lancaster.ac.uk.

The Society of Biology can provide information, ideas and resources for running an event. See https://www.societyofbiology.org/get-involved/biologyweek/organise-an-event

The BBSRC provides free media training courses, delivered by print and radio journalists, for any researcher that receives BBSRC funding.

See http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/funding/ awardholders/media-training.aspx.

Additional Links:

FameLab: http://famelab.org/

Bright Club: http://brightclub.org/

ScienceShowoff: http://www. scienceshowoff.org/

Café Scientifique: http://www. cafescientifique.org/

The Conversation: http:// theconversation.com/uk

Clumpy Citizen Science Project: http:// clumpy.ex.ac.uk
 
Category: Science Communication
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Caroline Wood

Caroline Wood was the SEB’s 2014 science communication intern. Since then, Caroline has been a regular contributor the SEB, reporting on events and writing insightful features for our members.
Caroline has an undergraduate degree from Durham University in Cell Biology and is currently a PHD student at Sheffield University studying parasitic Striga weeds that infect food crops. You can read her blog here