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Public Engagement: Why Bother as a Scientist?

Public Engagement: Why Bother as a Scientist?
By Soraya Meftah, University of Exeter 3 months ago 48716 Views No comments

By Soraya Meftah

In this blog post, I’m going to talk about public engagement. What is it? What can it look like? And why should you care?

I really enjoy public engagement, and recently helped organise, spoke at, and volunteered on the day of a science event called ‘Soapbox Science’ in Exeter in the UK… so hopefully I can give you a bit of an insight into why it’s a good thing to do.

What is public engagement?

Public engagement is a two-way conversation between researchers and the public, which aims to educate and interact with them about scientific research. This is typically via activities including talking to public groups, helping at a science fair, standing in the street on a soapbox, social media, talking on the radio or TV, or a range of other things – including artwork. Basically, anything where you interact with the public in relation to your research.

Well, what am I going to get from it?

So what can you gain from getting involved in public science events? Well firstly, talking to the public about your research forces you to understand and think about your own work in simpler terms (i.e. lay language). This can be tricky at first, but if you’re staying in academia it will be a very useful skill in the future.

If you’re helping to organise an event, there are lots of small pots of money that you can apply for (more info on that later in the blog). This looks great on your CV, and can also help you buy some really cool science toys.

Another huge benefit is… networking! A word I’m sure everyone hates, but normally events like these are organised by or have volunteers that will be in slightly different areas to you, allowing you to grow your professional network. It can also raise your profile as a researcher, and of your research itself. I can definitely say that I’ve started to be recognised by people outside of my network since having a more active scientific social media presence, and getting involved with these kinds of activities.

Above all, it’s also fun and can give you a push out of your comfort zone – which I’m a big advocate of. It can give you a whole new love for science which can be infectious to the public too, inspiring them to get involved!

So, why is it important to talk to the public?

Communicating with the public allows an exchange of knowledge between universities and non-academics, and again this is a two-way process.

It’s important for you to share your research with the public, as they’re probably going to be interested in knowing what’s going on inside big institutes. On the other hand, they can also offer you interesting feedback on your ideas, incorporating their own personal experiences which you may not have thought of.

Talking to people outside of the science world can also help to challenge stereotypes of scientists. For example, in a survey by Ipsos, 90% of people surveyed said they thought scientists made a valuable contribution to society, yet 35% said they thought scientists adjusted their findings to get the answers they want.

By communicating more with the public, they can meet your day-to-day, normal scientist and get to know what actually goes on in the lab.

I’m sold! I want to engage with the public about my science… where do I start?

Finding opportunities isn’t as difficult as you might think. There are lots of larger events that happen annually that generally look for volunteers which you can just tag onto. A few of these are:

Hopefully you’ll be based near somewhere that runs events annually, but if not… why not try and start something up? I did this recently with a group of other PhD students, and whilst it was hard work it was also a great amount of fun.

Where can I find funding for something like this?

As I briefly mentioned above, there is funding around for public engagement (in the UK, where I’m based) as funders are becoming increasingly more aware and are placing more importance on it. Depending on how much you’re looking for, there are smaller pots of money (i.e. £500-£1000) that will allow you to buy smaller resources to get started (e.g. the BNA (for those based in the UK).

There are also larger pots that are aiming to fund new public engagement activities for a few years (e.g. Wellcome Trust). Alongside this, depending on who your target audience is, there will probably be some sort of internal funding from your university that you can apply for.

What should I talk about?

If you’re lucky enough to have secured a spot talking at an event, you can find loads of resources online to help you out (one example is publicengagement.ac.uk).

In addition to general resources, there are also more tailored resources out there including The Physiological Society Outreach Toolkit which I helped develop.

Who am I talking to?

One of the most important things to consider when you’re giving a talk or planning an event is to tailor it to your audience. A talk aimed at a group of school-aged children will be a totally different talk to one for an older audience.

In general, try to avoid using “jargon” or over complicated terms no matter who you’re talking to. If you do have to use jargon then always clarify what you mean. A good example is that when you say “nuclear”, you’ll think of the nucleus and DNA, but the public may hear nuclear reactions / radioactivity.

This blog post definitely doesn’t cover everything relating to public engagement, but hopefully I’ve got you interested and you can see some of the many benefits of talking to the public about your research. All I can say now is good luck, and get involved!

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Soraya Meftah is currently a PhD student at the University of Exeter and Bristol funded by the MRC GW4 Biomed DTP. Her current research focuses on how synapses (connections between neurons), electrical properties of neurons, and network activity can be altered in a model of Alzheimer’s Disease using whole-cell electrophysiology and two-photon imaging.

You can follow Soraya on Twitter @s_meffy