I recently spoke with a great class of third year undergraduates at UCL about all things scicomm and, following the dispensing of what practical advice I could (in terms of contacts, where to look for jobs, how to pitch) and a simple introduction into the history of scicomm and a brief explanation of how public engagement evolved from the pre-1980s “public understanding of science”, how press releases actually work, I found myself having a conversation about why scicomm was worthwhile, why so many scientists chose/found themselves taking part in it and generally - to follow Dennett in borrowing from the lawyers - cui bono...
We found ourselves discussing initially scicomm, but then moved swiftly into how (and why) scientists utilise social media platforms (primarily Twitter*), discussing six key themes, each explored with varying levels of cynicism: connections, visibility, money, advertising, policy and love.
I don’t often paraphrase Dawkins, but when he writes that it’s hard to see why any one studies anything other than biology, he encapsulates the infectious enthusiasm that those with knowledge often (but not always) display, and the drive many feel to share that joyous amazement at a world that becomes more and more strange the more you learn about it. As someone that has been lucky enough to share with others the remarkable things I have learnt on stage, on the radio and on the television, as well as in front of audiences of kids at book festivals and Saturday clubs, I’ve experienced the utter joy of sharing information with a reactive audience and talking with audience members afterwards as we bounce ideas off each other - as well as the instant gratification of appreciation so unlike the usual slow release of the relentless march of More-Publications-Please. The passion that leads most to become biologists, or physicists, or chemists, is the same drive that leads them to voluntarily (and often freely) spend their time in the almost**-selfless act of teaching.
We spent a while considering the go-to social media platform of choice, Twitter, and the interactions the majority of scientists seem to go for on there. In a snapshot, it really does look like most users consider ‘Excited to share our latest paper…’ or ‘Here’s the obligatory shot of me standing by my poster at this niche conference’ as the extent of, and the appropriate use of the platform, and the limit of most’s outreach activity. We talked about how this is just an extension of the ‘Dear colleagues, you may find my latest paper of interest’ letter and then emails scientists have historically sent to each other. There’s a lot of science out there and it helps to ring your bell occasionally. This just seems to be a left over from a less connected time, and certainly isn’t scicomm.
Connected to advertising work completed and papers written, was the idea of maximising personal visibility. This seemed to come up a lot when looking at scientist’s feeds. Twitter enables people to develop their own ‘brand’*** and in many cases, it does feel like scientists use their twitter accounts in an attempt to rise above the white noise of innumerable research papers, the sea of PhD students, to increase their visibility. This was hardly scicomm, but was certainly linked to...
Through visibility came connectivity, both within academia and without. As in conferences, where the advice is to speak to as many people as possible, it seems that using social media is an excellent way to forge new, and maintain old, professional links. It does seem, though, that yelling into the void and accumulating nods seems radically different from the two-way interaction of actual conversation, but the visibility increase that follows social media activity can maintain awareness of one’s activity/interests/aliveness in between physical encounters - and levels the field for those who can’t/do not wish to attend conferences/talks/courses. It’s the equivalent of sending Christmas cards to clients in the hope that professional relationships will continue in the new year.
Outside academia, things are similar. Speaking from my own experiences, it was through Love and harping on about animals that I was first approached by the publishing house that initially gave me a shot, which then led to my career as a writer and consultant. Although I now have far more confidence in contacting publishers directly, I have an awful lot thank for that initial DM.
When I was an undergraduate, I had hardly any idea as to where the money that funded research came from - e.g. the UK Research Councils, charities, National academies and institutes etc (there’s a lovely summary on the Imperial College website), so I thought it was important to run through these. It was also very important to emphasis that ‘impact’ is now a massive part of the funding machine, and an understanding of public engagement is paramount (well, after the actual research part) for actually getting funding to do science at all today.
Finally, we discussed policy as ‘public’ engagement, and the interaction between scientists and powerful members of the public. I’m never sure how policy will be received when it’s discussed. For some, it’s deathly dull - an encroachment of suits into the field site - whilst others see it for it’s potential: the hand to help guide, the sabots on the factory floor. It’s perhaps telling that of the key priorities identified by the UK’s independent scientific academy, “Increase scientific advice for policy makers” is listed at the top of the pile for “Demonstrating the importance of science to everyone”, as is evidenced by the enormous number of staff who work in the Society’s policy department - writing primers for politicians, synopses for judges, briefings on climate change and plastic pollution PDFs for the public. So long as our politicians continue coming from classics rather than chemistry backgrounds, we need scientists to work with policy workers to deliver science to those that need to understand it in a clear, succinct fashion, free of the ambiguity that often shrouds fast moving contemporary research.
It was really cool to discuss this, and really try to get my head around why so many scientists now engage in engagement. This is just a short, non-exhaustive list, and it was interesting that we focused more on the benefits for the scientists performing engagement rather than the recipients, but I wanted to get this down whilst it was fresh in my head. Massive props to the students for making me mull on this.
* 0% of the 20-year-olds I was talking with had Twitter accounts.
** Applause is addictive.
Last month I was part of a very silly hour of fun and facts at the Bath Children's Literature Festival with the joyous editor-supreme (and author of The Dragon in the Library) Louie Stowell and author triumphant Ned Hartley.
We were showcasing some of the weirdest/best facts from Ladybird’s new Big Book of Dead Things which I was (one of the) scientific consultant(s) on. Or, rather, the assistant to two of the Museum of Dead Things’ curators…
This book was an utter joy to work on, and the event – complete with falsifying fact quiz, Egyptian mummy wrapping, and dinosaur debunking – was the most fun I’ve had in Bath. And I’ve been to the baths!
I apologise for the frankly terrible drawings of dinosaurs I scribbled in the front of so many books whose owners were instead looking for them to be signed…
VERY IMPORTANT POST SCRIPT!
I found out today that The Big Book of Dead Things has been longlisted for this year’s Blue Peter Book Awards! Congratulations and good luck, guys!
Earlier this month I enjoyed my first experience of speaking at the Hay Festival in Wales - and it was my first time visiting it too!
Well, I actually passed through Hay with my parents when I was about six and, completely bamboozled by the choice of books, left clutching a jigsaw of an astronaut - possibly the only visitor ever not to have parted with money at Hay in exchange for a mountain of books.
My talk was organised by the lovely folks at Flying Eye Books following the publication of the Amazing Animal Atlas and, after removing my wellies and saying hello to my nephews who very sweetly came to watch, I was up in front of four hundred brilliantly loud and knowledgeable kids talking about shipworms, aquatic moles, and where the very finest animals live on planet Earth.
Hay really is something else - I was so impressed with festival, how friendly the entire site feels and the lovely places you can stay in the area!
On top of this it was a lovely opportunity to say hello to my friend Ben Garrod, accidentally steal Richard Dawkins’ chair, and completely miss that I was signing next to Mary Beard… all whilst expounding the virtues of knowing at least a little bit about tenrecs.
I can’t wait to go back!
A few months ago I appeared on BBC Radio 4's science programme Inside Science where I helped answer a few listeners' questions along with Helen Czerski and Andrew Pontzen.
One of the questions - about fossilisation - was featured on the BBC's Radio 4 in 4 website, and you can check it out by clicking here: BBC Radio 4 in 4.
I’ve written previously about the unnecessary scepticism with which I used to view science festivals and how that was blown away by my experience of the British Science Association’s festival in Aberdeen last summer. For the past 2 weeks my new found love of these festivals has continued to grow thanks to me thoroughly enjoying the festival being held in my current city. All the more so as instead of just being an observer this year I was invited to give a lecture to open the talks in the Arts Lecture Theatre on ‘Science on Saturday,’ the festival’s busiest day when over 100 free events took place across Cambridge. Later on in the same room Helen Arney took up her ukulele and my good friends Matt Wilkinson and Phil Cox took people through the evolution of locomotion and how to understand an animal’s behaviour by eyeballing the anatomy of its skull.
My talk focused on mammals: why they’ve become so successful, the diversity of forms that existed during the Mesozoic period and the synapsids that skulked around the world before dinosaurs evolved (an idea that itself evolved out of the activity book I’d been working on with Flying Eye Books).
There was a lot to cover, and I was nervous. It probably hadn’t helped that Cambridge 105 had decided to interview me about the talk and Cambridge University’s press team massively bigged-up the lecture up on their research website.
Although I like signing myself up for things like this and saying ‘yes’ to too many invitations, I still suffer enormously from nerves before speaking. At the Symposium of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy in Lyme Regis a couple of years ago I was so brimming over with nervous tension I tried to expel some of it by jogging on the spot and lunging at the back of the hall. Unfortunately I picked a spot where a pool of late afternoon light was falling through an open door, meaning poor Phil who was speaking before me had to complete his talk with the specter of a skinny legged silhouette prancing around in his periphery. He soldiered on admirably. Similarly, if you had spotted me before I gave “Dinobores: why mammals are way cool” on the new museums site on Saturday, you would have seen me jumping up and down with Passion Pit mushing up my ears (don’t judge me… it’s a great album).
In the end, I needn’t have been so scared. This was a family friendly talk introducing concepts such as mass extinctions, tooth occlusion and endothermy, not a precise description of my work on the vestibule of eulipotyphlans in front of experts. But that isn’t to say I didn’t have to be accurate. Talking about anything even vaguely related to dinosaurs to an audience half made up of children won’t be easy… they know a lot (which is why I talked about pseudosuchians more than theropods).
Two things come to mind to write about in the wake of Dinobores: One: educating is fun and people liked to be educated. This is something that’s been obvious to me at previous events I’ve held in the University’s Zoology Museum. Maybe this was due to me talking about palaeobiology. Zoology is, let’s face it, inherently interesting, and when talking about the history of life on Earth I was able to draw on animals that people just didn’t know about. Multitubuculates andRepenomamus drew blank faces from everyone in the audience but after my talk the parents and kids who came up to say thank you made me hope that maybe Obdurodon and Morganucodon might just end up being words as familiar to them as Triceratops andParasaurolophus.
This feedback leads onto my second point about science festivals: my friends who work as scientists told me in the pub later that day that after watching me they now really wanted to get involved and do more outreach.
Now scientists can fall into two camps: either they’re constrained by protocols and lab work and find outreach a difficult activity to squeeze into their meticulously planned days, or they’re more like me, in that their science is flexible & outreach can be easily slipped into a day: reading, writing and analyses can be done at any time, and anywhere. Although this is a slippery slope that can lead to the break down of the work/life partition (trust me… when I call myself a zoologist, that’s what I am… maybe I used to be more interesting), as a PhD student this is perhaps less of an issue and so it’s the perfect time to put yourself forward and talk to the public about the work you’re doing that, in all likelihood, is being funded by them.
So rather than celebrate the use of science festivals in enabling the public to interact with scientists away from their often impenetrable, jargon-rich papers, I’d like to call on scientists to take some time when a science festival rolls into their town and wander around. If not just to take the opportunities to see some exciting famous people (Cambridge was awash… one half of wittertainment was speaking at the same time as me) then to see how exciting it is to talk about your work to members of the public.
That old adage that if you can’t explain something to your grandma then you probably don’t understand it yourself (attributed to Einstein, but I haven’t double checked) might be a little harsh on those scientists that deal with the minute details of, say, quantum entanglement, but talking about your work to non-specialists helps solidify what it is exactly that you do. Maybe, just maybe, an audience of kids and interested adults could help you think outside the box just a little and help you reach that conclusion that you might not otherwise have been able to grasp.
Kids are the champions of leftfield questions and they don’t need to be told to be sceptical or to ask those horribly prickly questions. They never stop asking ‘why,’ and neither should we.