Take a broad view on engagement
Anyone who is in receipt of public money – including scientists such as myself – has an obligation to make a good account to the public of what they are doing with that money. However, it is worth taking a broad view on how best to make account of your work to the public - Professor Stephen Curry, Imperial College London
“Anyone who is in receipt of public money – including scientists such as myself – has an obligation to make a good account to the public of what they are doing with that money,” says Professor Stephen Curry. “But it’s worth taking a broad view on how best to make account of your work to the public.”
A large section of that public no doubt has a personal interest in Professor Curry’s recent BBSRC-funded research into caliciviruses. Anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of a ‘winter vomiting bug’ infection, will be very aware of the debilitating effects of the human norovirus, one of the main types of calicivirus. Better understanding of the intricacies of calicivirus replication could, researchers believe, lead ultimately to the development of new antiviral therapies against noroviruses.
Finding ways to bring this and related research to a wider audience has prompted Professor Curry to take some bold steps into what was for him some unknown public engagement territory. In 2010, he entered ‘I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out of Here’, an X-Factor style, online competition (funded by the Wellcome Trust) aimed at getting children excited by science.
“I had been giving talks in schools but that only reaches a very small audience,” Professor Curry explains. “I thought this online competition in which schoolchildren pose a very wide range of science related questions to groups of five competing scientists over a two week period and then vote for their favourites, provided a great opportunity to communicate directly with much larger numbers of children.
“We were basically at the mercy of the children who could ask us any questions they liked and would then vote for their winner,” he continues. “But it was hugely gratifying to see how much passion and interest these children had for science as well as a challenge to make it fun and interesting for them. One of the most rewarding things for me was children’s delight in discovering that scientists are normal people and not some alternative species.”
As winner of the competition, Professor Curry spent the prize money making a film (http://imascientist-film.org.uk/) explaining what it’s like to be a scientist. Aimed at a teenage audience, the film is used in schools and has received over 5,000 hits on YouTube.However, Professor Curry admits to reservations not only about the competition but also about embarking two years ago on his blog. “I think it helped that I was already a Professor at that stage because there’s mixed views about whether these activities are worth doing and, indeed, whether there might be some adverse impact on your career,” he explains.In his view, the benefits of using these forums to make science accessible to a much wider public should override other concerns. “My blog has been the catalyst for a great deal of interest in the public domain,” he says,” including invitations to write for the Guardian Science blog, speak on radio and write for the national press.” Views among the academic community towards blogging and such like are changing and are increasingly seen as valued activities, he suggests. “Some researchers lack confidence or don’t know where to begin in terms of talking to non scientists. Nevertheless, public engagement is an important aspect of the impact process and an important part of your role as a research scientist. Therefore, you need to take some small steps out of your comfort zone and begin by sharing what you know with people from other disciplines. This can give you confidence to start talking to a wider audience.”
Institution:Imperial College London