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Professor Colin Pulham

Hands on science wins public interest

People really enjoy activities which allow them to experience science at first hand in an informal environment and make connections between science and their everyday lives - Professor Colin Pulham, University of Edinburgh

As a recent winner of the University of Edinburgh Tam Dalyell Prize for Public Engagement and the ‘Royal Society Kohn Award’, there is no mistaking Professor Colin Pulham’s commitment to increasing public understanding of science.

With specific research expertise on the effects of very high pressures on materials ranging from explosives to pharmaceuticals, Professor Pulham spent 2009-11 developing a range of public engagement activities as a STFC Science in Society Fellow. “I see public engagement with a wider audience not as an add-on but as an integral part of the research process,” says Professor Pulham. “Increasing public engagement with science is vital for a host of reasons, not least to inspire the young scientists of tomorrow, open new research opportunities and inform everyone about the benefits that fundamental and applied science bring to our economy, quality of life, and health.”

Understanding his audience – of whatever age - and finding innovative ways to bring science alive is key to Professor Pulham’s approach. In the eight years prior to taking up his STFC Fellowship, Professor Pulham played a major role in a series of EPSRC-funded Chemical Connection projects, which took demonstrations and hands-on activities to schools, community groups and other organisations throughout Scotland and northern England.

Feedback from participants at these workshops highlighted the huge popularity of enabling participants of all ages perform experiments and make discoveries for themselves. “People really enjoy activities which allow them to experience science at first hand in an informal environment and make connections between science and their everyday lives,” Professor Pulham points out.

Top Tip:
Public engagement needs to be fun and enjoyable for you as a researcher. However, most importantly, understand your audience and, wherever possible, make engagement a two-way process.

“Another key feature of these activities is that they were presented by real scientists – academic and technical staff and postgraduate students – so members of the public had the chance to meet the people who do research and discover for themselves that we do not conform to some of the less appealing stereotypes that are sometimes portrayed in films and in the media,” he adds.

Professor Pulham built on the experience gained from the Chemical Connection project when planning his STFC activities. This included developing a highly successful demonstration and hands-on workshop for the Royal Society Summer Exhibition in 2010 in collaboration with scientists from the Diamond Light Source facility in Oxfordshire. The five-day event proved a really fruitful engagement activity with a team of ten researchers interacting with more than 2000 exhibition goers. A popular Skype video link enabled members of the public to talk directly to members of the experimental team at the Diamond Light Source. “The hands-on activities were the initial draw for the public but what really came across was how much people like just talking to ‘real’ scientists,” he explains.

Crucially, most of these ‘real’ early stage scientists are hugely fired up by their subject and inspire the audience with their excitement for science. At the same time, talking about science to all sorts of people is an excellent way for early stage researchers to learn the most effective ways of putting their message across to a non-specialist audience.

“One of the joys and challenges of such events is that you are talking to a very wide range of people and you need to be able to very quickly adapt your language and your approach,” Professor Pulham explains. “It means trying to understand your audience and specifically participants’ agendas, their expectations and level of scientific background.” Understanding that level of knowledge is important in order to neither patronise people nor talk over their heads. “Basically,” he explains, “you need to put yourself in the place of someone in the audience and think about what they might be interested in and how best to attract their attention.”

How, for example, might a scientist best attract the attention of Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs)? Well, says Professor Pulham, many MSPs have an interest in Scotch whisky whether as an export or as Scotland’s national drink. Hence, at a recent ‘Science in the Parliament’ event designed to bring scientists face to face with MSPs, researchers gained plenty of politicians’ attention by choosing to demonstrate instrumentation which can be used to study whisky. “It was a fantastic way of engaging with the audience,” explains Professor Pulham, “but also fits the important principles that I have already mentioned – namely, understand your audience and their interests. This approach is particularly important when engaging with industrial partners to establish successful collaborations.”

Institution: University of Edinburgh
Funding council: STFC

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