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Melanie Smallman

 Name: Melanie Smallman


Age range: 41-50

Research institution: Department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London

Research career length: 1 year

Research Council:
Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)

Location: London, England

Salary: <£22k

Brief summary of research: Impact of public participation in science policy/how does science respond to the wishes and needs of society?

School qualifications:
9 ‘O’ levels, 3 A-levels,

Qualifications post-school:
BSc in Microbiology and Virology, University of WarwickBSc in Microbiology and Virology, University of Warwick MSc in Science Communication, Imperial College MSc in Science Communication, Imperial College

Career path:
Internship in Press Office at NERC during Undergraduate degree
Press Officer, Science Museum
Project Manager, Wellcome Trust
Set up science communications agency, Think-Lab
Communications Adviser to Chief Scientist at DEFRA

For a number of years there has been increased recognition that the public should play a greater part in decisions on what science is funded and how it is carried out. As a science communications specialist, Melanie Smallman has attempted to bridge the gap between scientists, the public and those responsible for policy. She is now researching the effect of engaging the public in this way

For the past ten or more years, policymakers have been encouraged to involve the public in decisions relating to science and technology. My research is looking at what difference this has made to the kinds of science policies. I am also interested in what the things people say when they discuss science policy tell us about how they think about new technologies. This involves a lot of reading - books and academic papers, conducting focus groups with the public, writing up my research as notes and papers for publication, and giving presentations at conferences and seminars.

I originally studied straight science - my first degree is in microbiology and virology, but I quickly realised that a career in scientific research wouldn't be for me (I'm clumsy). Luckily, during my first degree, I was offered the chance to work for a year in the press office of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). This experience opened my eyes to other science-related careers and after finishing my degree, I went on to study for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College.

From a personal point of view, research means using my brain and working with interesting colleagues

For almost 20 years after that, I worked in various science communication roles for a number of organisations such as the Wellcome Trust and the Science Museum. In 1999, I set up Think-Lab, the UK's first science communications agency, and worked on a range of amazing projects, including eight years as a communications adviser to the Chief Scientist at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Twenty years is a long time, and last year I was ready to try something new. I had thought about doing a PhD ever since finishing my Master’s degree but the world of work had always seemed more tempting. Last year, with one big client contract ending, it seemed like the ideal time to take time out of Think-Lab, to study for my PhD.

During my MSc, I was exposed to science and technology studies and, in the intervening years, I came to realise how valuable this academic underpinning was for my practice as a science communicator. I kept in touch with a couple of the tutors from the Master’s course, who helped encourage me to maintain my interest in academic research in the field.

Presenting my research to an international audience is important, so I frequently travel to conferences overseas. This year, trips will be mainly within Europe - Florence and Copenhagen - but last year I presented my work in New Delhi in India. As a sideline to my research, I also teach on a summer school that takes place in Dubrovnik each summer. Spending two weeks in the sunshine, teaching all morning and swimming in the sea all afternoon in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, is definitely a memorable (and pleasurable) part of my job.

I don't know whether I'll stay in academia or go back to Think-Lab full-time when I finish, but for now I'm enjoying having the best of both worlds.

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