Saturday, 20 July 2013

What would the public want?

NSB is hugely excited to have been one of the presenters at the "8th Annual Science in Public Conference, 22-23 July 2013 on ‘Critical Perspectives on Making Science Public’ held at the University of Nottingham.

NSB's presentation covered three main areas :

1) Some examples of the "Good Stuff" universities already do to engage with wider society.

2) A look at what happens when wider society tries to engage with universities by asking universities to provide information or some kind of action

3) Some suggestions on what could be done better.

Good Stuff – May Fest
May Fest is an annual event at which the University of Nottingham throws open its doors to the community.

It's a great event, with something for all ages and all levels of interest. Checkout NSB's photoreview of this year's event here.

It is worth noting that community organisations can be a powerful "force multiplier" for university outreach activities. In the case of May Fest 2013, good examples can be found in Berridge Junior School (Hyson Green) and the Islamic Centre (Curzon Street).

Berridge really went the extra mile in promoting the event with their pupils. The efforts by the school are particularly important as it has a catchment of relatively disadvantaged children and pupils new to the UK.

NSB tried hard to get the Islamic Centre to promote the event last year , sadly without success. But this year has been a different story. An announcement encouraging the congregation (of some 1000 people) to take advantage of May Fest was made and a senior member of staff there told NSB that they had attended the event with their family and that it had been "really great".

Incidentally, NSB notes that the Physics community is particularly keen on publicising their work and engaging with the public, as shown by the work of the Physics Buskers, who seem to turn up all over the place.

NSB has yet to see a comparable "History Buskers", "Social Science Buskers" or even "Engineering Buskers" – so respect to the guys who know their neutrons from their neutrinos!

Good Stuff – Public Lectures
Nottingham is blessed with a number of organisations who deliver science related public talks throughout the year (examples being UoN, NTU, Cafe Sci, and EMMS)

These events are a great way of gaining an insight into current research efforts without having the information filtered by a headline seeking media. One aspect that is perhaps particularly worth noting is the Café Sci format which involves a short 20min talk, but a long, 60min, discussion afterwards. As a general rule, the discussion is at least as interesting as the actual talk, often more so and universities may wish to consider moving towards this model in some of their talks.

As with May Fest, public lectures are a great way of introducing a university setting, and university researchers, to people who may have no prior experience of academia. Or who are even wary of universities, thinking that they are "not for the likes of us". Pitching the tone of lectures can therefore be very important, and this is something that we will return to later in the discussion.

Public lectures can sometimes provide information that is really rather important to know – one example of this was a slide showing Cholesterol crystals in a talk by Prof Jonas Emsley. The image really brought home how dangerous they could be, and one could readily imagine the damage they could do if they broke free and travelled through the blood system.

White crystals of Chlolesterol
Why, NSB asks, had this information never been provided by any media or health source?

Finding Out About Public Lectures
NSB wondered how easy it is for an ordinary person to find out what public lectures a university is holding in the future, so asked some friends to search the websites of 6 East Midlands Universities to see if they could find info on any future sciency events or, even better, a comprehensive list of future events. There was only rule – the participants could spend a maximum of 2 minutes on each university's website.On the internet, of course, 2 minutes is forever.

The results showed that:
i) None of the sites were sufficiently easy to use that all participants could find information

ii) There was variability in results for each university, usually participants would report a range of outcomes, some being successful, some less so.

iii) There was one East Midlands university where no-one could find any useful information. Oh dear.

Some of the comments participants made are shown below (from a variety of participants and relating to a variety of universities)

"Half a dozen available (look good too!). Good descriptions etc”
“Straight to superb page with loads of events. Very comprehensive"
"Only globalisation and economics lectures listed”
“There was only one event in the list. “
“Rubbish. I was not able to find any info on science related lectures.”
“Horrible, frustrating format ”
“Excellent. Events on homepage…lists science related public lectures”

The difficulties many people were finding in seeing what events were forthcoming has a number of adverse effects on the impact public lectures can make:

Firstly, and obviously, people are simply unaware that there are so many events going on.

Secondly, this lack of a comprehensive listing means that supportive community organisations cannot effectively promote public lectures because they do not have a comprehensive online list of events to point people towards.

Thirdly, this lack of awareness ineveitably reduced turnout, making public lectures seem less attractive than might really be the case and discouraging presenters and organisers.

Ironically, the evidence is that there is a huge appetite for science learning in Nottingham . For example, a "Star Gazing Live" event attracted thousands to Wollaton Park on a cold, dark night to see the stars. In fact the event was so well attended that the outdoor stuff wasn't actually any fun, with queues 100metres long to have a look through the telescopes, although NSB did catch this cool talk at the event on the history of radio astronomy

It is NSB's view that the only difference between the huge turnout for Star Gazing Live and the small turnouts for university public lectures is the level and quality of publicity.

One final point regarding lists of forthcoming events is that universities sometimes have a "silo" mentality, with each department having its own list of events on a different page. This makes it hard for people who have an interest in more than one subject (which is hopefully most people) from keeping track of what is going on. NSB is certainly interested in attending events covering topics ranging from Economics to Energy Technology and from Politics to Physics – and if universities could only put all their future events in one place, it would make it easy to occasionally attend something a bit unusual.

Engagement with Universities
NSB's experience has been that universities sometimes respond very quickly and positively to requests for small actions (e.g. add a link on a university webpage)

But sometimes it can take multiple emails and calls over a period of years to get a relatively simple task done (e.g. have a central point for forthcoming events)

NSB believes very strongly that members of the public who take the time to engage with universities are a rare and precious resource, especially if they are young adults undertaking their first activity as active citizens. As such NSB believes they should be treated with respect and have their questions answered promptly and with a spirit of meeting their needs (if practical), not kicking their requests into the long grass.

What would the public want?
Imagine you are a member of the public who is keen on learning more about the topic of a public lecture. Or a blogger who wants to report on the key points of the talk. What kind of things would help you get the most out of a talk?

Minimum jargon !
Some subjects are relatively easy to explain to the general public – e.g. engineering, physics (strangely) whereas some are much harder and susceptible to the early onset of jargon – e.g. electronics, chemistry, biology. Perhaps a good rule of thumb is to pitch a talk so that a bright 16yr old could understand it. Another suggestion is that any terminolgy or acronym that is never heard outside of “work” should not be used without explanation. Adopting these approaches would have the added benefit of giving community organisations the confidence that they can bring teenagers to these events without the talks going over their heads.

To listen and not have to take notes!
Public lectures are almost always jam packed with fascinating information – but listeners often take notes frantically in case info will not be available afterwards.Why not put the slides online – and tell the audience you have done so at the beginning of the talk.

To find more information easily !
When the general public tries to look up references, they very often hit a pay-wall. One way around this is for universities to have information on their own websites (ideally with a note allowing bloggers and students to use the images themselves). CERN does this very well.

Improving engagement with communities
Based on NSB's experience as a volunteer in a number of organisations , the following are some useful points relating to building long term relationships with local communities.

i) Engagement and building relationships takes years.

ii) Getting to know, and work with, supportive stakeholders (bloggers, community workers, youth workers) is absolutely key. Universities should be prepared to make stuff happen, not just offer platitudes and invites to events.

iii)The enthusiasm for engagement with universities is generally not at the top of community organisations – but rather about half way down, at the coal face, with younger volunteers and youth workers.

iv)Key stakeholders can pass on supportive messages to thousands of people, with a greater authority than the academic institution has – particularly important for BME and economically disadvantaged communities.

v)Are academic institutions ever going to say to the local community “what lectures do YOU want us to hold” – and how will they ensure that the community – as opposed to “community leaders” make this decision? (e.g. some "hot topics" that may be of particular interest to local communities are antibiotic research funding and approaches, GM foods, energy policy etc)

A Closing Challenge
NSB closed the presentation with the following two challenges to the audience, which NSB would like to extend to you, dear reader…

Can you say, hand on heart, that your institutions have a central list of public lectures, that engaged members of the public are responded to and that copies of public lectures are available online?

If not, can you commit to trying to improve the situation at your institution?

Some of the above ground also covered, with panache, in this guest post by Adam Reuben at

Related Content
Rick Borchelt on Science Communication

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