Taking Science To The Public: The Addiction Continues



“Discussing science with the public - what would I say or do?” – is a wary but quite understandable reaction from many academics. These personal encounters are critical to spreading the messages that science is important, science is fun and that science research is still needed. The key challenge that academics face is to overcome our natural hesitancy and have a go. We now have a team of 15 or so researchers (known as the DNA detectives) eager to talk about DNA to the public – what it is, how information is stored and how to get it out of living organisms to have a look at. The lessons that I learnt from our experiences are that public engagement is possible and it can also be fun and informative for all concerned.

But what are the secrets of a successful experience? I recommend the following:

• Go as a team. For hands-on activities it is more effective to work as a team.

• Harness enthusiasm. You need to start it going, but hopefully the team will sustain this.

• Obtain funding. Relatively small amounts will help if you want a display or hands-on activity. We started with some money associated with a research grant from the Medical Research Council, followed by funding from the University of Sussex. For 2015 we applied for and were awarded a grant from the Biochemical Society.

• Organization. Offer your services to an existing Science Event - they know their audience and have event management experience. Try our local STEM network – you can become a stem ambassador and access advice, pre-designed activities and insurance. Plan your content several months in advance with your team. Expensive research equipment will be of little use to you - don’t even rely on having wi-fi available on the day. I suggest identifying between one and three key concepts that you want to get across and then get inventive, Blue Peter style. Test your ideas and get feedback from nearby non-scientists. Finally, hold a final planning meeting at least a week in advance and have detailed lists of responsibilities and a time schedule finalized.

• Be flexible. After all this detailed planning you will need to be prepared to be flexible on the day, things will go off-schedule and you will have to adapt as you go. If possible have one team member available as a runner to deal with the unexpected glitches. After the event discuss the feedback with your team, plan any changes for the next time you run it and book in for the following year – once you have experienced public engagement activities you will want more!

DNA detectives will be presenting at the BigBang South East Festival on 30th June 2015.


Professor Alison Sinclair's profile page

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