Written by Dr Jess Wade, Manchester Masterclass attendee

Since 1831 the British Science Association have championed a world where science is at the heart of society and culture. Their work celebrates and supports scientists at every stage of their careers; from the young CREST Award applicant to the distinguished professors commenting on scientific policy. The international demand for open-access academic journals and mentions of ‘public engagement’ creeping into fellowship applications have led to ever increasing numbers of scientists and researchers taking part in “science communication” activities, of which the UK are considered world leaders.

Despite this, very few receive (23 %) formal training(1), and there are few dedicated Masters courses, which can be prohibitively expensive for a community where volunteers play such a big role. And what about practising scientists who want to enhance their engagement skills alongside a busy research grant or teaching schedule, how do the British Science Association support them? A carefully constructed one-day Masterclass, covering everything from the history of science engagement to designing, planning and evaluating activities.

I was lucky enough to bag a ticket to the inaugural Masterclass in the People’s History Museum in Manchester in June this year, with a timetable full of impressive speakers and interactive activities. Science communication is an addictive hobby: talking confidently about your work leaves you feeling a mix of both proud and confident, ready to take on another week in the lab. We were given a brief reality check by the University of Manchester’s Dr Jane Gregory, who used familiar paintings and popular science books from the 1700s to show we were by no means the first to involve the public in science.

Dr Gregory could read her eager audience like a book: we think we’re misunderstood by a public who don’t care. In 1829 Ada Lovelace’s husband Charles Babbage was the first to comment on the “decline of science”, whilst in 2015 Brian Cox said Britain faced an “urgent scientific illiteracy problem”- and we’ve been blaming the public at every stage in between. I’m always transfixed by people as knowledgeable as Gregory; who can separate science communicators into those who champion using science for making and curiosity, those who recognise its cultural and democratic significance and those just out for publicity and PR.

As Dr Gregory guided us to the image of Science Communicators in 2016, a dynamic panel of seasoned experts, citizen science legends and STEAM ambassadors took to the stage to discuss unconventional media. The BSA recognise that new technology, the immediacy of social-media driven peer-review and the rise of interdisciplinary research offer exciting opportunities and ways to connect. The day included ample opportunity to network (science communication is about as incestuous as the Sims circa 1996), share ideas for future collaborations and even time to formulate your science narrative with story-telling enthusiast Dr Sam Illingworth.

Popular with audience members who have grant deadlines and proposals to finalise, we were guided through thorough, effective evaluation methods and techniques to calculate ‘impact’ by the Manchester Beacon Network’s Suzanne Spicer. This being the inaugural masterclass held in the home of UK’s popular science superstar Graphene (only joking, Brian Cox ;)), and with the BSA being the BSA, meant we all had pretty high hopes for the plenary speaker. Fresh from his recent BBC2 series, City in the Sky, Dallas Campbell discussed his journey from amateur enthusiast to professional science communicator. Campbell is one of the best science communicators in our country- and it turns out he’s a drama graduate.

So Was it worth it? 20-minutes into the train journey back to London I’d already booked my ticket at the next masterclass. And who should be interested? Honestly, science communicators at every level. I arrived exhausted and feeling like I “knew it all” when it came to effective science communication- I left energised and realising how much I had to learn. The diverse timetable of talks meant you were never bored and the dynamic workshops meant conversation never ran dry.

The history lesson for the London Masterclass is delivered by Imperial’s programme director, Dr Stephen Webster. For context, being founded in the ‘90s, Imperial’s Science Communication MSc is considered the ‘grandfather’ of science communication. This makes Dr Webster’s talk one of the hottest tickets in town. An afternoon of storytelling, narratives and evaluations will conclude with everyone’s favourite bubble blower Dr Helen Czerski talking about taking research out of laboratories and on to the big screen.

Have you booked your spot on 21 October yet?

By Dr Jess Wade