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29/12/2014

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Shorts: December 2009

Engaging engagement

Professional scientists are now much more likely to see public engagement as a key component of their role, and to appreciate the contribution of the public to dialogue. However, they are wary of simplistic ways of encouraging and measuring public engagement activities, according to the final report of the three-year Scientists on Public Engagement (ScoPE) project.

Professional scientists are now much more likely to see public engagement as a key component of their role, and to appreciate the contribution of the public to dialogue. However, they are wary of simplistic ways of encouraging and measuring public engagement activities, according to the final report of the three-year Scientists on Public Engagement (ScoPE) project.

The research was conducted by Professor Sarah Franklin, Dr. Kevin Burchell and Kerry Holden from the BIOS Centre for the Study of Bioscience, Biomedicine, Biotechnology and Society at the London School of Economics. Professor Franklin told People and Science: `No-one had done this kind of research into scientists' own attitudes to public engagement before.' She continued, `We conducted and analysed 30 semi-structured interviews with biological scientists and found they were very enthusiastic.'

Four wheels good

Dr Burchell says that Professor John Burn of the Institute of Human Genetics at the University of Newcastle memorably summed up the interviewees' attitudes. He told the interviewers:`Sometimes we have had discussions about whether it is more important to be a good communicator, or a good scientist, or a good clinician, and I just felt like saying, well, which of the four wheels on your car is the most important one?'

New emphases

The researchers also detected a new appreciation among the professional scientists for the role of the public and of their ability to grasp the science. Dr. Jolanta Opacka-Juffry from the School of Human and Life Sciences at Roehampton University, for instance, is quoted as saying: `Well, the public [sees] the bigger landscape... The research community very often sees the details very sharply, [but] forgets about the landscape... That's why public input is needed.'

Encouraging and measuring

The report does, however, flag up scientists' concern that their autonomous, voluntary engagement, could yet be compromised by bureaucracy. Asked about ways of encouraging participation in public engagement activities Dr. Chris Boyd of the Human Genetics Section at the University of Edinburgh, told the report writers: `I can see the attraction... but what I would find difficult about it is how would you measure it... [As] soon as you make it a compulsion... you get the problem of people meeting their targets but not necessarily engaging with it... there should be encouragement for people to engage, but... I'm not sure whether it should be a part of their professional assessment.'

The ScoPE project was funded by the Wellcome Trust.

New Darwin Centre At The Natural History Museum

The second phase of the Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum (NHM) inLondonhas opened for business.  The £78 million project includes a stunning new `Cocoon' – a 65 metre long, eight storey concrete building, housing millions of insect and plant specimens, alongside 200 of the museum's scientists.

Intertwining functions

The second phase of the Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum (NHM) inLondonhas opened for business.  The £78 million project includes a stunning new `Cocoon' – a 65 metre long, eight storey concrete building, housing millions of insect and plant specimens, alongside 200 of the museum's scientists.

Intertwining functions

Professor Richard Lane, Director of Science at the NHM told People and Science, `The centre has three functions.  One is to house the national research collections in the best possible conditions.  The second is to give a really good research environment for doing the kind of science that we need in the 21st century, and the third thing is to enhance the public engagement activities of the museum.  Those three are intertwined.'

Engaging directly

He continued: `What's really exciting is the way in which the public get engaged with the actual process of how science is done. As the public journey through the Cocoon they pass through a number of display areas with interactives about this.  They can also look from these spaces into the collection and all the research labs and talk to some of our scientists as they prepare specimens for the collection.'

When People and Science visited, the centre was very effectively engaging the visiting public with how science is done.  Interactive displays featuring four `scientist guides' who work at the museum explained how research papers are considered by journals for publication, how scientists plan field trips to collect specimens and how they identify species of mosquito and work to eradicate malaria, for example.  It was also possible to see from the public spaces into the museum's collection and to talk to scientists preparing specimens for storage and research. 

Scientist guides

One of these scientists is Max Barclay, beetle curator and a scientist guide at the museum. `[When working in the preparation area] a lot of people ask you what you're doing and why you're doing it,’ he said. ‘That's the bread and butter of it.  But occasionally you get some kid who's really, really keen and wants to know how to become an entomologist.  You can see yourself twenty or thirty years ago and that's exciting because we need to think about where the next generation of scientists is going to come from.'

Feedback

Lane isn't fazed by one grown-up visitor's online comments that the centre was hard to engage with and not a great exhibit for children.  He responded:  `There are other parts of the museum for very young children. In the Darwin Centre we're particularly interested in connecting with children who are beginning to ask lots more questions, maybe about to go to secondary school, because that's the time they tend to lose interest in science.'  Max Barclay confirmed this:  `For me the most important things are creating scientifically literate citizens and inspiring the next generation of scientists.  I hope we're doing a good job of that.' 

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Dr Joanna Carpenter
Dr Joanna Carpenter is the Shorts Editor
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