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19/04/2014

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A personal perspective on public engagement

The Useful Science Initiative is holding its inaugural meeting in Oxford on 9 December, 2013.  The brainchild of Jeannie Scott, it will help natural hazards scientists to rewrite their research in formats that non-expert stakeholders can understand and make use of.  Here, Jeannie explains how she became involved in public engagement.

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The Useful Science Initiative is holding its inaugural meeting in Oxford on 9 December, 2013.  The brainchild of Jeannie Scott, it will help natural hazards scientists to rewrite their research in formats that non-expert stakeholders can understand and make use of.  Here, Jeannie explains how she became involved in public engagement.

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I thought public engagement would be exciting, challenging, and rewarding; I didn’t realise it would have such a profound impact on my career.

I started my PhD at Oxford nearly five years ago, analysing rocks from one of the world’s most active volcanoes (Santiaguito, Guatemala) to learn more about its behaviour. Public engagement was not required, expected, or recommended; I was advised to focus only on my research, and avoid extracurricular or teaching obligations.

Wanted to inspire

I had been looking forward to outreach work. I wanted to go into schools and give the kind of lessons I wish I’d had; I wanted to inspire kids who, like me, thought they could never get to university; and I wanted to talk about science with people who question it – something I’ve been doing since my first days as an Open University undergrad. So, without telling my colleagues, I registered as a STEM Ambassador.

It took a while to get placements, because my local schools weren’t asking for Earth scientists; I had to email teachers directly, offering my services. But once I started public engagement, it was hard to stop.

Disaster Zone

I loved the creativity of it, the interaction, and having to think on my feet. I wanted to do more, so I created ‘Disaster Zone’ .This began as a small science fair stall about natural hazards, but grew over the years to include activities, posters, and puzzles.

I posted the entire resource online earlier this year; Disaster Zone is now being used by teachers, scientists, and hazard management teams across the Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia, and Europe.

Communicating my own research

As my PhD wound down, I became increasingly frustrated. My papers were published, but only a handful of experts could understand these highly technical articles – not the pupils I’d taught, or the families I met at science fairs, and not even the hundreds of thousands of people who live and work around the volcano in question. So, I wrote two ‘popular science’ versions of my thesis, a booklet and a poster.

I published them online in March, and spent weeks emailing the details to as many people and organisations as I could. This was an unconventional and difficult decision – I’ve had to work part time to fund it, so my research career is on hold. But the responses I’ve had, from all over the world, have been fantastic. I honestly believe it’s the best and most important thing I’ve ever done.

Accessible research

My public engagement experiences have changed my plans. I’ve decided to keep working part time so that I can write more popular versions of scientific papers; I’ll gauge the impact they have among non-academics, and find out what formats work best (booklet, poster, bullet points, or whatever). I hope this project will encourage other scientists to make their research accessible to non-experts. 

Priorities have changed since I started my PhD; my former department certainly places a greater emphasis on public engagement today. I believe this is a change for the better. I have seen parents use a quiz that I wrote to keep their kids occupied, had pupils give up their break to ask me more questions about volcanoes, and had emails from people in Guatemala, Colombia, Turkey, India, Kenya, Italy, Canada, and more, telling me how useful or entertaining my work is.

Even if we’re too cynical to say it out loud, many of us become scientists because we want to make a difference. By combining my research with public engagement, I have the immense satisfaction of knowing I have done just that.

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Jeannie Scott
Jeannie Scott currently works at the School of Geography & the Environment, University of Oxford as a receptionist and unofficial researcher
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