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20/04/2014

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From cynicism to participation

Rachel Brazil follows the outward-facing researcher

Some young researchers still have the idea that, early in your career, the thing to do is ‘keep your head down’, don’t leave the bench and focus in on your discipline. The Crucible programme’s mission is to create ‘the outward-facing researcher’: one who knows what’s going on in the lab downstairs, collaborating with colleagues in other departments and talking about their work to the media, the public and anyone who will listen!

More people are realising that the old ‘heads-down’ attitude isn’t the path to success. A recent article in Nature’s careers section1 argues that to succeed in academia now, young scientists need to become less passive, be it through seeking their own collaborations, getting involved in science policy issues or engaging with the public.

Intensive residentials

To this end, the Crucible programme was re-launched in 2007. It takes 30 early-career academics, across science and social science (plus a few from industry) and puts them through three, intensive two-day residentials (‘labs’) with the opportunity to bid for small grants for collaborative projects at the end.

The labs are designed to introduce new ways of thinking, in the hope of creating long-term changes in attitude and working practice. One of the central focuses is engagement with the public, media and policy makers and how these activities can enhance a researcher’s career. During the programme we invite journalists, politicians, policy-makers and other communication experts. We also invite a range of organisations, including the British Science Association, to provide context.

Hostility

The researchers’ first response is often quite hostile: our programme evaluators have coined the term ‘informed cynicism’ to describe how participants often feel. Generally our researchers support the rationale for public engagement but, when presented with the worlds of media and politics, they often feel that these present risks and compromises that they would rather not take.

As the programme organiser, having worked in media and policy-savvy organisation for the last decade, I was initially surprised at how naive researchers are about these worlds. The deadlines that journalists work to, and the pressure and competition to find stories, usually surprise them. The danger of being misreported or becoming the centre of a media storm can seem too much of a risk.

In the world of policy, researchers are unaware of how policy is made and the sorts of mechanisms that do exist for getting their messages to policy makers. They find it uncomfortable that policy decisions are often not made on evidence alone – or evidence at all! There is also cynicism around government motivations for supporting public engagement.  I recall a speaker from Sciencewise being given a particularly hard time. 

Environment is all

However, the cynicism doesn’t last. We’ve found that, despite initial negative reactions, having the warts and all knowledge of how things work does encourage participants to reflect and engage. The group actually felt strongly enough about public engagement that they submitted their own group response to the 2009 Science and Society consultation.

Ultimately the Crucible programme has been successful in creating more ‘outwardly-facing’ researchers. As well as the collaborative research projects it has spawned, Crucible has encouraged participants in a wide variety of engagement activities, from shadowing their MP and being seconded to the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology to leading climate change educational projects in schools and writing a popular philosophy of science radio series.

The take-home message from our programme for those promoting public engagement is that we are still far from public engagement being seen as a core activity for researchers but, given a supportive peer-group and empowering environment, researchers are eager to engage. It’s for those of us who support researchers through policy and practice to create these environments. 

1 Peter Fiske, Nature vol 464, 312

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Rachel Brazil
Rachel Brazil heads the Crucible programme at the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA). NESTA is at present creating an online do-it-yourself Crucible kit (including videos, podcasts and full session descriptions). Anyone interested in using the resources should get in contact
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