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24/04/2014

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Persisting with engagement

Martin Coath recounts his experience

Martin Coath recounts his experience.

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I have been sharing my scientific proclivities, in public, since I was 13.  My early enthusiasm for science was ignited by space exploration, the rise of the microprocessor, and the promise of unlimited energy from artificial suns.  It has continued to be some part of my everyday work almost ever since; in industry and further education; in schools, prisons and drop-in centres for disabled people; at public events and evening classes; in engineering firms, and at the Workers’ Education Association. 

I didn’t apply for my first research job until 12 years ago.  It was immediately obvious that many academics, already adjusting to the increasing emphasis on undergraduate teaching, saw engagement with the wider public as a mere side-show.  

Of course researchers know that funding councils and big industries don’t print the money that funds them.  They also know that we live in an open, connected society.  So any attempt to ignore how the funding bodies get their money is, as described by Brian Cox at the British Science Association’s Science Communication Conference, ‘myopic’.

Not part of the contract

You cannot blame academics for being short sighted.  We have had decades of short-term contracts, the pellmell pursuit of scarce posts via a good publication record, and increasing pressure to secure funding is piled on to the demand for excellence in undergraduate teaching. And anyway, when I emailed a colleague recently to ask for someone to represent their research group at a university-sponsored public event,  he said one of his postdocs might be willing, but that it was ‘outside her job description’.

He is absolutely right – it is; the myopia is, by omission, part of the contract.

I am lucky to be working alongside senior colleagues who can see that there is value in my continuing outreach activities.  When the new Cognition Institute at Plymouth University came in to existence, I successfully applied for the first research fellowship at the university that incorporated an explicit public engagement remit.  For me, at least, it is inside my job description.  I regarded this as a small victory despite the short–term, part-time contract.

Seven years ago I was a Famelab finalist which led to my first invitation to speak at the Cheltenham Science Festival.  I had sailed too close to the wider public engagement community and, because I had no one to tie me to the mast, I was lured onto the rocks.

This opened my eyes to many more disparate routes through which academics can develop ideas and cooperate on projects: national competitions, open-mic events, citizen science, and many others.  If we are to reach the widest audience, it is essential that the projects we support are diverse and inventive. 

‘Pointless’

Not all academics will want to get involved in any of these, but I have been surprised by how sceptical, or dismissive, many are of their value.  This is particularly true of my regular support for science and maths in primary schools, which I have been told recently are ‘pointless’.  There is certainly a lot of work yet to be done.

Science needs to foster a joint enterprise with the society that funds it, and which benefits from its work. When I say this out loud I still tend to receive blank looks and awkward silences. This isn’t just about publicity for your research, getting your face in the media, building your CV, or meeting a grant deliverable.  

If you believe that democracy is strengthened when the people who vote understand the issues, then it is a matter of citizenship.  Only the research community can take responsibility for this, and as a result universities must commit to taking a leading role.

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Martin Coath
Martin Coath is a scientist, communicator, and musician. He works both as a freelance and at the Cognition Institute, PlymouthUniversity. He worked with Timandra Harkness on a project for the 2013 Edinburgh Festival called ‘BrainSex’
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