Nearly 69 per cent of science and arts festivals rely on unpaid student volunteers, according to new research for the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE). The statistic has raised concerns that students are being exploited.
‘Volunteering at festivals is similar to internships insofar as students are doing it for experience and they don’t get paid,’ Mićo Tatalović, a science writer who previously volunteered at the Cambridge Science Festival, UK, and Rijeka Science Festival, Croatia, told People & Science.
‘If you’re a science student, and you go to a science festival and you present your lab’s work, that’s just outreach and something you should do. But if you volunteer as a science student at a science festival and you’re not presenting your own work, then you’re just free labour,’ Tatalović continued.
He thinks there is a danger of exploitation, ‘especially if there is no skill-building aspect and all you end up doing is directing people around the festival,’ he said.
Skills and training
Eric Jensen (University of Warwick) and Nicola Buckley (University of Cambridge) carried out the research. They surveyed festival organizers and student volunteers to explore the students’ role in festival-based public engagement, for both arts and science festivals. They recommend that festival organizers should be offering high-quality training.
‘Volunteers are not free,’ Jensen told People & Science. ‘It requires a lot of resource investment to make sure that volunteers have a good experience, get something out of it and are most effective in their engagement with the public.’
On the job or formal training
Jamie Darwen leads the vinspired students project at the NCCPE to encourage student participation in public engagement activities. The project part-funded the report. He warns that formal training isn’t always the answer: ‘We’ve found a lot of people say that actually, the only real training you can get for this sort of role, engaging with different people and diverse people, is to do it on the job anyway – so training is not a substitute for supportive volunteer management,’ he said.
The British Science Association already offers training and some payment to its eighty-odd Science Festival assistants. Joanne Coleman, manager of the festival, explained, ‘We do [run] a one-day training course. [During the festival] we expect people to work quite long hours and quite hard. We thought that to get people being more reliable we would offer payment or bed and board.’
Delegates at this year’s World Conference of Science Journalists heard alarming reports about government interference in science journalism in the developing world.
Obstruction in China
In China, Richard Stone, Asia correspondent for Science, told People & Science that his experience is typical: ‘[Scientists] in Yunnan Province's health department declined to meet with me or be interviewed for the story. Yunnan's government did not want them to interact with a foreign reporter, I was told. This refusal stood even after the Ministry of Health in Beijing explicitly asked Yunnan's health department to cooperate with me.’
Dissuasion in Egypt
In Egypt, local science journalists have difficulties in gaining comment from scientists. Mohammed Yahia, editor of Nature Middle East, said: ‘A report came out to say there were 500,000 new infections of hepatitis C in Egypt every year. When I started talking to scientists at the National Institute of Hepatology and Tropical Medicine, they refused repeatedly to discuss this as a "sensitive" issue with me and said only the director can talk about that. When we were doing a story on waste disposal in hospitals we were asked for written authorisation from the Ministry of Health to conduct interviews.’
Alaa Ibrahim has been on leave from his job at the publicly-funded Cairo University since 2007 to take up a role as an assistant professor of physics at the privately-funded American University in Cairo. ‘Nobody would be bothered if someone talked only about their research,’ he explained. ‘Most of the tension would be around political comments. [But] if [a scientist] criticized the policy of the institution there would be sanctions.’ These could be an official hearing or less favourable treatment.
Yahia agrees, but adds: ‘I expect science coverage in Egypt post-revolution will have political implications, because of issues such as water supply and food security.’
Sanctions in Madagascar
Rivonala Razafison is a science writer in Madagascar, the third most vulnerable country in the world to the effects of climate change, according to global risks advisory firm Maplecroft. He says several projects designed to help may actually result in maladaption in the long term but scientists might be dismissed or disciplined for critical comments. ‘I experienced that last year after I published a story reporting a locust swarm attack. One of my interlocutors was threatened by his superior. He has refused to speak with me since,’ said Razafison.
‘Hearings of critical journalists at police stations are frequent. The entire outlet for which the journalist works is also sanctioned. This might be a formal notice letter, fines or even being closed down,’ he said.
Research Councils UK (RCUK) has released a new film to encourage public engagement. Dr Kerry Leslie, Head of Public Engagement with Research told People & Science: ‘The film shows how important it is to allow people to question and discuss the discoveries shaping our lives, and to help inform the future direction of research.’ www.rcuk.ac.uk/media/Pages/films.aspx 
The public’s views on a variety of nuclear plant design aspects are being sought via an online questionnaire. ‘We’re looking at the disparity between expert and lay perceptions of risk,’ PhD student Martin Goodfellow told People & Science. ‘Our results will be used to inform the design and build of new nuclear plants.’ http://tinyurl.com/68vaa8w 
Knowledge about the causes and prevention of swine flu (H1N1) are low in the general public, particularly among men, research in Scotland has found. Dr Lynn Williams (University of Strathclyde) and colleagues asked 235 participants to name typical symptoms, ways to prevent the spread of swine flu and the causes of swine flu.
Young people will from over 100 schools and youth groups will choose the winner of the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize. Adult educationalists and scientists have chosen a shortlist of six and the winner will be announced toward the end of the year. http://tinyurl.com/6ypeo4k 
Make it worth their while! Swedish association VA (Public and Science) has advised the Swedish Ministry of Education and Research to reward researchers’ public engagement and external collaborations. In a new report, they say research funding to universities should take these into account. http://tinyurl.com/3vetmou 
Using the kickstarter.com funding platform for creative projects, Jennifer Gee and Jennifer Calkins of the Robert J. Bernard Biological Field Station in California, raised $4873 (about £3000) from 55 members of the public for research into the Elegant Quail, Callipepla douglasii. Investors receive a full-color book. http://tinyurl.com/3mwdtxm 
Following loss of funding from the European Commission, the science video channel AthenaWeb has gone offline. In a vale to supporters, manager Kathleen Van Damme wrote: ‘For users, journalists, producers, documentary makers, scientific explainers, students and science fans it was a reference site … providing precise facts on all aspects of European research.’
The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has invited written submissions to a new inquiry into the role and function of government departments’ Chief Scientific Advisers (CSAs). They want a clearer understanding of CSAs’ ability to provide independent advice. The deadline is Friday 16 September. http://tinyurl.com/3hf345a  See STEM In Parliament .
The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement will be hosting its second National conference from 29-30 November 2011, in Bristol. Bookings for Engage 2011 will open on 1 September. Themes include `Making an impact with your research’ and `Creating an engagement culture’ , ‘Effective partnerships’ and ‘Engagineg students’. http://tinyurl.com/4ycvjcq