The Olympics are a public engagement tool for scientists, says Joanna Carpenter.
The poster on the bus said ‘Tilt at 46 degrees, you’re a hero. Tilt at 47, it’s game over.’ I’m sitting in the historic Faraday lecture theatre at the Royal Institution in London, riveted by the guy from the poster – British wheelchair basketball squad member Tyler Saunders – demonstrating the difference.
As Tyler sprawls on the floor after overtilting his chair in pursuit of the ball, coach Colin Price, himself an Olympic silver medal winner, explains: ‘If you fall out of your wheelchair, you’re lying on the floor and people are playing basketball around you. You don’t wait - you’ve got to get back into the game.’ Two seconds later, Tyler has righted himself and is ready to shoot ball again .
‘I’ve always thought that because sport has a got a fairly ubiquitous appeal you can use it as a fantastic hook to talk about physics and engineering and technology,’ David James, senior lecturer at the Centre for Sports Engineering Research at Sheffield Hallam University, tells me later. James is taking part in the Cutting Edge 2012  series of sports and science events organised and funded by Research Councils UK (RCUK) with a range of partners.
In the run-up to the Olympics, there’s a wealth of initiatives making use of sport to promote a range of sciences, including sports science and others. The Wellcome Trust , The Royal Society , the Royal Institution, the Scottish Government , the Institute of Physics , the Physiological Society , the Royal Society of Chemistry , and GlaxoSmithKline  are just some of the big names putting money into programmes to build public engagement with science through sport.
Doping and analytical chemistry
Mark Gadd helped organise the Olympics- and Paralympics–inspired Scientists in Sport programme. Participating school students attend university open days, test samples for banned drugs and debate ethical issues around doping. The programme aims to inspire school children to study science beyond school and to consider a career in science. Gadd is confident it’s effective, despite it not being possible to measure an impact on university applications. ‘We do collect and evaluate feedback from all events, and also run simple visual evaluations to measure attitude changes. For example, students hold up a red cross or green tick in response to a question such as "Have you ever considered a science career?" and we take a photo; the question is repeated at the end of the day. The shift from red to green is usually pretty impressive!’ he told me.
In addition to evaluations of the events themselves, a key output will be the audience poll results. James will present a report on the public’s views on sports technology to the Research Councils, to feed into their decisions about research funding. ‘I want to understand why some technologies are good, and they’re permitted, and other technologies are bad, and they’re taken away. Why is doping actually so bad? What are the issues here?’ he asks.
Price was surprised at the results of an audience poll around the use of novel technologies in sports equipment: ‘People [said they] wanted parity for everybody [in competitions]… I think the problem with that is that there wouldn’t be much innovation,’ he tells me.
‘Over the last thirty years, wheelchairs have developed more than they had over the previous fifty,’ he says.
With older wheelchairs, Price explains, if you fell over you would likely smash your head and/or be stranded on the floor until a team-mate helped you up. Innovation in wheelchair design is what helped Tyler to right himself. And that certainly grabbed my attention.
See also the Spat  on technology in sport.