Guest piece by Dr Oli Williams, University of Leicester

In 2018, Oli Williams was awarded the Margaret Mead Award Lecture for Social Sciences. His lecture, ‘The Weight of Expectation’, challenged some of society's fundamental - and unhelpful - assumptions about obesity. Here, he reflects on his time as an Award Lecture winner.

Oli delivering his Award Lecture at the 2018 British Science Festival

Just getting nominated for one of the Award Lectures was a good feeling. I was nominated by Professor Ellen Annandale who had been one of the Award Lecturers in the 1990s and is someone who I greatly admire. To know that she felt my work was worthy of this award and that she was willing to take the time to nominate me was both gratifying and humbling. I can’t help but be impressed by Ellen’s career as a social scientist, so starting 2018 with news from the British Science Association (BSA) that I was to emulate her achievement as an Award Lecturer was a special moment. Being chosen to deliver the Margaret Mead Award Lecture for Social Sciences at the British Science Festival in Hull was beyond exciting. I read the e-mail whilst sitting in silence at the University of Leicester’s David Wilson Library and it took all my powers of restraint not to disturb the peace. I was blown away. What an opportunity.

Although all universities will make positive noises about the value of engaging the public with the research done by their staff these official statements often disguise a difficult reality. Most often, ensuring that what we learn from research is available and accessible to those outside of universities - who may be interested in or inspired by it - relies on the motivation, time and effort of individual researchers who are under increasing pressure to focus on other (more inward facing) things like writing papers to be published in journals that are not publicly accessible. This means public engagement activities tend to be under-valued within academic institutions and therefore become labours of love for those who appreciate the importance of getting the knowledge gleaned from research ‘out there’ and the impact this can have.

This is one of the many reasons why it was so energising to become an Award Lecturer and to be a part of the British Science Festival. It offered some validation for the hard, and often under-valued, work that goes into taking research beyond the ‘cloistered walls of the university and laboratory’ - as Margaret Mead once put it. But more importantly, it gave me an opportunity to share my research about how stigma associated with bodyweight and size gets under the skin and is felt in the flesh. This is so important because currently we have a culture that promotes this stigma and my research shows how this is both harmful and unhelpful and why it needs to change.

Oli's lecture focused on weight-based stigma and its unhelpfulness

Working with the incredible BSA team to help hone my contribution to their amazing Festival programme was an enjoyable and enlivening challenge. The team were so supportive before and during the Festival and even afterwards they have continued to promote my research and the work that I do. During the Festival, the BSA Chief Executive Katherine Mathieson said to me: ‘you’re part of the family now, there’s no getting away!’ and it genuinely does feel like that. One of the most heartening parts of the whole experience was meeting the other Award Lecturers and forming what I am sure will be lasting friendships. I feel very fortunate to have become part of this multi-disciplinary family unit.

I have got used to having to explain to others working at universities why I make time to do public engagement. No such explanation is needed when you work with the BSA. They exist to make science part of everyday life. They get it. And what’s more they really value it and by extension, value those who do it. Here is an organisation that appreciates what science can bring to society and whose staff do all they can to support people to communicate science in a way that allows us all to better understand the world we live in. I am passionate about what I do and ensuring that my research supports positive change in society. That is why I felt exactly where I ought to be when I was delivering my Award Lecture and why I am incredibly grateful for having been given this opportunity.