In the light of my recent activities, I thought I could dedicate this post to public engagement.
What is public engagement and why do we need it?
Before I came to study in Edinburgh, I had very little knowledge of public engagement and how great it can be. We did have events such as the “Long Night of Museums” (or, alternatively and maybe more interesting for me personally, a “Long night of Science”) back in Innsbruck, where you could get a glimpse into research currently ongoing at the university. There were also some occasional public lectures from my old University, e.g. during the Brain Awareness week. But there was never a strategic approach to increase the outreach of research.
Since I came here, I heard about amazing public engagement opportunities. Edinburgh Neuroscience in particular is doing a great deal to engage the public. There are specific workshops for schools (some of my fellow MSc Neuroscience course mates from last year just developed “get protected” to explain to school kids why hurting your head is different from hurting your arm), there are stands at the science festivals, and public talks.
But why is public engagement important? Wikipedia puts it that way:
The movement for public engagement in science and technology grows out of a paradox: the steadily increasing number of ways citizens can learn about science has not always been matched by any increased level of scientific knowledge or sophistication among the citizenry.
…meaning – reports of science are all around us (online, in newspapers, etc.), but the understanding of scientific concepts is not necessarily high in the general public. In order to involve the public with scientific decision making, for example on ethics (as recently discussed in one of my eusci magazine articles), there has to be an understanding of the (scientific) pros and cons. Scientific news are often “mispublished” by newspapers, and further confuse the public. There is a great initiative + blog called Research the Headlines, encouraging people (and pupils, as there is also a workshop for schools) to think beyond what catchy newspaper articles claim we researchers have done. Overall, I think that we as scientists have some obligation to enlighten the public with what is going on behind closed lab doors – plus, we might get some more young, enthusiastic people interested in research!
Edinburgh – the city of (science) festivals
Edinburgh is the city of the Festivals: there is – probably the most famous of all – Fringe festival, the Edinburgh International Film festival, the Edinburgh International Science festival, and a very recent addition – the Pint of Science festival.
Pint of Science was founded by postgraduates and postdocs in London in 2012, and has spread to 104 other cities since then. It is aimed at delivering science talks in a fun and approachable way – in the pub. As most of you know, I was part of the Edinburgh Beautiful Mind team. I have to admit, I was never as tired as on these three days last week (PhD student+experiments by day, event manager by night…), but it was so much fun!
All of our three events were sold out (very happy), and the audience was amazing. Each event had an overarching topic, with two local researchers explaining what their groups are currently working on, including an option for the audience to ask questions. Between talks, we had activities such as pub quizzes, memory games or prosthetic hand demonstrations. Me and my colleagues prepared some questions for the Q&A in case people are shy (everyone knows the awkward silence after academic talks…), but we were completely amazed by how many questions people asked (really good questions, too)!
Overall, the events were a big success and I am very glad I took part in organising them.
Obviously, apart from engaging the public, I am still spending a lot of time in the lab. Soon, I will be able to start some of the key experiments to my project – I am very excited about the outcome of these 🙂 I might even have enough data for a small paper by the end of this summer, so fingers crossed.
After all the public engagement and lab time, there is still time for enjoying the sun left so don’t panic when you’re about to start a PhD. Time management is a key skill and once you get the hang of it, you’ll still be able to enjoy some spare time (although, the “PhD guilt” might still linger at the back of your mind… working on that though…).