Thursday, 28 November 2013

STFC Public Engagement Synposium

On Monday I attended the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Public Engagement Symposium at the University of Birmingham. It was an interesting and varied day, with some really good speakers and a lot of opportunity to speak to other attendees.

The Chairman of the STFC Council, Professor Sir Michael Sterling, set the scene by inspiring us that public engagement is "Good for you, good for your science and good for your career".

We then had a great presentation from Andrew Cohen, the head of science for BBC TV. He stressed the point of knowing your audience, exemplified by the different channels. BBC Four viewers will be actively seeking new knowledge, and are therefore much easier to write for. The challenge is taking people "across the divide" and programmes must be Important, Relevant and Entertaining. There were many clips of great scientific communication, from the "Science of Dr. Who" to Horizon. Our take home tips were to:

  • Position the story correctly (BBC4 or BBC1?)
  • Aim beyond the scientifically literate
  • Support your fellow scientists who engage
  • Watch the new film Gravity! (Apparently a great example of science in the public!)

The discussion afterwards brought to our attention another few great communication activities: Drunk Histories and Museum of Me

The second session introduced us to a varied panel, who each gave an introductory presentation before taking questions and leading a panel discussion. 

Dr. Robin Clegg, head of public engagement at STFC, directed us to the strategic plan we were given in our packs, along with showing us a number of other training and development opportunities. 

Dr. Penny Fidler, CEO of the UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres (@sciencecentres), reminded us that there is no need to 'go it alone' as there are many resources available, including the "Explore your Universe" project. She stressed the need for hands-on science, with their centres aiming to get people Intrigued, Inspired and Involved with the sciences. 
Bridget Holligan, of Science Oxford (@scienceoxford), gave us advice on communicating with 8-13 year-olds. We were advised to assume zero knowledge, but infinite intelligence - something I feel is very appropriate having taken some amazing questions at school events in the past!

The last panel member, Dr. Helen Featherstone (@HFeatherstone), began by playing "public engagement or not?": a game involving knitted neurons (see right!) which was a great way of making sure we were all clear of how much of a two way process public engagement needs to be. 

The discussion that followed was quite lively, and brought up how much children's career choices are based on their parents, and so how important it is to get the whole family involved. Before lunch, there was a quick Soapbox session, allowing people to bring everyone's attention to a specific project or activity that they could talk to them about later in the day. These varied from Open University practical labs to advice on how write a TV programme pitch. 

Over lunch, there were stands around the room representing a range of groups. I found it very interesting to talk to the Institute of Physics about their beer mat project: #cheersphysics - getting science into pubs (left). 

The afternoon began with Professor Iain Stewart (@ProfIainStewart) introducing the idea that risk is made up of both hazard and outrage. He encouraged experts to not only talk better, but also listen better: find out why people are outraged and what neighbourhood groups want to know. 

We then broke off into workshop sessions. My first workshop was on "Reaching the Hard to Reach" with Dr. Lucy Yeomans. We spoke about who we meant by the hard to reach, and looked at a number of case studies before drafting our own project ideas and discussing them with the group. Her advice was to be creative with how you engage, whilst not underestimating your audience. 

My second workshop was on Citizen Science, with Dr. Rob Simpson (@orbitingfrog) from zooniverse. I found this really interesting, as I really didn't know anything about citizen science beforehand. There are a huge range of projects going on, with the public helping a great deal in scientific advancements. We were encouraged to think of our own projects, remembering not to waste people's time! the projects should be doing real science and machines should not be able to do it. 

The final session began with Dr. Ceri Brenner telling us how we can bring our research into reality: her tips were to remember why we started doing science and to have a dinner party pitch ready with a good analogy. She also mentioned the idea of skype visits - which I thought was a great idea for bringing people into the lab if it's not physically possible. 

The day finished with a really great discussion. We were all encouraged to ask what would make public engagement easier: our group thought our main constraint was time, and discussed the possibility of ring-fenced time for this purpose. As I am on a doctoral training centre, which has a compulsory public engagement course and mini-project. I loved these opportunities and would have liked this time continued through my PhD. However, we also acknowledged that it's not for everyone, and so maybe optional courses should be made available. One thing the whole audience agreed on was that public engagement activities should be given tangible values, so that time spent on activities was rewarded. 

Overall it was a really good day! I learnt a lot and can't wait to implement some new ideas. Thanks STFC!

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

EPSRC launch event

Last Friday I was given the opportunity to speak the EPSRC event announcing the next round of Doctoral Training Centres to be given funding by the EPSRC. A list of the 72 successful centres and the EPSRC press release from the event can be found here. The event was held in the BT tower and was attended by a number of representatives from the different universities and some members of the press. 

There were 4 speakers (including myself), each giving a 5 minute presentation, followed by a discussion with the floor. I was asked to talk about my research, where I fitted into my DTC, what the difference between a DTC and a normal PhD course is and my aspirations for the future. After the discussion, I was interviewed by a journalist from the Times Higher Education supplement and the EPSRC video media team. A part of my video interview is on the online press conference part of the EPSRC link I mentioned earlier - I'm sharing a video summary with David Willetts MP! 

Thanks again to the EPSRC for inviting me, it was a great event and I hope my presentation made the audience realise the added benefits you can get as a student by being on a DTC! 

EPSRC Chair, Dr Paul Golby

Senior BT Host, Research MD Tim Whitley

Me, giving the student perspective
David Willetts MP (Minister for Universities and Science) 

 The speakers with David Delpy (EPSRC) answering questions from the audience

Monday, 11 November 2013

Professional Development Policy Workshop for Chemical Scientists

On Friday I went to a workshop organised by the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) and sponsored and hosted by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC). The purpose of the workshop was to
" Bring together policy makers and researchers in the early stage of their careers to engage in discussion and debate and think longer term about career paths and goals. "
and I definitely think it did what it was supposed to!

The day was broken down into three sessions: two panel discussion and an activity.

Before the discussion sessions began, we had an introductory presentation from James Hutchinson of the RSC which gave us some background information about how the policy process works and at what stages chemists may be involved. We were also given a copy of the RSC Science Policy Writing course which looks amazingly helpful - I'll definitely be reading it more thoroughly soon.

The first panel discussion featured three scientists who all had experience of working with the government. Dr. David Taylor began by introducing the role of policy advisor: someone who gives advice, not just evidence. He drew on his experience to put together a list of 'must-haves' for a potential policy advisor:

  • Technical and Political expertise. This enables an accurate diagnosis of the fundamentals and an evaluation of the available options. Be aware that policy advice is neutral but that its recipients rarely are!
  • The ability to contextualise. You need to be able to see the issue through your client's eyes. 
  • Procedural knowledge. You need to understand the way the systems that you are trying to influence actually work! This may involve persuading middle managers rather than the boardroom.  
  • Self Awareness and Communication. Remember to talk to people in their language, but make sure you stay within your area of expertise. 
He finished by reminding us that policy makers are often very busy, and so the ability to keep the message short and understandable is key. 

Selvarani Elahi then took told us about her work at LGC, which was the government laboratory before privatisation. I was interested in her work, as my great-grandfather was a government analyst in India many years ago! she stressed the need for non-contamination within their labs, as their results are taken as the last word and so can end up determining the result of criminal law trials. 

Dr. Leila Luheshi was the last to speak in the first session, and gave us some tips as to how to get into working in science policy. We were encouraged to be as politically aware as possible, so we can understand the environment in which decisions are being made and also reminded that all decisions are resource-based, and that there is only a fixed amount of money!

After breaking for lunch, we were split into 4 groups and given a scenario: we were a group of policy advisers preparing to give advice to DEFRA on a European Commission vote. We had to come up with a recommendation, after considering both the reasons for and against the decision, and the unintended consequences. The topic was insecticides: new to all of us! It was a very interesting activity, as the recommendation was not clear and involved a lot of discussion within the group. I was then nominated as group spokesperson, and had to give a 3 minute feedback to the 'minister' (the second panel). This was surprisingly difficult, and I ran over time, although I managed to make our recommendation clear, which was the important bit!

Once all the groups had presented, the panel gave us some feedback which I have summarised below:
  • Begin with a brief summary of the problem.
  • Move on to the recommendation, then follow up with the reasons why you came to that conclusion.
  • What is the effect on the UK?
  • Give a timescale to the different options.
  • Will there be media interest?
The third and final session introduced another panel, this time made up of policy makers who were able to give us an insight into the process from the other side. Dr. Duncan Harding from the Home Office was keen to let us know how our chemistry backgrounds could help us in an advisory role. It was also interesting to hear how the evidence base for a policy is continually under review, and how crucial it is to stay ahead of developments, as data collection can take a long time. 

Elizabeth Surkovic from the Government Office for science (@GOScience) warned us that we must be prepared to expose ourselves to the unknown, but that this should not put us off. She reminded us that all the speakers had "Felt the fear and done it anyway". 

Dr. Colin Church from DEFRA stressed the importance of taking evidence from a number of sources, whilst checking the context from which the results have come, as all evidence has been collected for a reason and it is worth noting the motivation for the research. As part of the feedback from the previous session, where we had been quite indecisive, he reminded us that in policy making you are not allowed to not make a decision! 

As well as hearing from all of the panellists, each session finished with discussions which were a great opportunity to ask any questions that we had. These sessions, along with the other networking sessions meant that we all had an opportunity to not only meet other young researchers, but also to quiz the panellists on any individual issues we might have. 

The combination of the panel discussions, the activity and the opportunities for networking made this day enormously useful - Thanks very much to organisers. I also picked up some good reading material for the train in "Future Directions For Scientific Advice in Whitehall", edited by Robert Doubleday and James Wilsdon. This book contains a collection of essays on science policy and is a really good read!