Explaining science to the masses: a new growth industry

A centuries-old tradition becomes a necessity in an age of shrinking research budgets

In the shadow of the Shard skyscraper, King’s College London is building a £12m science communication centre. Science Gallery London, due to open next year, is a symbol of the public’s growing desire to learn more about science and the parallel wish of researchers to engage the world more closely in their work.

“The UK leads the world in recognising that engaging the public with science is an integral part of research,” says Daniel Glaser, neurobiologist and director of Science Gallery London. “There is big pressure on universities and other research institutions to deliver public engagement, which was not present even five years ago. That means science communication is a great career opportunity for young people.”

Science communication — explaining scientific theory and practice to a general audience — has a long history, with early landmarks including the foundation of the Royal Institution (1799) and the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1831), now the British Science Association. The field began to crystallise in its present form a generation or two ago under the banner of “public understanding of science”.

Today that term seems dated, with its assumption that merely promoting understanding would create a pro-science public. As the sector has expanded in the past 30 years, the favoured phrase has become “public engagement”, which implies a two-way discussion.

“In this model the public takes a more active role, through debate and dialogue,” says Katherine Mathieson, chief executive of the BSA. “We get a stream of really good young people coming into science communication, which they see as a field with its own identity,” she says. “But it has grown into a very diverse sector — too diverse to have a single professional development framework.”

Work ranges from explaining exhibits at science centres and museums to designing and presenting live shows and festivals, from media and public relations work to science journalism.

The field’s fluid definition means that there are no reliable figures for its size, though everyone agrees that it is growing fast. A survey last year by the BSA of 516 science communicators in the UK showed that, while most were employed, 21 per cent worked primarily as freelancers. “We are seeing more entrepreneurial young people coming into the field. They are disappointed with what is already available and want to do something more disruptive, for example through crowdfunding campaigns,” says Imran Khan, head of public engagement at the Wellcome Trust.

Underpinning the whole sector is the desire of funding bodies to “embed public engagement in research”, as Research Councils UK, the umbrella body for government science, puts it.

The motives are many and varied. Some are altruistic or cultural — a feeling that scientific understanding helps people to appreciate life, the universe and everything from the shape of clouds to the nature of thought.

On a political level, a scientifically informed public supports the development of evidence-based policies on controversial issues such as climate change, genetic engineering and vaccination. Researchers may also benefit if an engaged public supports increased funding.

To help the process the government and Wellcome Trust, the largest charitable supporter of science, have set up a National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement in Bristol. They also provide funding for specific projects; for instance RCUK is offering a total of £700,000 for 10 to 15 grants to “better embed support for public engagement with research in higher education institutions”.

 

The most important factor is the funders’ insistence that all research programmes include public communication. “The going rate is that about 3 per cent of the grant should be devoted to public engagement work,” says Mr Glaser. For a £10m project, £300,000 should be spent on public engagement.

Several UK universities offer MSc courses in science communication. The programme at Imperial College London is often regarded as the leader. Most, however, enter the field with an academic background in science but without taking a postgraduate course in science communication, says Fiona Fox, head of the Science Media Centre in London, which specialises in communicating science through the news media. They then receive training on the job. “The people I recruit love science and want a career promoting science — but not working at the lab bench,” she says.

For people who want to engage directly with the public, science centres are an important source of employment. The UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres estimates that its 60 member organisations receive 20m visitors a year. They range from long-established museums to the wave of discovery centres set up by the Millennium Commission in the late 1990s.

“The most important qualification for our explainers, as we call them, is to have a passion for communicating science to visitors, many of whom are school children,” says Linda Conlon, chief executive of the International Centre for Life in Newcastle. “We offer them training so that they can answer questions, demonstrate exhibits or narrate shows in our planetarium.”

Science festivals represent another opportunity for public engagement. “When scientists appear at our festival, it often becomes clear how narrow their training has been,” says Ms Mathieson of the BSA. “They don’t take their human experience into account when describing their work.” An approach that can help — and which the BSA is encouraging — is “to think of science as a cultural activity”.

Increasingly, art is used in communicating science. This will be a theme of Science Gallery London. It aims to attract more than 300,000 visitors a year “by bringing together researchers, students, local communities and artists in surprising and innovative ways”.

From late July to November, while its new home is under construction, it will present a series of pop-up events and installations at venues around London Bridge on the theme of blood in medicine, art and literature.

The permanent site, between the Shard and the historic Guy’s Hospital, will have a theatre and exhibition spaces, including a restored Georgian courtyard previously used as a car park.

As Mr Glaser puts it: “The reason why King’s invests in engagement work like Science Gallery London is to make its research better.”

Natural selection: the evolution of a career

As an undergraduate studying psychology and neuroscience at University College London, Alice Kay seemed set on a career in the lab. “Both my parents are research scientists (biochemists) and I was expecting to go on and do a masters and PhD,” she says.

By the end of her second year, Ms Kay was having second thoughts. “I began to realise from my parents and others how demanding it is to be a researcher and how good you have to be to make an impact,” she says.

After graduating Ms Kay — now 26 and a press officer at the Science Media Centre in London — spent a year obtaining relevant work experience, at the family-oriented Cambridge Science Centre and then the National Horseracing Museum, which wanted to give its displays more of a scientific content. In early 2013 she took up an internship at the SMC, a charity that acts as an independent science press office. A permanent job soon followed.

“At the same time I was offered a place on Imperial College’s science communication masters course,” Ms Kay says, “but I decided it was more sensible to take a job. Though the Imperial course is marvellous, you don’t need an MSc to progress in the field of science communications.”

Four years on, she loves the variety of her work and remains committed to the field. “It has an open career path and the salaries are competitive,” she says. “I’m on around £30k at the moment, which is comfortable in my mid-twenties.”

 

 

(From the Financial Times article on UK science communication sector, by Clive Cookson, Science Editor)

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