Life as a scientist isn’t all about sitting in a lab wearing a coat and goggles. PhD student Jack Barton writes about the benefits of science outreach.
When I mention that I’ve gone out and spoken to people about my research, my supervisors seem excited and comment on how good it will be for my academic CV. Well, besides getting concerned I am doing too much extra stuff. As a person who has spent plenty of time ‘bugging’ people about science, I didn’t realise that I had already been doing something akin to outreach for years. To me, it was simply getting people to see how accessible and interesting science can be.
“These skills are important for any future scientist”
For anyone who is interested in science, there is hopefully also an interest in starting a dialogue (also known as talking) with others about it. To me, this is all that science outreach is. It is about engaging non-scientists (and scientists from other fields) in our work. This should be done in a way that does not alienate people with jargon or unnecessary complication, and it can involve practical demonstrations of complex concepts through engaging displays, writing and the use of metaphors (and even dance). These skills are important for any future scientist. I won’t harp on about ‘post-truth worlds’ and ‘echo-chambers’, but I think now more than ever it is vital that scientists involve the public in the research process and encourage critical analysis of the evidence that’s out there. If we don’t, then scientists will continue to be treated as the owners of arcane knowledge that everyone else has to simply accept without scrutiny. This has clear implications for us all.
So, why else should you take part in science outreach as a student? Well, a perfectly good and simple reason is because it’s fun! There is something very satisfying about getting people interested in what you do, or at least provoking interesting questions about research in general. It’s not uncommon for people to put up their “I’m not going to be able to understand science” shields, but it is a sheer pleasure to see people lower these and get involved. We may have spent years studying a specific research area, or even a small question, but that shouldn’t mean we are the only ones with interesting questions to ask.
“Science outreach highlights your passion for an area and also shows your mastery”
Second, it enables you to engage with a wide range of different audiences. So far, as part of science outreach I have worked with: primary school children, GCSE students, A-Level students, young media apprentices, adults of all ages, other PhD students, other academics in similar and different fields, artists, museums and ice dragons. Okay, I may have made the last one up, but these are only a few of the potential audiences that you could engage with. There are infinitely more that you could end up working with to ensure that your event, talk, art-piece or writing project is successful. For example, there is currently a fantastic initiative in Manchester to get local poets and scientists to produce thought-provoking art, and scientists can also inform fiction with real research.
The third reason is a bit more mercenary but still important: career development. Funding organisations like to see where their money is going, and one easy way to assess impact is through public engagement. If you are able to illustrate that you’re comfortable engaging people in fun and exciting ways about your research, you also show that you are able to disseminate it effectively to the public who ultimately pay for it. This highlights your passion for an area and also shows your mastery through being able to explain even the most complex notion in a globally understandable manner.
The fourth reason is that science outreach provides you with new skills, as well as a chance to work on existing ones. The different types of outreach you can engage in are numerous, and there are few skills you would be cut off from developing by engaging in outreach. The obvious ones include writing, public speaking, time management, creativity and event organisation. For example, I used to be terrified of public speaking, but throwing myself into it as part of outreach has (almost) completely flipped that on its head.
The final reason is one which might seem strange at first but bear with me. Science outreach can remind you of why you even started to research a topic in the first place. As a PhD student, I have faced the dreaded imposter syndrome and questioned whether research is really for me on more than one occasion. Honestly, I can say that being dragged away from my computer or the lab and chatting to people about what I do dissolves those negative feelings pretty quickly. When you are not bogged down in the specifics of power calculations or what task to use, you can take a step back from your work and see it from the outside in.
Mental health is something which many young academics struggle with and it is dealt with poorly, despite it being a well‑known issue. Although I can’t provide a citation for this (yet), science outreach can help you to still feel productive (because we seem to need that in life as scientists) and rediscover why you started your research project in the first place. If that can also make a few people go ‘wow’ in the process, then it can hardly be a bad thing.
So, hopefully it should be evident by now that you should consider engaging in science outreach. There are lots of different opportunities for this and you should take advantage of as many of them as you can. If there is nothing that attracts your interest, then devise your own event! I’m still eager to see full length plays based on research and more collaboration with the arts. If nothing else, you could always consider writing for new and exciting publications that are keen to take on new writers (hint, hint).