This guest post, by Professor Bob Newport, explores his adventures in science communication.
To begin at the beginning: my name is Bob Newport, and I’m a sixty-something Professor of Materials Physics at the University of Kent. This post arises from one of my tweets – “It’s slowly dawning on me that two things only are needed for Public Engagement in science: love of subject and love of people” – and picked up by Julie Gould; the rest, as they say, is history. What follows is a personal ramble through my developing interest and activity in the area: I offer it only as an individual ‘case study’ and in the hope that the story will prove encouraging in some way.
I’d never really thought of myself as a ‘science communicator’ as such, but I have come to realise that I have been working towards that goal for a long time. A significant part of what my university has paid me for throughout the years of my academic career is the teaching of students; but although it ought to be intrinsic to teaching, communication is not necessarily evident in the absence of focused effort. Genuine communication comes out of the desire to move beyond the mere transfer of information into the realms of motivation, enthusiasm and passion, and that is what so many of us in my profession strive to achieve. In my case, the process was accelerated when I found myself teaching within our Physics Foundation Year and needing to move my unsure and uncertain students to a place where they could begin actively to engage with their learning. In that situation I discovered the potential of using movie clips and media articles as accessible entry points for what often became extraordinarily lively discussions; these, in their turn, helped to add context to the more formal syllabus we needed to progress through. The approach was later picked up by a writer with Science News, a popular weekly magazine in the USA, and led to an extended telephone interview for their article.
Generically, it’s this same approach I adopted within my efforts to reach out to regional schools. We have a phenomenally successful Outreach team now, led by a wonderful former research student in my group, Vicky FitzGerald, who re-trained as a school teacher (i.e. she is fluent in the languages of both ‘school’ and ‘science’ – hugely important for the role in my opinion). However, 15 years or so ago we had no such setup: it was all down to the voluntary work of a few individuals. The principal starting point for me has been my area of research: I am immensely fortunate to have been able to work on materials that offer both intellectual challenge – my aim is to explain their behaviour and attributes via a detailed understanding of their atomic-scale structure – and a relatively easy link to contemporary ‘real-world’ issues. These materials have included photovoltaics, ultra-hard coatings, non-linear optical glasses and most recently bioactive glasses (which, for example, can be used to promote the regeneration of bone). Moreover, the very nature of the research has meant that my research group and choice of collaborators has of necessity been inter-disciplinary, giving me access to chemistry, materials science and biomedical science as enhancements to my beloved physics. I also had an in-built link I could utilise to the impressive ‘big toys’ that my group used in order to gain our core data: facilities like the ISIS and ILL neutron sources and the Diamond and ESRF synchrotron X-ray sources. Taken together, this combination of factors made it relatively easy to talk about science. I love doing this, and have had the pleasure of interacting with school groups from Year 5 to Years 12/13, and in the context of formalised talks, class visits to the Science Museum and open classroom discussions. Thanks from school students and teachers is always welcome – I’m only human – but it’s some of the questions that form the most memorable feedback: like the Year 8 student who wanted to know whether bioactive glass could be used in order to grow a Klingon skull. The reason I still remember that question comes from the fact that it spoke volumes to me about the depth of this young student’s newly gained understanding of these materials. Thankfully, I was geek enough to know what a Klingon is.
However, we all change as time passes and in my case this has been associated with a migration from Outreach into the wider realms of Public Engagement, and from a relatively young audience to one comprising adults. Outreach has, for me, involved talking about my research to a well-defined cohort of people – but this is only a part of public engagement, albeit an important one for a university: public engagement encompasses so much more. Leaving aside the area of ‘crowd-sourced science’, in which I have had no involvement, there are outstanding high-profile examples of scientists engaging wonderfully well with the wider public via TV/Radio (Alice Roberts, Mark Miodownik, Jim Al-Khalili, Brian Cox etc.) and in newspapers/online (e.g. Athene Donald, Jon Butterworth). I am not amongst their number. No, mine is a more modest, ‘amateur’ and regional effort which has grown in a rather ad hoc fashion, and which is squeezed into and around an already full ‘Day Job’. Having said that, there are common elements between us. We have all developed the confidence (or is it foolhardiness?) to engage with non-experts from a variety of backgrounds in such a way that, whilst our science expertise is intrinsic to the exchange, the overall ‘agenda’ is theirs. As an example, I have in the past couple of years given three talks on glass at one or other of the Canterbury Museums. At the Museums’ request these have each been in different formats (an extended talk followed by afternoon tea – filmed by one of our students should you be interested, one in the evening and another as a 15-minute ‘bitesize’ talk at lunchtime) but all of them used my expertise in the context of their exhibits and artefacts. Naturally, I was able to weave a lot of science into the talk, including bioglasses and synchrotron X-rays, but I did so primarily in the context of the audience’s desire to learn more about what was in the Canterbury Museums’ collection.
One also has to be flexible in terms of venue and facilities. I recently spoke to a group from the National Womens Register: from a dining room chair, I chatted to a group of about 20 in someone’s packed living room with only a tool box of ‘show & tell’ items by my side. Unusual and challenging certainly – but what a great environment for uncluttered free-form discussion about contemporary science; again, to their agenda. Can such a low-key event have an impact? Judging from the message I got from one participant’s husband via Twitter, I must conclude that it can – at least at the level of the individual: “My wife [is] an NWR groupee. I’ve never known her be so interested in science”. Not only is positive feedback like this encouraging per se but, let’s face it, in a busy week there’s only so far one can reasonably go in terms of trying to meet the challenge of criticism before deciding that ones time is better spent elsewhere. That’s not to say that constructive criticism isn’t valuable and welcome, far from it, but merely a reflection of the fact that public engagement of this kind often remains a time-pressured ‘hobby’ in the eyes of managers trying to assign limited academic resources.
Perhaps the most involving, and boundary-extending experiment for me in recent months has been my on-going work with the Turner Contemporary gallery. Their visionary Head of Learning, Karen Eslea, contacted me as part of her search for scientists prepared to engage in conversation with artists. The particular focus at the time was to complement their exhibition of work by the renowned American sculptor Carl Andre, and to use the discipline of Philosophical Inquiry in order, hopefully, to derive something special from the exchange. We jointly sought and obtained modest funding for the project from Canterbury Festival’s Prosper project, which also entailed a commitment to a series of whole-day workshops in local drama venues. Workshops in drama studios can be rather scary for a physicist, intimidating even, and clearing entire days for what were decidedly off-piste activities was no mean feat. However, these became prized events in my diary as I realised the value of working and conversing with such a broad range of energetic and passionate people; I learnt so much! The pinnacle of our experiment was an extended exhibition-focused conversation between about 30 artists and scientists, led by philosophical inquiry guru Ayisha de Lanerolle. This was recorded and ‘mapped’ by folk from an award-winning local company, Cognitive Media, who generated a four-minute animation from their 70-minute audio file. The film became part of the exhibition (and has moved with the exhibition to its new venue) and provided a vehicle through which gallery staff have been able to gauge public perception of the sculptures. Never before has my name appeared in the credits of a film, any film , let alone one associated with an excellent arts gallery; I’m taking this as a good thing.
My perspective on this is necessarily limited, so I’ve taken the liberty of asking Karen to provide comments on this from her perspective; she has kindly written something for this post: “Working with a scientist is a huge privilege and has helped me to experiment with new ways of working. During the Philosophical Inquiry (an event which enabled deep thinking and listening between artists and scientists) I had a moment of revelation when listening to a description of nickel. I realised that my engagement with art works is based mostly on their appearance, references, ideas and context. When a scientist looks at things, whether they are artworks or materials in a laboratory, it is as if they can experience them under their surface. Their connection with things extends far beyond the visual, with their mind able to imagine temperature, structure, the behaviour of atoms in different conditions. In terms of creativity, and the ability to make vast conceptual leaps, artists indeed have much to learn from scientists.”
Where next? Well, I’ve already tried to brief a librettist about the basics of Chaos Theory (after mugging up on it myself) in preparation for a musical item he’s working on and have volunteered to join a panel to address questions on public engagement. In truth, my heart currently resides with the desire to take the positive outcomes of the ‘Turner Contemporary Project’ further by rolling out the generic approach to a more widely drawn range of participants. It’s encouraging that we already have offers of help, for example from Kent’s new science and technology park at the ex-Pfizer site at Sandwich. It would also be great to see Canterbury Festival weave science more overtly into its already excellent portfolio, and with enough time I’d love to do some more writing and perhaps to interact with writers. Time will tell; I am content to look out for opening doors and see what emerges.
To return to the tweet which sparked off this post for Speaking of Science, the lesson I have learned over and over again is that for the public, people, to be engaged with and by science they need to see scientists who care about what they do and who care equally as much that others understand where this is coming from. The first of these attributes is easy to supply; what’s needed thereafter is a commitment primarily to listen, and then to be open to learn and to change.
If you’re so minded, feel free to follow me @Bob_MatPhys
 Dylan Thomas’ opening phrase for Under Milk Wood. Listening to the classic BBC performance, with Richard Burton as the narrator, is one of my all-time favourite calm-down aids on the train home after a troublesome meeting somewhere.