“Once in it however it does grab you as something exciting and, despite the energy required to do it, a worthy endeavour.”
This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Dr Jamie Lewis
Where are you based?
I am a sociologist of science based in the School of Medicine at Cardiff University.
Who do you work for?
I am currently closing in on 4 years through a 5-year post as a Research Associate into Public Engagement based at the Medical Research Council funded Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics. The Centre brings together world-leading researchers from within the School of Medicine and from across the University to undertake discovery and translational research – based on genetics and genomics, but increasingly moving into clinical and basic neurosciences – to understand the major causes of mental illness.
What type of science communication do you do?
I am a sociologist of science who is influenced by the literatures of Science and Technology Studies (STS) and Public Understanding of Science (PUS). I take a dialogical approach to public engagement in the area of psychiatric genetics and genomics. As a sociologist I am particularly interested in the social and ethical implications of new developments in the area which are invariably captured under the concept of stigma in psychiatric genetics, and in how people experience and define science in their social lives. With a background in STS I am also interested in engaging with science as a place of work: unpacking the concept of laboratory, exploring how ‘facts’ are created and disseminated. Essentially, unpacking what we mean by scientific understanding – does that mean being technically proficient, understanding its principles and methods rather than particular content or its institutional characteristics (see Michael 1992).
Who is your main audience?
Obviously the literature of PUS uses the term publics to show that there are many public groups and the public is not a homogenous mass. However most of my public engagement events have involved a rather general audience rather than specific publics with particular interests. I am however interested in engaging with an older audience. I do find a lot of science communication and public engagement events target young people, students, children etc. which is great and there are obvious benefits in that. In an increasing aging society and in a period where lifelong learning is being pushed, I am keen to engage with an older adult audience. For example I have noted with interest that a number of retired people have attended some of the events I have been involved in.
How did you get into it?
The simple answer is that it is my job. Once in it however it does grab you as something exciting and, despite the energy required to do it, a worthy endeavour. As someone who is publicly funded, I believe it is our job to engage with and communicate with a ‘public audience’, but I have found also found the experience enlightening – it has improved me as a researcher, a speaker and a thinker. Embracing the dialogue model of engagement, I do try to take back what I learn to the lab (or in my case, my desk).
Why do you do it?
Why do you think science communication is important?
It is important because in a democratic society science should be for the people.
It is important to engage with the social, cultural and ethical issues that might arise from developments in science and technology.
It is important because science is a part of society and not separate to it.
It is important to engage with the issues that effect people at the local level.
It is important because if you embrace it the activity you will improve as a researcher. You are never to old to keep learning and sci-com or PE can influence your work in new ways.
What do you love about science communication?
I believe PE or sci-com can be a source of multi-disciplinary collaboration. Many of the events I have been involved with have brought together academics from different disciplinary backgrounds to talk about issues rather than their individual disciplinary hinterland. I think those who have attended any of these events have found that quite stimulating.
What has been your favourite project?
Can I pick two? Keeping with the theme of a multi-disciplinary approach, two main projects I have been involved with has brought science together with the arts, humanities and social sciences. Back in March 2010, I co-launched Cardiff sciSCREEN (www.cardiffsciscreen.blogspot.com and www.cardiffsciscreen.co.uk). Cardiff sciSCREEN is a cross-disciplinary programme that promotes the engagement of publics with science and the academy. Using special showings of new release films, sciSCREEN uses local academic expertise to discuss contemporary developments in science in an understandable and entertaining way, facilitating debate on the wider social and cultural implications of these advances. These discussions draw on a range of disciplinary perspectives and the broad repertoire of themes found within contemporary cinema. Since its launch we have run 18 Cardiff sciSCREENs and 5 other sciSCREEN lites (1 speaker introducing a film) with over 1500 people attending the events.
The other project that I have enjoyed has been to work with artists, in particular Julia Thomas and Rhys Bevan Jones. This culminated in an exhibition in October 2011 called Translation: From Bench to Brain.
Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?
2013 is the Medical Research Council’s centenary year. To celebrate this landmark, the centre where I work have been organising centenary events and from July 1st to 6th we will be holding another public engagement arts exhibition called How the Light Gets In at BayArt in Cardiff. This is one event among a number of activities we are organising and you can keep abreast of what is going on via Twitter. As part of the exhibition there is a sister arts project going on right now founded by Julia Thomas and Sara Annwyl called Cardiff ATTIC.
Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?:
Only a few. They would be to enjoy it, to embrace it, to not expect to know everything, to learn from it, not to talk down to people and to keep doing it. Public Engagement or Science Communication is not an event – it is a process. And also, be comfortable in saying “I don’t know” if you don’t know the answer to a question asked by a member of the public. You are not an expert on everything.
You can follow Jamie on Twitter at @JLew1979.