I like science.
I like doing science.
But I also like telling people about science.
Many of my colleagues view outreach as something that has to be done in order to tick the box labelled ‘Public Engagement’. It’s a waste of their time, it’s uncomfortable, and nobody cares anyway. Who wants to turn up at a school to do a lunchtime talk only to find that none of the sixth form even come? Who wants to give up their Saturday for a big public engagement event when all anyone is interested in are the ecologists at the next table with the fun game?
I’m at the other end of the spectrum. My PI has specifically warned me that next year (aka The Final Phase) he doesn’t think I should be doing any outreach, and he wants me to give up my in-house teaching commitments (because I do too much at the moment). I love teaching. I love telling people about what I do. And I also love debating about important issues like GMOs or food security or climate change or the links between autism and … well…. everything!
I like talking to interested young people. I like talking to interested old people too. But more than anything I think it’s incredibly important to talk to uninterested young people. Here in the UK it’s compulsory for students to take a certain level of science until they are 16. Students learn about forces and they learn about the periodic table and they learn about photosynthesis and respiration and food chains.
They rarely learn how to interpret a scientific news article.
And for me, this is where the major problem is. I blame scientists for poor dissemination of their research and I blame the appalling standard of science journalism in this country for a multitude of sins. But I also blame the inability of the general public to read a ‘science’ article and go hang on a second… ?
Major decisions about public health, food security and the environment are heavily influenced by public opinion, which – while notoriously manipulatable in many fields – is often based far more on empty rhetoric than on any understanding of what is actually going on.
I don’t believe for a moment that scientists should have carte blanche to do whatever they please without some measure of public accountability. But if I hope to achieve anything in my scientific outreach it will be showing 15 year olds just why it’s important that they have science lessons.
And believe me, it’s not so that they’ll know that 6H2O + 6CO2 à C6H12O6 + 6 O2