On engaging with the public, and why we do science

This morning I read a fantastic piece by @ScientistsMags about science engagement, which so completely echoed my own sentiments I just had to link to it. Quite apart from the fact that I think we need more women in science and greater scientific literacy amongst the general public, there is another reason why I really like talking to sixth formers and school pupils about science; and even teaching undergrads. Every time I explain my research, I understand it a little bit better myself.


You would think that a scientist would love nothing more than to talk about their work. They do, usually to another scientist. The general public is an afterthought or not even considered. … I do believe that if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough, and so did Richard Feynman.

In the opening months of my PhD, money was very tight. By the time it came to Christmas, just getting home for the holiday was going to take up virtually all of the money I had left. It was a year of home-made gifts and IOUs. My favourite gift that Christmas was an entire 40-page-back-and-front-of-A4 book I made for my grandma entitled ‘The Granny Guide to Genetics’. I’m fortunate enough that both of my parents did degrees in science, so I rarely have trouble explaining to them at least the outline of my research. For my grandparents, obviously, even Watson & Crick came long after they left school. How do you explain molecular biology to people in their 80s without using the words DNA, gene, protein, enzyme or expression? (The answer, in case you want to ever try it yourself, is “relate the genome to a Delia Smith cookery book and you’ll be cooking with charcoal). Along the way, I found myself finally getting to grips with things that I had never realised I  didn’t fully understand.

Whether I’m explaining my PhD to the other postgraduates in my department (who mostly study ecology), or to my scientifically literate but Arts-subject-studying partner and housemate, or to my Granny, who now proudly explains to her friends at the Rural what molecular biology is: putting it in terms that other people can understand doesn’t just help them grasp what it is I actually do. It helps me articulate to myself why it’s important and what I hope to achieve. 

Having said that, the question of scientific literacy and engaging with the public is still incredibly important. Scientists who refuse to engage with the public completely confuse me. If what you do is so exciting and interesting, why wouldn’t you want to tell the world about it?! And if you’re so concerned that the general public don’t understand why it’s interesting and exciting, why aren’t you doing anything to mitigate that?

If the last few weeks have brought anything home to me, it’s been just how much we need scientists out in the community, explaining what they do, and making it clear that we’re not all mad old men in white coats!

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