Science outreach – the good, the bad, and the pointless

This is a guest post contributed by James Hardcastle, Research Manager at Taylor & Francis.

Let me start this brief blog by saying I’m afraid it will not won’t do justice to Simon’s delivery, humour and anecdotes – an entertaining session all round. Although you can unfortunately not catch up on his session on the conference YouTube channel due to licensing restrictions, I hope the below will at least give you an idea of what took place.

Simon’s major theme on during his lecture was not everything we do in terms of outreach works, some expensive projects have little impact and cheap projects have great returns.  On the side of bad outreach were E=MC2 the ballet funded by Institute of Physics, and Lab in Lorry, expensive that ultimately engage few people.  On the good side of outreach, Sceptics in the Pub, Numberphile and The training partnership all come in for praise. The linking factors between these are they are generally dirt cheap, generally profitable, generally grass roots.

We are starting to big money on science outreach, how do we assess success and how do we allocate money. Give money to schools and let the free market decided? use teachers as the unit of effectiveness, assuming 1 teacher cost €50,000 is the project better than hiring a teaching?  Within science outreach there is a lack of criticism so some foolish projects get funding.  We are drawn to unproven, new, radical ideas, particularly those that link to the arts, could the money be better spent elsewhere. Ultimately how much should we spend money on science outreach? In science communication we have poor ideas and too much money the opposing to science where we have lots of ideas and no money.

During the panel there were two key themes. Researchers should focus research, and not all researchers want to be science communicators, nor should they be spending their time and resources on this. To be a good science communicator takes practice, time and effort; few academics will give an amazing lecture to 6th form students the first time they do it.  Outreach shouldn’t be seen as a box ticking exercise, something required to keep funders happy, either it won’t get done or it will get done badly. However as research groups are growing there is more chance that one member of the research group will be keen on communication outside the lab.

Overall there was recognition that science communication is still important and is no longer limited to talking in schools, but includes blogs or videos, but most scientists are better at science than science outreach.

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