This weekend I was persuaded by a member of my family to enter a local Parkrun. If, like me, you haven’t come across these before, I should say they offer weekly timed 5k runs at local venues. You just register, turn up and run. I am no serious runner, but once upon a time I ran a lot more than I do now, up to 50 miles a week. Then children intervened and I didn’t run at all for about 20 years, and now I’ve started again it is in a very low-key way. However, I thought I had some idea of what I was doing on a weekly basis and was satisfied with it. What this timed run showed up were my delusions, both about how far and how fast I have been regularly running. Having said that, I wasn’t that disappointed with how I performed* (sounds wonderful if I say I came second out of my category for age and gender, until I point out there were only 5 of us in that particular category), but this was achieved by pushing myself hard – and demonstrated to me just how little of that I have been doing on a regular basis. In other words, I have been kidding myself.
I suspect we can all convince ourselves, without really trying or being aware of it, that we are actually achieving substantially more than in reality we are, because that is what we want to believe. Reading some more Pathways to Impact statements later in the day – I’ve commented on these before in less than complimentary terms – I am struck by the aspirations people put down on paper, about public engagement in particular, and I worry about how often these laudable goals are actually met. (I realise I am at risk of raising the ire of Philip Moriarty again by discussing Impact once more). This isn’t meant particularly as a criticism of the authors of these documents, but it is worth occasionally confronting the gap between what one hopes to achieve, and what is actually delivered at the end of the day – or in this case the end of the grant.
As I said in the previous post, I strongly believe that quantifiable objectives are well worth laying out in these statements, something along the lines of:
• I will talk about my work at 3 secondary schools each year during the course of the grant; or
• I will present my work annually at the local Science Festival;
People rarely do so in quite such explicit ways, but a few brave people do, such as (this from a particularly well-written statement):
We anticipate one media article and one public lecture per year on our project. We expect, by the end of the project, to have created one arts-science collaboration based around its content.
To be contrasted with much vaguer, if more frequently encountered statements, along the lines of:
The applicants will also be involved in visits to local schools to give lectures on a wide variety of topics relating to…..[this grant].
A statement that would have been much improved by a qualifier such as this (from a different grant):
[We will] undertake 1 or 2 schools visits to advertise multi-disciplinary science
I am sure every PI putting such thoughts down on paper would like to feel that this is the sort of thing they really will do. But, this is where I fear the gap develops between aspiration and delivery. There are so many other things that can seem more pressing in the diary than trotting round to a local school, however much one may in principle wish to do so. Unfortunately, reading grant applications may well be one of them (note I say pressing, not more enjoyable, rewarding or desirable). My own record on the school-visiting front is not particularly impressive, having averaged one school a year recently.
However, although that record may be poor, I appear to be entering a phase where my school outreach ‘figure of merit’ will suddenly improve, not because I have signed up to a long list of school events, but because I have a couple of events lined up in the months ahead when I will be talking to quite large numbers of teachers. So, instead of reaching out to school children, of whom only a few percent will in fact take in anything that is said at all, I will be aiming to stimulate their teachers with the excitement of the physics I do. One of the issues that the Royal Society Education Committee I chair is very concerned about, as spelled out in Recommendation 5 of their recent State of the Nation Report 4, is the need for in-service training, including being exposed to current research activities and experts in their field
Recommendation 5 Science and mathematics teachers should undertake subject-specific continuing professional development (CPD) as a part of their overall CPD entitlement…..
I am not sure how talking to teachers rather than the children themselves should be ‘scored’ in the outreach stakes, but by showcasing physics research to hundreds of teachers, maybe a little something will filter down to the schoolchildren, fulfilling my own laudable if not-always-realised aspirations to be a cheerleader for science to excite the would-be scientists of tomorrow.
Or am I just kidding myself?
*If you really want to know, I did the 5km in 32:19, not totally embarrassing but hardly cause for celebration.