Apple(s), Tomatoes, Willetts and Public Engagement

It’s National Science and Engineering Week in the UK, or at least it is for most places. In Cambridge we celebrate it with a fortnight, and call it a Festival because there is just so much to squeeze in.  Many of us get involved, from students to emeritus professors, and the audience is drawn from far and wide – both in terms of background and location.  It is a wonderful opportunity for people to hone their outreach skills, and for students to get into the thick of explaining their science to everyone from toddlers upwards, thereby discovering what ‘works’ and what doesn’t.

This year we kicked off with a slightly sotto voce speech by David Willetts. I call it that because it was to a ‘select’ (ie extremely small) audience carefully drawn from those of us doing our bit during the festival. I think this was deliberately done in view of the unedifying spectacle that was meant to be his last speech in Cambridge, when hecklers prevented him delivering it. This disruption caused widespread annoyance, on the grounds of freedom of speech, and led to the immediate publication of a University Council statement reinforcing our belief in the importance of this freedom.  This statement  was signed by all the student members who were, I believe, as disgusted as the academics that we were prevented from hearing what this senior politician had to say, even though many might have been going to disagree with him in practice.

Anyhow, I was one of the few to get an invitation to listen to the Minister this time. He (or at least his team) had done his homework and he began his speech with some impressive statistics reflecting the Cambridge Festival’s strengths: the largest free scientific festival in the UK with over 35,000 visitors last year. He also expressed his tactful belief that the Cambridge Science Festival has had (almost) as much effect on public engagement and awareness as “Brian Cox being photogenic”. Clearly he understands the message that we need to work in an environment in which science is appreciated by the public, but of course all of us must do our bit to ensure this happens; it isn’t simply a case of the politicians waving a magic wand (though waving a bit of money is good, as he demonstrated by announcing BIS’s continued support for Sciencewise and the Cambridge Centre for Science and Policy).

We were all curious to know what a speech we were told was entitled ‘Apples, tomatoes and our scientific future’ might embrace. In fact, this was an error in communication. Apples, speculated to be represented by our very own Isaac Newton, were not to be touched on; it was a speech comparing the apparently hi-tech science and technology underpinning  Apple and the iPhone, with the presumed-to-be much lower tech associated with the food industry. Willetts produced facts and figures to show that food manufacturing actually contributes very substantially to the UK economy, but that it also rests heavily on much basic science including, notably, genetics. Personally I’d have been delighted if he’d used starch/ polysaccharides as his example, given my own prior interest in the subject, but the arguments would have been very similar. Likewise the dreaded term GM raises its head here, whether tomatoes or starch are the focus. I asked Willetts at the end, if the government was going to reignite the GM debate. This was a challenge that has been raised very recently by Paul Nurse  in his Dimbleby Lecture, thrown out to an audience which included Willetts (the transcript can be found here). I got a politician’s answer. I think this event could be best described as a muted beginning to our two weeks of action-packed science.

As for my own part in the Festival, attending that speech was the passive bit. I have so far taken part in a lively debate on ‘Visions of Future Healthcare’ in front of a packed audience. The debate was only part of the fun though. Science magazine hosted a reception afterwards at which I was metaphorically pinned to the floor by some very engaged attendees. I felt somewhat handicapped by high quality eclairs which oozed cream and chocolate in inappropriate ways when trying to hold an intelligent conversation. It was a good evening. Even that is probably the easy bit for me, though I’d put a lot of thought into my 10 minute presentation (not least because I was being challenged to dream about what the future might hold). On the second Saturday I have the honour of giving my department’s main lecture to an audience which I anticipate (from my own prior experience as an attendee) will have a huge age range. This is the moment when I must manage to engage the 10 year olds, whilst simultaneously not boring the accompanying well-informed adults or worse, coming across as inaccurate and sloppy by trying to simplify things just that smidgeon too far.  I am still working up my lecture-demonstrations, with a long shopping list ranging from shaving foam to epoxy resins. I fear I cannot serve meringues (my dessert of choice in this case rather than eclairs) to all the audience, but they will feature prominently in the talk.

Many years ago, way back in 1995, I was part of a team that gave the IOP Schools’ Lectures, a team of 4 (consisting of then Cambridge colleagues Richard Jones, Ruth Cameron, Adrian Rennie and myself) that toured the whole of the UK. My colleagues were very kind to me back then: knowing I had young children – and none of the others did at the time – they took all the hard work of travelling to the further reaches of the country and left me the comfort of day trips within the south-east. So I got the pleasure of talking at both the Royal Institution (before its seats were purple, but still the original wooden benches) and the Science Museum. The talk we prepared back then, Building with Snakes, discussed many of the properties of polymers. Some of the ideas we perfected then – and with around 30 performances between us, we really had plenty of opportunity to perfect our spiel – will also find their way into next week’s talk; even some of the props have survived, but not many. My talk this time focusses on Goo, a topic I hope will go down well with the youthfulness of the audience.  If I had entitled the talk Viscosity and Soft Matter I think I would have had an audience in single figures. So now a week in which to get my demos working, and remind myself of how not to turn off a lay audience.

National Science and Engineering Week is a wonderful thing. I am delighted to be getting my hands dirty and trying to inspire the scientists of tomorrow.  But we all know the old adage If it doesn’t work it’s physics­- and that will be much in my  mind as I take to the floor with a benchful of (potentially) recalcitrant demonstrations in front of me.

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4 Responses to Apple(s), Tomatoes, Willetts and Public Engagement

  1. A couple of points:

    The Royal Society of Chemistry was doing its bit with the Future Cities programme of lectures. I hadn’t realised the re-insurance companies were so interested in sustainability in the built environment.

    On a more artistic front, my attempt at painting the Chagall window has turned out to resemble a recently published image of the charge distribution of a molecule. (I have been told this as I am visually impaired.) I know that my painting does not resemble the wonderful Raspberry Pavlova which I demolished during the Edinburgh Festival last summer.

    Good luck with your demonstration. Trusting you get your just desserts!

  2. Colin Rosenthal says:

    So he didn’t express an opinion on entanglementgate aka pauligate ( How disappointing.

  3. Robson says:

    Hi Anonymous, thanks for your qieutsons.The funding model can vary. For example, here in London, the Institute for Cancer Research and Cancer Research UK employ staff scientists/associate scientists as I understand it, these are permanent posts seconded to labs, but if the PI left they would be redeployed in the same institute. (This happened to one of my friends and he was fine with the move, considered it a new challenge.) It’s the same in my own institute, which is an MRC unit, but this doesn’t seem to exist at UCL I don’t know about other universities. In the States, I’m sure it varies from place to place. I’ve known some senior scientists who have been funded by the PI, but as the PI is tenured, this is essentially permanent other times it’s been a departmental post. As far as consumables, the scientists I’ve known have been embedded in a lab, so the PI is paying for that research but of course reaping the benefits, just as he/she would for a temporary contract working postdoc. Many of the respondents in our survey mentioned that it would be a good thing if non-PIs could also apply for grants, but in the UK at least, the system is shifting away from funding projects to funding people (PIs), so I don’t know what appetite exists for this.At Science is Vital, we were thinking there could be case for these post being jointly funded by HEFCE and funding bodies. One could for example remove a percentage of short-term contracted post fellowships so you could accommodate a few more staff scientists that way. It would best if the post was attached to the department, not the individual PI, for reasons of job security. On the other hand, if these people were very very good, I could see there being the sort of mobility that you also get with good PIs, if people wanted to have a change of scene. Personally, we wanted to get the idea out there for discussion there are probably a number of ways to achieve this. In my institute, there is absolutely no problem hiring highly skilled and experienced permanent staff for example, the people who run the EM facility so it’s not as if academia doesn’t already have the means to do this. I just think some discussion about possibilities would be an interesting exercise.