My ears were burning a month ago and my head was swollen. Fear not, I hadn’t caught an interesting disease, I was just being talked about and made prideful.
At the end of the summer I learnt that I had been shortlisted for the Medical Research Council Chief Executive Officer’s awards, in the category for public engagement. It is easy to be cynical about this kind of thing (and I am) but once you are in with a chance of a prize your perspective changes (yes, I am easily bought). The awards are open to everyone in the ‘MRC family’ – its offices and research units – which is about 3,000 people. I am told that there were about 170 nominations in total, in five separate categories. The shortlist comprised ten people, two for each category, and we were told that just getting to the stage of the shortlist meant we were all winners.
I was a bit surprised to be in the running for an award. It is true that I have put quite a bit of effort into public engagement over the years, and particularly in this MRC centenary year, but I am also very aware of the all flaws in what I’ve done and the things I’ve not done as I don’t have enough time. Still, some of the other people doing prominent engagement work for the MRC were not nominated, and I had enough of an ego to think I might have had a chance of winning top spot.
The awards ceremony took place at lunchtime in MRC Head Office, attended by members of the MRC management board and all ten shortlisted people. When I heard the citation for the other nominee in the engagement category, listing her many achievements, I was not surprised that she was named as the recipient of the award. I was happy enough to be runner-up as it meant I received an iPod nano – a device I have never owned before.
The MRC CEO, Sir John Savill, announced the results for each category and presented the prizes and we all had embarrassing photos taken.
A trip to MRC HO is always a pleasure as the offices are on the 13th and 14th floors of a circular building in Kingsway. This provides great views of London and, depending on which room you are in, you get a panorama of the city in a different direction each time you visit. Today we were facing southeast. It was a bit foggy but you can recognise some landmarks.
On the same day, in a different part of the building, I attended the MRC Open Comms Forum – a meeting of MRC communications and engagement people. This was a gathering of people from across the MRC who have some involvement in comms work. It happens a few times a year and brings together people from research units and those in head office comms roles. After interesting talks from Kath Nightingale and Kate Lin about, respectively, the MRC Insight blog and the MRC Twitter account, the main part of the meeting was a workshop on social media, led by Steve Bridger. Most of the people in attendance were managing some social media on behalf of their organisation, either running Twitter accounts, Facebook pages or LinkedIn groups. There was a lot of experience in the room, but in small packages. None of us felt we knew everything there was to know.
Because I had to nip out for a couple of hours to attend the CEO awards upstairs I only caught Steve Bridger’s introductory session and his final roundup session but I was impressed with what I heard. He had clearly put a lot of work into researching MRC social media usage. We had been asked to send him in advance links to our organisational social media accounts, and to answer four questions concerning how we think of and use social media. He had poked around all our institutional accounts, and some of our personal Twitter accounts too.
Steve started with a round up of our views on social media and quoted a nice aphorism, which reminded me of the kind of thing Jill Foster was saying 20 years ago:
Social media is 10% Technology, 90% People
I also liked the Dilbert cartoon on social media, which neatly encapsulates the tension between institutional suspicion of social media and the desire to harness it for organisational purposes. Steve stated that social media’s prevalence has changed people’s expectations of how to engage with organisations. The immediacy of Twitter, its ‘in the moment’ character, makes a difference. Once upon a time, if something interesting or noteworthy happens you might have said “Oh, let’s put that in the annual report” and six months later it would have appeared, when no-one was much interested anymore. Now you can instantly tweet whatever is interesting. Steve stressed that social media can lead people into your organisation. The ‘walls’ around the organisation are easy to step over in a social media world (just @ the twitter handle to get the organisation’s attention). Steve reviewed how social media can make an impact and showed some prominent science blogs. I
woke up was surprised when one of his slides showed a screenshot of Occams Corner at Guardian Science blogs, showing thumbnail photos of Stephen Curry and Henry Gee. Occams Typewriter was also cited by Kath Nightingale as one of the blog hangouts that she likes to visit.
I had to step out at that point so I missed the final slides, showing one of my blogposts. When I saw that later I was a bit embarrassed as there had been rather a long gap in my blogging of a couple of months so it wasn’t a great time to be advertising my blog!
I came back two hours later to discover that I, or rather my social media activity, had been a topic of discussion. In the morning sessions I had put out a few tweets and Steve had picked up on those, hence my Twitter page was displayed on the projector screen. Luckily I had not said anything rude (not that I ever do). But it was strange to come from one scenario where I was being congratulated, to another scenario where I was being discussed. This must be what fame feels like.
After all that I was just about ready to come back down to earth, but there were two further events to attend. The Max Perutz science writing awards were presented by David Willetts over at the Science Museum, to the accompaniment of nibbles and modest drinks. As ever it was a great gathering of the biomedical scicomms clans, and an inspiring event to see all that new writing talent from MRC PhD students and postdocs. We were then privileged to have a special backdoor entry into the Science Museum Lates event. Though this is a free event, the queue to be one of the 3,000 people attending can be quite lengthy, as I had witnessed earlier on, so it was handy to be able to bypass the queue.
I had never been to an SMLates event before, and I nearly didn’t bother as I was a bit tired. But it was fantastic! It is astonishing how the museum can be transformed by loud music, spectacular lighting and small bars serving beer and wine. I was totally won over. I can’t wait for the Crick’s SM Lates event in Feb 2014.