Last week started off in unfamiliar ways. I’ve written before about the challenges of doing something for the first time, and this week I had two consecutive days of things that felt stressful and unusual to me. These issues of strangeness do not necessarily go away with age and experience, or at least not if one is pushing oneself.
On Sunday I travelled, with some difficulty due to tube closures in London, to ExceL to participate in New Scientist Live. I’d not been to this conference before, but was delighted to be able to talk about my book Not Just for the Boys to a general audience. The venue is massive, and in a single large hall there were four platforms with simultaneous speakers, plus an exhibition. I’d been slightly startled, when I arrived and asked the security man at the door where to go for speaker registration, to be greeted by a surprised look, and the response ‘Speaker? For New Scientist Live?’, as if he’d never met a female speaker before (although there were plenty on the programme). It felt symptomatic of my topic.
Standing on the platform I was very conscious of the background hum from everything going on around me, indeed rather more than hum, even though the sound system for my particular platform was excellent. There was a good-sized audience who seemed receptive to my topic, and fired plenty of questions at me, and the book signing was also well attended. But, whereas a recent talk to scientists on the Biomedical Campus felt familiar because I had a good idea of the background of the audience – although one never knows at talks about my book, whether there will be many men present; at LMB there were – this isn’t true when talking to a more generalist audience. Judging from the questions, both publicly and even more from those who came up to me privately afterwards or who came to the book signing, there were a significant number of year 11-13 girls, those thinking about their futures and wanting encouragement to stick with science and, even more, the physical sciences. I felt I had definitely reached them.
From London I went straight on to Liverpool, to do something even more unfamiliar. On behalf of the Royal Society’s new Science2040 project I was talking to a Fringe event at the Labour Party conference, a joint reception with the New Statesman. Never having been to a party conference of any hue, this was walking into the unknown. Just trying to work out which of the multitude of Fringe events I would try to get to, distributed within and beyond the secure zone, was complicated enough. In the end, I only got to a couple; another one I was aiming at was standing room backed up so far into the lobby that I gave up. The whole conference was an extremely well-attended event. Those who know more about such things seemed to think it was overfull, no doubt reflecting the state of attitudes in our current politics.
My job was to give a brief speech about this new Royal Society project, initiated to explore what the science system should look like in 2040, and the need for long-term funding commitments regardless of the persuasion of the Government. This project is exploring the breadth of issues from the economic to the people dimension, from infrastructure to our place in a changing world. In other words, what needs to be done to address the major problems we are all facing. The centrepiece of my speech was meant to be a call for Labour to commit to long-term funding, talking after the Shadow Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, Peter Kyle, and before the Shadow Minister for Science, Research and Digital, Chi Onwurah.
By the mid-afternoon it was clear my speech needed to be rewritten, as Peter Kyle – in his major speech to the main conference – had made precisely the commitment we were seeking, saying: “a Labour government will create certainty with 10-year R&D budgets.” So, a hastily scribbled-on piece of paper was what I had to read from at the event, reworking my words in an anxious way. I certainly felt my fluency was diminished, however much Kyle’s announcement was welcome news. I am used to being able to modify my written words on the fly, to suit the specific composition and reactions of an audience, but this required a more fundamental rewrite, and I hadn’t brought the technology into the secure zone to do this in more than an illegible way on the script to hand. Unfortunate, but I hope I could still deliver an appropriate message.
There were good things about attending the conference, not least a long chat with one of Chi’s new aides, and I am glad to have had the experience. But it is a salutary reminder that things that feel like old hat to some – colleagues both scientific and from the media who make the trek every year to wherever the party conferences are being held – can feel very strange and stressful when doing them for the first time. For those just setting out everything may feel unusual and uncomfortable, but it is worth remembering everything gets better with practice and you are not alone in your discomfort. Most people feel it, even if less often.