I have a new post up at Occam’s Corner on the Guardian website today, about how non-scientists can (try to) influence the course of scientific research.
As I mentioned over there, the ideas in the post originated and evolved from a session I chaired at this year’s Vancouver Change Camp. I thoroughly enjoyed participating in my first Camp in 2011, and went back this year (with a friend who’d been to the first ever Camp, but missed the 2011 event) expecting the day to unfold in similar style. However, before I knew it, I was pitching and then leading a session…
It’s all a bit of a blur, but from what I remember the idea came to me while the other pitches – many of which had obviously involved a great deal of preparation – were already underway. I whispered to my friend that I thought it might be a good idea if we co-pitched a session about what people in science outreach (her) and scientific research (me) can do to help science fulfill its responsibilities to society, and vice versa. She thought it was a good idea – for next year. But the idea had taken root, and (after making my friend promise that she’d at least attend my session, even if she didn’t want to co-pitch it) I decided it was now or never, and joined the very end of the queue to go on stage. I introduced myself, my career path, and the idea for the session, then scurried back to my seat, heart pounding and face red.
My session was scheduled right after lunch, which gave me some time to jot down a few more ideas. I quickly learned that it’s much easier to meet people when you’ve pitched a session – people approach you to say hi, even when you’re sitting in a corner frantically scribbling in a notebook!
I was worried that I might not get (m)any participants, and indeed I was assigned one of the smallest break-out spaces. But lo and behold, we had about ten to twelve people, including my friend and me! I didn’t really have a detailed plan, so I (oh-so originally) started by getting everyone to introduce themselves. There was one mathematician and one high school student with an interest in science, but no-one else was from a scientific background – there were a couple of people interested in environmental issues, a couple interested in medical research, and the rest just thought the session sounded interesting in general. I then went over some basics – grant funding, low success rates, publish or perish, all that – and introduced some of the ideas in the Guardian post. I then just let the conversation evolve organically.
The key theme that emerged was of the importance of good science education – not just for people interested in science careers, but for the whole population; not just in schools, but in science museums, urban community gardens, and other venues. We talked about connecting young people to working scientists, and harnessing all the activism energy present in schools and universities. Someone raised the idea of having a “scientist in residence” in schools, parks, museums, and other less traditional venues. More ideas were bandied around than I could possibly manage to jot down, and the small group size meant that everyone participated.
I would call the session a success, overall, despite a severe lack of planning and a slightly awkward beginning. I enjoyed the conversation, and have often found myself returning to the ideas people raised over the last few months (hence the post). It was a little stressful on the day, but worth it – although I think I’ll just sit back and enjoy the next event from my seat, rather than from the stage!