May 12, 2014, by Tara de Cozar
Sharing your research — what does Simon Singh think?
The Graduate School’s annual Research Showcase takes place on Wednesday 18 June. It’s a great event, showcasing the variety of PhD research taking place at the University. Sixty researchers will present posters they’ve designed about their work — communicating their ideas to people with a limited or no knowledge of their field. For the students, it’s a useful exercise in good communication, and a brilliant opportunity to get an idea of what their peers across the University are up to. And for visitors? Well, staff, students and members of the public can wander round and be dazzled by all the amazing research taking place at postgrad level. They can also vote on their favourite poster.
Another reason to put this in your diary is the guest lecture by journalist and broadcaster Simon Singh. Simon’s made programmes and written books about a range of research — from Fermat’s Last Theorum and the science of code breaking to the maths found hidden in The Simpsons. Communicating research to a broader audience is what he does. I asked him what he thought about postgrads communicating their own research.
Do you think that promoting research should be something that PhDs learn about?
I completed my PhD over twenty years ago, before the boom in science engagement and before some of the tools used today (e.g., blogging, YouTube) were available. My main advice is that not everyone has the natural ability to communicate their research or has a field of research that will resonate with the public. That does not exclude anybody from improving their ability to communicate, but I think it means that some should and could do more or less than others. In other words, if you are built solely to do research, then focus on that. If you are built in such a way that you can also make your research interesting to others, then set aside the time to take on that responsibility.
Also, if you are going to spend time on this activity, then treat it very, very, seriously. Examine every detail of your activity, learn from your mistakes, and try to get decent feedback in order to improve. Getting good feedback is very hard, as most people will respond by saying your blog/lecture/etc. was “really good”. I try to find someone whose opinion I trust, and I appoint them to give me point by point feedback on everything, both the good and the bad.
As a writer, are you interested in the work currently being done by PhDs, or do you see it as backstory for later achievements? Is it something journalists take the time to examine? And if not, should they make time to?
Journalists are solely interested in a good story. That generally means an important breakthrough, which generally means that there is a focus on the research team or the research leader, and not necessarily the PhD student. But PhD students should not be looking to hit the headlines, but rather to reach out to the public via lectures, school visits, blogs, podcasts, videos and even just chatting to mates down the pub. When you consider your activity, there are various factors to consider (e.g., is it fun and interesting for you?), but the most important factor is whether or not you are making sufficient impact for the time you are setting aside and for the money you might be spending. In short, be smart about your science engagement.
Sadly, I see a lot of box-ticking in this area, with little focus on whether a particular activity is making a difference. I recall being asked to visit Wales a few years ago, and a month before the planned visit I learned that the audience would be only 60 people! I explained that if I was going to spend an entire day travelling to and from Wales for just 60 people then I would have to charge, but if they could get an audience of 200 then I would do it for just the rail fare. In fact, the audience turned out to be 300, because the organisers had been forced into realising that this ought to be about more than just ticking the box that said “we organised a lecture with Simon Singh”.
To be fair on those particular lecture organisers, such sloppiness can run through the whole establishment, from the research councils to the Institute of Physics, whereby serious amounts of money are (in my opinion) wasted on science engagement projects. Does the general public really want to visit a gallery full of photographic portraits of mathematicians, or an art installation about particle physics, or a ballet about Einstein? I often find there is an over-emphasis on ‘innovation’, but simple techniques done well are typically the most effective.
Academics at all levels can be a bit wary about publicising their research, for fear that it’s going to be overegged or misunderstood by the press… Do you think that’s a valid concern?
I think it is all about weighing up the pros and the cons. How much time and money will this cost, and how much benefit will there be in terms of public engagement and promoting your research? Are there any risks, such as being misquoted and getting into trouble with your colleagues? Could this open new doors or is it a good opportunity to develop your skills? Is it a live interview (in which case you cannot be misquoted, but the downside is possible nerves and saying something silly)?
Before I end, I should stress that Nottingham has been a hub for one of the best science engagement projects in the world ever, namely the Periodic Table, created by the Chemistry Department and Brady Haran. Take a look at this YouTube channel to see the definition of effective science engagement. Funny, sharp, witty, clever, with real science and real scientists, all delivered on a tiny budget. They have just delivered their 500th video, with some achieving over 1 million hits, and most of the others reaching over 100,000 hits. That beats travelling one hundred miles (and back) to a science festival and talking to twelve people and a pot plant.