Public engagement in science: stimulating a two-way dialogue (Transcript)

Interviewer: Andy Tootell (Ideas Lab)
Guest:  Professor Alice Roberts
Recorded: 10/02/2011
Broadcast: 20/02/2011 

Intro VO: Welcome to the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast from the University of Birmingham. In each edition we hear from an expert in a different field, who gives us insider information on key trends, upcoming events, and what they think the near future holds.

Andy: Hello, I’ve got the extreme pleasure of sitting here with Alice Roberts. Hello Alice. 

Alice: Hello.

Andy: Now you’ve just been appointed Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham. What does that role involve?

Alice:  Well I’m absolutely delighted first of all to have been appointed to this professorship. The role is going to be about public engagement in science, it is about making science accessible to as wide an audience as possible, it's about encouraging young people to think about science as a career, it’s about making it easier for our academics here at the University of Birmingham to talk about their research to the general public and it’s not just about a one-way flow of information, it very much is about a dialogue. So what we really want to encourage and stimulate is a two-way flow of information so that here at the University we have this amazing repository of knowledge which is growing every day, amazing research going on here, but part of what we want to do is encourage the ideas from that research to flow out into the wider community but also get ideas coming back the other way as well. At the end of the day, if we’re going to be truly democratic about this then the direction that science goes in should be determined by everyone and that requires everyone to know quite a bit about science to begin with. It’s not just about the science we learn at school, it’s about finding out more and more about science throughout our lives. I think universities are very very well placed to be the arena in which that happens, to allow that dialogue to take place. 

Andy: I was going to say because you hear a lot these days about public engagement and when you’re engaging with the public you’re engaging with people like me, the laypeople who, you know, I have a casual interest in science but I have no scientific background. How do you go about that?  Is it about popularising science?

Alice: A certain amount of it is about popularising science.  I think there have been discussions about what this thing is called. I suppose very generally it’s about communication and that can include an idea of dialogue within it. Going back about ten years ago we used to talk about public understanding of science which I think promotes an idea of a one-way flow of information, that it’s all about a scientist educating the public rather than there being a conversation between the two of them. So I think engagement is a much better word and I think that part of it is about popularising science. I’m always really keen to distinguish between popularisation and simplifying, or as it might be described sometimes, dumbing down, because I think that it is possible to get across very complex ideas – sometimes this involves simplifying the terminology but allowing people to access those concepts. Now I think Brian Cox has a much more difficult job than I do because he deals with the physical sciences and the language in which those sciences are carried out is the language of mathematics.  So really for me to approach a lot of what Brian talks about, I have to do that through metaphor, which he’s extremely good at. I have an easier job with most of the media science that I do where I’m talking about biology and generally most of the time I can point to something and somebody can see exactly what I’m talking about.  So one of the ways in which that sort of science can be made very accessible is through visualisation.  You know, as humans we understand the world around us by looking at it, we can help people to understand science through using visual media which is why I think television is such a good tool for doing that. 

Andy: In today’s world a lot of scientists can create apps if they want to kind of like translate their research into apps or use their apps to conduct a research project and put their work into the hands of millions of people. Twitter’s available, you can generate instant discussion, disseminate information. How important do you think digital technology is these days? We live in an era where scientists have the world at their fingertips to get that research out into the public. 

Alice: I think digital media is incredibly important and the internet is a revolution, there’s no doubt about that.   I think it is as much a revolution as the printing press was in terms of information being available to people and we have this amazing potential for democratising knowledge, for making knowledge available for people and at the end of the day, you know, knowledge grows in a way that can be quite explosive once you start sharing it more widely. We’ll end up with a cultural ratchet effect where actually we’re making discoveries more and more quickly. The more minds that are brought to bear on a particular problem, the better.   So it’s an incredibly exciting time for science. 

Andy: I just very quickly wanted to ask you about the next generation of scientists and I wondered how important it is to get young people engaged and to capture their interest and their fascination at school age to ensure that when they do get to university, they arrive at the University of Birmingham, that they pursue a degree in a science related subject?

Alice: I think it’s really important for young people not to feel restricted in their choices and also to be aware of the choices that are available to them and obviously the media has an incredibly important role to play in that in letting people know the great range of science that is out there and is potentially a career.  I think we tend to talk about science as this big kind of monolith but of course actually it's this beautiful multi-faceted thing, you know, there’s almost something for everybody there. There are so many different aspects of it that really attract lots of different types of personality I think and, you know, somebody that’s going to be attracted to working in biology might be a very different person from somebody who’s attracted to engineering.   I suppose it’s about knowing the breadth of opportunities that are out there and so anything that universities and broadcast media can do to make sure that those opportunities are visible I think is really important. 

Andy: And finally, I just wanted to ask you what your first impressions were of Birmingham and the University of Birmingham and what are your hopes for the future in this role?

Alice: I’ve only just started but I’m already really impressed by Birmingham University and I came here for a few meetings and obviously the interview before I assumed the role, but I was really delighted to meet a load of academics who all seemed actually to be very enthusiastic and very happy. I think in a lot of universities academics are feeling quite beleaguered at the moment, it’s a difficult time, it’s an especially difficult time for science at the moment and there are changes in the way that the Government is assessing our science and the way we publish it and all of that sort of thing.  But I think overwhelmingly I felt that this seemed like a very happy place.   And then in terms of the students, yeah, it feels very vibrant and very cosmopolitan as well; there seems to be a really good range of students from a wide range of backgrounds, a lot of different ethnic minorities and I think that’s a really healthy thing to see in a University.

Andy: Will you be helping to mentor any of the academics here, to help them now you’re here? Are you going to be there for them to sort of like try and help them as much as you can?

Alice: I really hope so.   I hope that that can be part of my role. I don’t know if I’d consider myself an expert in doing that.  I mean I suppose in a way I am because of my experience so anything I can draw on from my experience to help people – I think one of the really important things I’d like to say to academics who are perhaps a bit reticent or a bit worried about engaging with broadcast media is that it can be an incredibly positive relationship.  It doesn’t just have to be about responding to a scandal that’s been out there in the press.  It doesn’t just have to be about very polarised debates between two intellectuals at opposite ends of the spectrum, it can actually be a very very joyful opportunity to tell a fantastic story and to get your research out to a much wider audience. 

Andy: Well I shall draw the interview to a close on that.   I hope we can catch up with you again in the not too distant future for another podcast.  But the very very best of luck in your new role and thank you very much for joining me today. 

Alice:  Thank you very much.

Outro VO: This podcast and others in the series are available on the Ideas Lab website: On the website, you can find out how to e-mail us with comments, questions or suggestions for future topics for the podcast. There's also information on the free support Ideas Lab has to offer to TV and radio producers, new media producers and journalists. The interviewer and producer for the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast was Andy Tootell.