Yesterday the Athena Swan Diversity and Inclusion group at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience put on an event to encourage staff and students to build public engagement work into the their careers, rather than view it as an optional extra.
The event was opened by the Dean of Education, Patrick Leman, and was split into two different panels. The first included speakers from various organisations that support public engagement work including the British Science Association and The Wellcome Trust. All the speakers described some fantastic initiatives but also how researchers can be trained and supported by organisations and the need for collaboration to optimise engagement.
The second panel was made up largely of individuals from King’s describing their public engagement experience. I was fortunate enough to be a member of this panel and described engagement work with schools centred around both my research (neuropharmacology) and my teaching (BSc Psychology). I have always been passionate about public engagement but listening to the other panellists, it really hit home why this was the case – public engagement is a hugely personal endeavour. Indeed, the key note speaker at the event, Bryony Frost, said that if you think you don’t like public engagement, it is just because you have not found the right type yet. This really backed up what previous speaker Margaret Heslin had said when she described her journey into academia and the impact of her engagement work, centred on the IoPPN Youth Awards.
I think we all have a barrier we had to overcome or a point of inspiration that made us stop and think about where we were going. For me it was a lecture in the first year of a psychology degree at Sheffield University with Prof Pete Redgrave. He asked us all to ponder a scenario where your father had Parkinson’s disease and could be cured by a foetal transplant from an aborted foetus and then asked whether you would deliberately conceive to abort the foetus in order to cure your father. Of course this was an extreme and, thankfully, unrealistic scenario but it made me stop and think about the precise area I wanted to work in and the issues that science raises. I attribute my regular research café activities with pupils to that very lecture – it is all about asking the difficult questions and unpicking the science behind the issues.
So if you are interested in public engagement but cannot work out where to start I would suggest going back to the beginning – what was that moment that got you interested in your field and how can you use that experience to help others engage with science? I’ve always believed that scientists who only ever engage with other scientists are missing out on so much – it is refreshing and exciting to take science out of the lab and into the hands of the public so I really hope that yesterday’s event has inspired a few new people to try public engagement as well as consolidate the beliefs of scientists already engaging with the public. After all, if the science is worth doing why limit its reach to the confines of labs and scientific journals?
Senior Lecturer in Psychology
Department of Psychology, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience