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Engaging and inspiring the public with Science

Zak Boukerrou, True North's Strategy and Communications Placement, is taking three months out of his PHD in Biochemistry to work alongside us on brand and communication projects. Here he begins to explore why this is so important for the future of science. 

Science has been key to advancing our quality of life, from great technological advancements through to treating human diseases; it has played a vital role in the human existence. Hence why communicating the impact science has to the general public is essential to its progress. Whether that’s alerting people to the threats of climate change or inspiring future generations to follow a career, effective and engaging communications is vital in any new discovery or development.

The value of communication in science is not a new idea. During 19th century there was a big drive to make science more accessible and popular to the public. The Royal Institute in London was founded in 1799 not only to provide a collective platform to pursue new discoveries but to educate the British public through a series of lectures. It was where Humphry Davy showcased laughing gas to the delirium of the audience who tried it. And where, in 1825 they had the idea to target their lectures during term time holidays to make it accessible to younger audiences. Henceforth, the famous annual Christmas Lecture, merging science and entertainment, which made it engaging, inspiring and most importantly informative. The value of which captivated the BBC who have been broadcasting the event since 1966.

Public engagement remains as vital as ever today with an added emphasis on social and ethical issues. The British Science Festival takes place every year for four days; showcasing events ranging from the discussion of core science to exploring the role it plays in society through theatre performances, having previously been a platform to announce major scientific discoveries. There are also opportunities to get the general public to contribute to scientific research. Mobile apps such as the Great Brain Experiment, created at the University College London, allows the public to contribute to neurological research through a series of mini-games gauging mental health and agility.

There are also initiatives in order to encourage more young people to take up STEM subjects post 16 years. From the late 1980s to 2004, the number of students taking up STEM subjects post 16 years fell greatly but has since been rising. Yet there is still more to be done to convince young people that science is a viable career path and programs such as Your Life and STEMNET are helping to do just that.

In spite of all this, public engagement is still seen as more of a side-project or a hobby rather than an integral part of science. This is due to a greater focus for scientists to ‘publish or perish’ and engaging with the public is seen as unrewarding financially. Wellcome Trust, much like previous examples is trying to change this, and has recently begun providing financial support to public engagement projects.

Engaging the public to science is important in influencing government policy, with regards to our health, environment, and inspiring a new generation of scientists. Without getting the general public onside, the understanding of the key role science can play will get lost and with it, its potential benefits.

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