The overwhelming message to come out of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s study into the UK public’s perceptions of chemistry is that people just don’t know what it is chemists do. So in case you are stuck for ideas on how to spread the message here’s my top 6 ways to tackle #chemperceptions and get started with public engagement.
1) Write for The Conversation.
The Conversation is an ingenious collaboration between the media and academia. Any researcher (form post-grad to prof) in academia can write for them and professional editors work with you to craft your prose into something a lay audience will enjoy reading.
Your piece won’t get published until you are happy with it, so don’t worry about a journalist hacking your science to bits. But the thing that makes The Conversation so powerful is that anything you write can get republished under a creative commons non-derivative license. This means your article could end up being distributed by news outlets around the world. I’ve had stuff that started life on The Conversation end up in Scientific American, IFL science, The Hindu, The Guardian and more besides.
And you don’t have to write about your research, you can comment on a whole range of chemistry in the news (or even comics).
If you aren’t in academia you can still help by pitching an idea.
2) Take part in Famelab.
Famelab is a world-wide science communication competition. The idea is simple, you have 3 minutes to explain a complex piece of science with clarity, content and charisma (and no slides).
There are regional heats around the world, 27 national finals and an International final that takes place at the Cheltenham Science Festival. NASA and CERN also hold heats, in some countries the finals are televised and many participants have gone on to do great things in science communication (including writing for chemistry-blog 😉 )
This competition really is about taking part, its a fabulous way of getting involved in the science communication network in your country and the world.
Check out past competitors on Famelab’s Youtube channel.
3) Go science busking.
This one’s really easy and low risk. Just pick up a bag of tricks and head out to the streets. If you find you don’t like it, just pack up and go home.
The nice thing is that you reach a really diverse audience, you’ll come into contact with people who haven’t engaged with science since school.
There’s masses of resources out there to get you started. Many of the tricks aren’t chemistry based, but that doesn’t matter. Once you get your audience’s attention you’ve broken the ice and can start talking to them about what it is you do during your day job.
There are tonnes of opportunities for scientist to get up in front of people and tell the audience about what we do. For example, I run a science cafe, where every month a scientist, engineer or mathematician speaks for 30 min to group in a pub. No slides, no pressure, just beer and an interested (and interesting) audience who are incredibly insightful about the science they have just heard about. On more than one occasion I’ve seen scientist get new ideas for their work from the audience.
5) Put on a family learning workshop.
Schools will bite your hand off if you offer them a free workshop or demo lecture. But in my experience you’ll have much more impact if you offer up a workshop for the whole family. Timetable it at pick-up time and then the interested kids will drag their parents along. This way the whole family gets involved and they are much more likely to follow up on it when they get home, especially if you provide them with some take-home resources, e.g. these kitchen chemistry comics (feel free to download and distribute).
I’ve had parent approach me after running this sort of thing to tell me that they really hadn’t wanted to come but in the end they’d had a great time!
6) Get someone else to do it for you!
I know you’re busy, you might have lectures to prepare, reports and papers to write, grants to review, columns to run. That’s fine!
So instead support your students, staff and lab techs to get involved. If you are in an education institution embed science communication into your teaching. Run projects for students that involve preparing public engagement activities. That way the next generation of chemists get used to communicating with the public and you get a team who do the public engagement stuff for you.
Some of my students made those kitchen chemistry comics, one has set up a very successful business running entertaining science communication activities and now she employs other students, and others developed workshops for science festivals or established science shows on regional TV.
One tip about what doesn’t always work well.
Bangs, explosions, smoke! I know it’s tempting to pull out all the stops and perform all those really impressive explosive demos. But use them sparingly. They play well to a certain audience but they also put many people off. And they reinforce the stereotype of chemistry being dangerous and destructive.