£8m pot to coax wary publicists

December 8, 2006

RCUK supports researchers fearful of disapproving peers, writes Anthea Lipsett

Academics keen to boost their public profiles and publicise their work will benefit from an £8 million initiative to help them face down a culture in which such activity is generally frowned upon.

The initiative was launched by the UK funding councils, the Wellcome Trust and the research councils this week, following a Royal Society report in summer that found that fear of disapproval from peers and time constraints were preventing a generation of young researchers from communicating their work to the public.

The Centres of Excellence in Public Engagement initiative is a four-year pilot project designed to encourage public understanding of research. Up to Pounds 300,000 a year will be available for individual universities, or "beacons", that show more staff and students getting involved in public engagement work. Some £500,000 is available for a national co-ordinating centre.

Kerry Lesley, head of Research Councils UK's science in society unit, said:

"This is to try to effect a culture change within institutions from the top down. "There's quite a lot of public engagement work going on in universities across the UK but there's not much reward or recognition for researchers doing this work."

In the Royal Society report, 20 per cent of the scientists and engineers surveyed believed that academics who engaged with the public were less well regarded by their colleagues.

A further 64 per cent said that they were prevented from talking to the public about their science because of time pressures.

Helen Czerki, a postdoctoral researcher in physics at Cambridge University, said the culture was difficult to change.

"People want to be involved but it's mainly a time thing, and they feel their supervisors wouldn't approve. There's a general culture that (public engagement work) is seen as a fun thing to do and all very well so long as you've done the rest of your work, but it's not seen as proper work. My group's an exception, but as a postdoc you are much more accountable.

"There's this pressure to get things done. People will say, 'it's a good thing in general, but not today'."

Colin Pulham, of Edinburgh University's chemistry department, holds a Pounds 200,000 research council grant to carry out demonstration lectures and workshops in Scotland and the North of England. "It's increasingly seen as an important thing to do," he said.

His work led indirectly to new research funding and collaborations with industry. "I don't think many people in industry have time to read academic literature but they might read the normal press or chemistry press, which is where they will pick up stuff."

A presentation at the British Academy's science festival prompted a call from a company interested in bonding aluminium and a research collaboration six months later.

"We would never have even known to target these people in the first place because we didn't know that's what they were interested in and they didn't know what we were doing. We keep seeing this; they are not isolated incidences."

anthea.lipsett@thes.co.uk

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