Dances with insects spread science bug

June 9, 2006

Barbican Theatre, Plymouth.

Syncapoda is touring schools, theatres, festivals and events in June and July and will launch National Insect Week, June 19-25, at the Natural History Museum in London

On Saturday an 8ft praying mantis menaced my son. Well, a dancer from the Syncapoda Project portraying a preying mantis loomed over him in a suitably threatening fashion. The group of young people behind Syncapoda have worked for a year on an hour-long performance of dance inspired by the motion of insects.

This wonderful production, developed in collaboration with Peter Smithers, scientific officer of terrestrial ecology at Plymouth University, captured the essence of the movements of various arthropods without constraining an inspirational piece of contemporary dance. The performance was very well received. Even by nine-year-old Sam.

Syncapoda was sponsored by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council under its public engagement initiative despite the fact that the BBSRC does not fund any research on insect behaviour. A quick search of its website for "insect behaviour" reveals that since 2000 the research council has awarded just two research grants that have these key words, both for modifying the behaviour of insect pests using novel chemicals - not exactly suitable material for public engagement. The BBSRC is primarily interested in genomic and systems approaches relevant to applied issues in biology, physiology and agriculture. So it is fascinating that when the organisation wishes to engage the public it turns to science that it does not fund but in which the public are interested.

We see the same phenomena in broadcasting. Like many, I was turned on to biology by David Attenborough's Life on Earth . Since then, we have had Living Planet , Trials of Life , Private Life of Plants , Life of Birds , Life of Mammals , Life in the Freezer , Life in the Undergrowth and now Planet Earth - all of them focused on ecology, environment, behaviour and evolution. This is what the public wants to know about, what students come to university to study. A few years ago, the chief executive of the Natural Environment Research Council asked me: "How can I possibly go to the Government and ask for money to study behavioural ecology?" The answer, of course, is that this is the part of biology that is engaging to the public.

The BBC, or any other broadcaster, has yet to make a 12-part series on "exons and introns" or "non-coding DNA". They know (in this instance "they" are almost all non-scientists) that almost no one would watch it.

I do not for a moment disagree with the provision of funding for applied research, for genomics or for any aspect of molecular biology. But I do worry that we are losing our blue-skies research base in ecology and organismal biology. If our funders continue to select against such research, they will lose us the support of the public, who are genuinely interested in questions such as why peacocks have elaborate trains, how wildebeest might respond to climate change or even how preying mantises catch their prey.

It is ironic that the current fashion for linking art and science seems to be mainly about science inspiring art. Perhaps us scientists could see that artists understand what engages the public and follow their lead with some art-inspired science. We could do worse than to look at the inspiring interpretations of insect behaviour created by a group of teenagers in Plymouth.

Matthew Evans is professor of behavioural ecology at Exeter University's Cornwall campus.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments