Don't be afraid, you can wing it

April 6, 2007

Academics have much to gain from talking to the public, but don't expect bird-watchers to behave like your fellow academics, warns Tim Birkhead.

Reaching out to the public is something academics ought to do.

The problem is that public outreach is unrecognised; there are few rewards and certainly none as far as the research assessment exercise is concerned.

In the US, part of the deal of getting a research grant is that you go out and inform, educate and entertain the public. But this is a sure-fire way of screwing things up. You have to want to do it. A reluctant or incompetent speaker is likely to be counterproductive. If public speaking accrues so little credit, why does anyone bother? The costs are substantial; including time spent travelling (although escaping the phone and e-mails for a day or so can be reward in itself), and time preparing an appropriate presentation (it takes much longer to prepare a talk for the public). As far as I am concerned, the main reward is the excitement of the unexpected. Outside the ivory tower anything can happen.

My own research topic, the reproductive biology and behaviour of birds, provides plenty of scope for public engagement. On one occasion, after I had completed a three-year study of whether the increase in magpies in the UK was responsible for the decrease in songbird numbers, I was invited to talk about the results at a bird-watchers' club "oop north". I'd gone to a lot of trouble because I knew this was a contentious topic. In the talk, I showed as carefully as I could that changes in agriculture were the main cause of songbird declines, not magpies. At the end, an elderly gentleman in a suit with "weskit" and gold chain stood up to give the vote of thanks:

"Thou's told us a great deal about magpies," he said, "But... we don't believe you - do we?" The entire audience nodded in agreement. It was difficult to know how to respond, and even more difficult to know whether to then accept their invitation for a glass of sherry.

Years later, and with slightly more experience, I agreed to talk to a bird-keepers' club in another northern town. On a dark, wet November evening I arrived at the rather dodgy pub only to be met by an audience best described as "reserved". My host was an hour and half late. I waited, feeling like a lemon as the audience was more interested in supping their pints than engaging in conversation. Eventually the chairman arrived (with no apology), and we prepared to start. Somewhat nervously I got up and stood before the audience waiting to be introduced. Nothing happened until an impatient voiced bellowed across the room: "Well, get on with it!" I did, and by the end of the evening, I felt that I'd rescued what initially had seemed an impossible situation. The difficulty had been largely my own.

As academics we expect a certain protocol that doesn't always apply in other sectors of the real world.

Another rewarding aspect of addressing the public is that it can provide unexpected insights. Non-academics have a very different take on the world and sometimes ask questions you would never have thought of.

Sometimes, though, these are so unexpected they leave you speechless. At a Cafe Scientifique meeting I had given a talk on the mating strategies of different animals, discussing why some birds copulate 100 times a day while others do so only once. At the end, a middle-aged woman put up her hand and asked: "Since you know so much about copulation, perhaps you can tell me why it is my husband falls asleep every time we make love?"

Tim Birkhead is professor of behavioural ecology at Sheffield University.

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