Engaging staff enjoy chemistry with public

May 20, 2005

"Do drugs do your head in?" was an unusual topic for an academic debate.

And when a local drug dealer joined in, it was clear this was something different.

Bristol University scientists had asked the community in the notoriously deprived St Paul's district to devise their own scientific debate. This was the result. Neuroscientists, psychiatrists and social scientists sat alongside Rastafarians and other members of the public, airing views in a local hall.

"It was inspiring," said Kathy Sykes, professor of the public understanding of science at the university. "We tried to make it as informal as possible.

Experts weren't called experts and only spoke for a couple of minutes."

Such events should not be one-offs, says Professor Sykes, who is urging Bristol to become the UK's first "Engaged University".

"People in St Paul's wanted to know why we were doing this and whether there was a hidden agenda," she said. "If we are going to really engage, it needs to be long term."

The Engaged University scheme has the full support of Bristol's senior managers. Heads of department are encouraged to help researchers who are committing considerable time to such activities by relieving them of other duties. Talking to the public may even be a plus point when it comes to promotion.

An engagement leaders group, with representatives from every faculty, meets regularly to promote initiatives and share best practice.

Professor Sykes stressed that talking publicly about research - and thinking about it in new ways - should benefit researchers.

But she said: "We are concentrating on improving the quality of talks. If someone is pretentious or incomprehensible, it can do more harm than good."

Dudley Shallcross, a reader in atmospheric chemistry at Bristol, holds workshops for schoolchildren who range from just four years old to teenagers in sixth form.

"I've got a vested interest because I have a family of four children under 11 myself," he said. "But it has been a real eye-opener and has definitely changed my view of my job.

"Primary schoolchildren really want to know things, and they approach tasks in all sorts of different ways."

The experience has challenged Dr Shallcross's preconceptions. In one session where seven and eight-year-olds were experimenting with pulleys, he was surprised to discover that the girls outperformed the boys. In another, a six-year-old girl staggered him with her understanding of where materials such as rubber bands come from.

His workshops are exciting parents, too. "We ran a science evening at a local school, and one teacher remarked that she had never seen so many dads."

Dr Shallcross was relieved of administration duties to concentrate on public speaking.

He said: "I want to do this, but my main career is research. It would be no good if I found it didn't count when it comes to promotion. But I've been promoted in almost record time."

Emma Robinson, a research fellow in pharmacology, is the engagement leader for her department. As well as sending PhD students to schools to stimulate children who find science boring, she organises summer schools for children from deprived areas who would not usually consider university.

She said: "I interviewed a student for a Universities and Colleges'

Admissions Service place here who had been on a summer school and was applying because the experience had been so exciting. That was a great feeling."

Dr Robinson is not afraid to discuss research on animals with schoolchildren. "Kids are very open to being informed and forming their own opinions," she said. "In discussions they all seem to want to test drugs on prisoners - I'm not sure why."

She added: "If you go out and talk about science, some people may say you are getting distracted and you should be in the lab.

"But my view is we are publicly funded and people have a right to know what we are doing."

anna.fazackerley@thes.co.uk

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