'Funding bodies now take this seriously rather than seeing it as a fluffy thing'

September 8, 2006

Winning the Kohn Award is testament to Kathy Sykes's ongoing interest in talking to the public about science

Just over a decade ago, Kathy Sykes felt she had to abandon an academic career as a scientist if she wanted to pursue her aim of promoting dialogue between scientists and the general public.

While she was working towards her PhD on biodegradable plastic, she was keen to talk to the public about her work and explore ethical issues in linked areas such as genetic modification. "When I spoke to the public, I found out all sorts of things we hadn't been considering. But an interview for a lectureship made me see that if I was going to get on in science, I'd have to get my head down and publish, publish, publish."

This week, she has been awarded the prestigious Royal Society Kohn Award for her work on public engagement, and she hopes today's young researchers will not face such a stark choice. "We're beginning to make amazing progress," she said. "It's fantastic that the Royal Society, which represents revered institutes, is taking engagement seriously. Funding bodies are beginning to embed this in their work instead of treating it as a fluffy thing at the side."

Professor Sykes returned to higher education in 2002, when Bristol University appointed her to the Collier chair for public engagement in science and engineering. But she always maintained close links with the sector to ensure her outreach included cutting-edge work. She co-founded the Cheltenham Science Festival, helped create the competition Famelab to talent spot the next generation of science communicators and has starred in TV science programmes.

The award recognises her less well-known work, such as organising events with deprived communities in Bristol, where participants chose topics such as "Do drugs do your head in?" She has also involved some 300 Bristol staff in interactive science exhibitions in a local shopping centre.

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