Research council demands that fellows spread the word

January 12, 2007

Susan Deuchars's academic fellowship involves not only research and teaching but also explaining her brand of biological science to primary schoolchildren and even a Beaver Cub group, writes Anthea Lipsett.

Outreach work is an explicit condition of the Research Councils UK academic fellowship that Dr Deuchars holds at Leeds University.

"I think it's really useful for us to do because it makes us think about how to bring our research and work to other people," she said.

Dr Deuchars plans to do more work with a school for children with autism and dyslexia in London. She has also talked to postdoctoral students in Leeds about her own career path.

She is unusual among scientists in that she works part time so she can devote time to raising her children. But she often uses her days off to do outreach work. "I'm lucky to be able to take time out of my own time," she said.

The Government set aside £25 million funding for 1,000 RCUK Academic Fellows for five years after the 2002 Set for Success report highlighted the problems postdoctoral researchers faced in finding secure positions in UK universities.

The scheme is aimed at transferring contract research staff to stable academic posts.

The first conference, held this week in Birmingham, brought together the hundreds of fellows from the first round of the scheme. The emphasis was on outreach work and how fellows should go about it.

While several fellowships expect a degree of communication work, outreach is integral to the RCUK scheme. Part of the meeting will consider the variety of outreach effort that different people expend.

Mary Bownes, vice-principal at Edinburgh University and the chair of the panel that decided the last round of fellowships, said it was important for fellows to tell people about their research.

"Researchers have to make more people aware of how valuable research is to them. They need to enthuse schoolchildren. We really need to encourage people to do that and show how valuable it is to them, the schools and the future of the UK," she said.

"Not everybody who gets a visit from a researcher will do research, but if they are a bit more aware of how research into science and engineering or community relations impacts on their life or how to interpret what's written in newspapers, that is important."

The fellows could also help keep schools up to date with what a research career involved, she said.

Postdocs often find it difficult to convince university managers of the importance of outreach work. Professor Bownes said making outreach a compulsory part of the fellowship helped to show institutions just how vital it is.

Daniel Dundas, an academic fellow in theoretical physics at Queen's University Belfast, said his department had promoted outreach work because it was keen to try to get more people to study mathematics and physics at undergraduate level.

"One of the more difficult things is working out how to take part in outreach activities, so it helps if the department has something in place already," he said.

But it can place pressure on researchers struggling to break into academe who are already juggling teaching and administrative commitments.

"People see themselves as university researchers, and developing outreach links takes up a lot of time. There are so many administrative tasks to perform these days, and this is another one; but in subjects such as physics where we're trying to attract students it's highly important," he said.

"I can see why people would say it takes them away from their research, but it's not a burden to me. It's very worthwhile."

FELLOWS FACTS

  • 39 per cent disabled
  • 34 per cent female
  • 8 per cent ethnic minority
  • 2 per cent part time
  • Average age: 35

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