Scientists want time to talk

September 9, 2005

Universities should give scientists more time and greater rewards for communicating their subject to the public, this week's British Association for the Advancement of Science (BA) festival heard.

Many scientists, particularly the younger generation, are committed to and frequently have a flair for bringing science to life for people with no background in science.

But they are often forced to do public lectures, debates, dialogues, exhibitions, media appearances and outreach to schools in their spare time because university timetables do not accommodate such work.

Because science communication is not recognised by the research assessment exercise, such work can be seen as a distraction to the business of improving or maintaining RAE scores.

Robert Walsh, lecturer in astrophysics and mathematics at the University of Central Lancashire, received the Lord Kelvin award for science communication at this week's BA festival in Dublin in recognition of his work explaining the sun and solar physics to the public.

Dr Walsh, who sums up the sun as "the ultimate neighbour from hell", told The Times Higher : "My timetable does not have in it any allocation to allow me to do this sort of thing. A lot of it is in my spare time."

Mark Haw, a Royal Society research fellow at Edinburgh University's physics and astronomy department, said: "It would be better if science communication were seen as a really important part of the job. We're encouraged to communicate but no time is officially allowed for it."

Mark Wilson, postdoctoral researcher at University College, Cork, said:

"For postdocs, our time is full - our job is research."

Alison Ross, of the Institute of Child Health, London, said: "Scientists are more interested in promoting their work to their peers - they see less benefit in communicating to the public."

The Royal Society this week launched the first ever study into why scientists fail to communicate their work.

It aims to paint the first evidence-based picture of how many people are involved in science communication, what the potential barriers are and what support they would like.

Darren Bhattachary, senior manager for science communication and co-ordinator of the study at the Royal Society, said: "We need to develop a workable system to reward scientists in their efforts to engage with the public. But there are few hard-and-fast figures on attitudes and behaviour."

He said that although the RAE was commonly cited as the main barrier to public engagement, the issues were more complex and if "the RAE stopped tomorrow we would not see a 1,000-fold increase in activity".

Over the next few weeks, 4,500 UK researchers from postdocs to professors will receive questionnaires via e-mail asking about their attitudes to science communication.

They will also be asked if they have been given the training and support they need. Dr Bhattachary said the survey would take ten to 15 minutes to complete.

The study will be overseen by a consultative group, chaired by David Wallace, treasurer and vice-president of the Royal Society and vice-chancellor of Loughborough University.

The committee includes representatives from the research and funding councils, Universities UK, the BA, the Academy of Learned Societies for the Social Sciences and the British Academy.

After the initial survey, more detailed interviews will be carried out with a selection of respondents. The first results are expected early next year.

Meanwhile, a new report from think-tank Demos warns that simply communicating science is not enough.

The Public Value of Science urges scientists to engage fully in public debate, taking note of public concerns, ensuring they also relate and react to them.

It also claims that closer ties between business and university science could stifle public debate about science and distort research priorities.


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