Selling science is a job for a young person

March 10, 2006

Most PhD students are youthful and passionate. Stephen Blake says they are the key to turning pupils on to research

"What's the point of what you do?" As an engineering PhD student, I deal with lots of difficult questions, but that one threw me.

I'd never been asked a question quite like that before. But that didn't put 14-year-old Elliot off posing it - and, from the earnest look on his face, he expected a good answer.

Depending on the nature of your work, such incisive questions may be easy or difficult to answer. Regardless, they not only make PhD students think in a whole new way about their work, but the answer provides a young mind with an insight into what research is and how it is relevant.

Schoolchildren are brimming with questions about university and the life to which it can lead. The trouble is that most have only teachers to ask, and no self-respecting kid listens to teachers. PhD students are mostly young, motivated and passionate about their subjects. They are exactly the right people to include in school placement schemes that can enthuse a new generation of researchers and increase public knowledge of research.

Such schemes do not place huge burdens on PhD students in terms of work and require minimal support once they are running. At the same time, they increase a student's transferable skills and provide an exceptional forum for the communication of research to the wider public.

Researchers in Residence is a scheme that provides a school-university link for science and engineering, but all disciplines could learn from it and follow its lead. When I was at school, research was never mentioned and university was discussed only with A-level students. So I had precious little knowledge of what went on behind the closed campus gates.

My life took me away from higher learning when I flunked my A levels and ran away to join the Royal Air Force. I have been lucky and found my way back. But I carried my ignorance of research into my adult life.

The lack of marketing by universities that led to this does little to produce home-grown PhD applicants and does much to contribute to a public perception of research as useless and irrelevant. The simple point is that interaction between the research community and schools leads to a better understanding of what researchers do. If we are to interact with children, then who better to do this than those researchers who are closest to them in years?

Our PhD students hold the key to ensuring that tomorrow's generation understands the importance of research. Academic supervisors should realise this and encourage PhD students to engage with outreach projects.

This will provide our universities with the next generation of UK research students, which might even include my friend Elliot, or "E" as he likes to be called. After what was probably an inadequate response to his initial question, I've been able to answer it more thoroughly through contact with him over time.

Elliot tells me that he wants to go to university, but not to do research.

There's still time for me to work on this - but even if research is not for him, he'll at least know what it is and its usefulness to society.

Stephen Blake is an engineering PhD student at Nottingham University.

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