Simon Singh criticises wasteful spending in science outreach

The best forms of public engagement tend to be ‘dirt cheap’ and profitable, says author

October 13, 2015
Rambert Dance Company perform Constant Speed, Philharmonie-venue, Cologne, Germany
Source: Alamy
It’s all relative: a ballet about Einstein cost £30,000

A ballet about Einstein, a palace made of children’s teeth and professional photographs of mathematicians have all been singled out by the science writer Simon Singh as examples of wasteful spending on public engagement.

Such projects must be scrutinised much more thoroughly, the author said last week at a conference in Amsterdam, arguing that the best schemes usually did not rely on public subsidy.

Dr Singh criticised a number of projects, including a 2005 ballet inspired by the theory of relativity that was launched to celebrate the centenary of Albert Einstein’s most seminal breakthroughs.  

“People hate physics, they hate ballet; all you’ve done is allowed people to hate things more efficiently,” he told the 2:AM Amsterdam conference about alternative metrics on 7 October. “I just don’t understand how this gets vast amounts of money.”

A spokesman for the Institute of Physics, which commissioned the ballet, said that it had cost the organisation about £30,000 and had been a “remarkable success” that “introduced thousands of people, usually disinterested in physics, to inspiring concepts in a beautiful way”.

During his talk, Dr Singh, author of seven books on sciences and maths, said that such a project’s value for money should be compared with the cost of a science teacher.  

Drawing from his own experience in science communication, he said there “tended to be a reluctance to rank ideas” in order of effectiveness, and there “doesn’t seem to be this culture of criticism in science communication”.

Also in his line of fire was a project called “Faces of Mathematics”, a series of black-and-white portraits of mathematicians funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. “I’m sure these are lovely mathematicians,” Dr Singh told delegates, “but I don’t quite understand how this is really going to have an impact.”

Nick Gilbert, of the School of Mathematical and Computer Sciences at Heriot-Watt University, which carried out the project with the EPSRC funding, said he was "sorry" Dr Singh had not liked the "relatively inexpensive" initiative.

He said it "was designed to personalise mathematicians, to make them real people" and had received "very positive feedback", although he added that the project finished 12 years ago so did not take advantage of today's digital and social media opportunities. "I'm sure that if we were to devise a new outreach project today, in 2015, we would do things differently," he said.

During a subsequent panel session at 2:AM, Lucy van Hilten, who works in scientific public relations, defended the level of scrutiny of public engagement projects by recounting her time working on a collaboration between a scientist at Imperial College London and an artist to create a “Disney-style palace” made of milk teeth “to teach people about stem cells”.

She admitted that she was “not entirely sure how that teaches you about stem cells” but added that it was “a very beautiful palace”. “That was a very expensive project, and it got Wellcome [Trust] funding, and they had to pitch really, really hard to get that [funding] and they do have to show impact, outreach, [and] promotion,” she explained.

Dr Singh was unconvinced. “What was the point?” he asked. “They got the money because they mentioned the word ‘art’ and ‘artist’ several times, which is always a winner…and it’s innovative. No one has ever built – and why would anyone build? – a palace out of milk teeth. And that’s why those projects get money.”

David Cahill Roots, manager of arts awards at the Wellcome Trust, said that the tooth palace had been given £40,000 by his organisation. The palace had been a “really successful” project that had attracted press attention and a public audience, he said.

Dr Singh told the conference that in his view the best science engagement was “largely dirt cheap, it’s largely grass-roots…and it’s largely profitable. A lot of these things actually generate money, because they’re good.”

He praised Numberphile, a series of hundreds of short YouTube videos about maths that has so far amassed 147 million views. Other YouTube series about physics (Sixty Symbols), computing (Computerphile) and psychology (Quirkology) had also generated huge numbers of views as well, he said.

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Print headline: Simon Singh criticises wasteful science outreach

Reader's comments (5)

Compared with the vast wastes of money that happen every day (tax breaks for the oil industry, supermarkets chucking away perfectly good food etc etc), Singh is quibbling here over a pretty trivial amount of cash. Perhaps he'd be better applying his intellect and effort into getting more money for STEM across the board.
I think Simon Singh was probably just trying to be provocative, but I think we should be encouraging collaborations between art and science not dismissing them as he does in the quotes attributed to him in this piece. Works of art inspired by scientific themes have cultural value in themselves and should not be labelled as failed attempts at "outreach". Indeed, collaborations of this type generally fail dismally when they try simply to be didactic.
I agree with Singh's claim that science communication is often uncritical and doesn't rank outreach for effectiveness- probably because we are a young discipline still, so there is still relatively little research comparing outreach methods. But it's very hypocritical of Singh to then claim these particular outreach methods were less effective than others- what evidence is this claim based on? On what research schema is his personal ranking method based, other than an apparent dislike of ballet?
Suggestions that Simon Singh should be "applying his intellect and effort into getting more money for STEM across the board" would be great were we not living under a government that sees the cost of everything and the value of nothing. If you can't prove that something is "cost effective", forget it. Putting "effort into getting more money for STEM across the board" is like beating your head against a wall. Despite the government's desire to encourage people not to be just like its public school, Oxbridge educated arts graduates, STEM has a limited, and probably rapidly declining budget. So it is all down to getting the best bang for the buck. While it is Philistine to suggest that "People hate physics, they hate ballet..." it seems sensible to suggest that the IoP and those who back such ventures persuade other people to fund that sort of thing and reserves their own money for more pressing projects. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of projects that cost 10 per cent, perhaps even 1, per cent, of the cost of the ballet. Their cost "per head reached" may be much less for that £30,000 investment. Who knows, perhaps one of the wealthy individuals who loves ballet went along, felt moved and then shovelled much more of their own money into other STEM works. Sadly, we are unlikely to see any of the current government at any cultural event. As football fans they will not notice that, unless the ticket comes from someone seeking influence, they pay much more than us fans of opera, that elitist pursuit, for out tickets.
I can understand where Simon Singh is coming from, but also wince at his clumsy critique of projects that join the arts and sciences together as allowing 'people to hate things more efficiently'. It is quite philistine and overly simplistic. I am the chair of a local branch of a major UK learned society (that is not the IoP). We support a range of outreach and educational projects in our local area that have ranged from small grants to help Schools all the way to supporting larger 'cross-over' events in the region similar to the general relativity ballet. My view is that a diverse 'portfolio' of outreach activities is the best way to reach the most people and try and innoculate science into wider cultural life (where it belongs). Why is diversity important? Because it isn't just about the numbers of people you reach, it is about the backgrounds and communities those people are from. Cheap initiatives are great and do reach a lot of people for their cost (bang for buck) but they aren't always the best at reaching out to new audiences because there is an element of self-selection in the participants. For example, you may need an already engaged teacher to act as an advocate, for youtube, people need to click on your videos - SixtySymbols, etc. are great but who are they reaching? Doing stalls at Science Fairs are great, but who goes to these things? Larger flagship events which collaborate with the arts seem expensive, but this is what I see is the added value beyond the cheap and cheerful stuff: 1) Audience reach - ballet going audiences aren't necessarily going to engage with cheap and cheerful science outreach. These people often have influence in wider cultural life and it is worth trying to engage them. 2) Science needs cultural cachet - badging it as a relevant and important topic for artistic consideration provides that; getting on the agenda in our major cultural venues is important. 3) Beacon effect - a big flagship event highlights other activities going on around it and may even have other things tagged on to it. For example, the event we help support at a major cultural venue in the region had a number of interval based 'side show' science demonstrations. This directly led to an increase in demand for these cheap outreach programmes in areas not usually accessed (see point 1) - I call that a win. 4) Learning good practice - Outreach is, in part, performance. As an amateur musician I have some understanding of the importance of performance technique and marketing in engaging with audiences. The performing arts have much more experience of this and we should be working together to learn and develop this.

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