Why get involved in 'Public Engagement' and 'Science Communication'?

I was asked to talk to the new PhD students about some of the 'public engagement and science communication' activities that I am involved in and encourage them to take part.

I just got stuck. Why should students give their time to get involved with these activities on behalf of their university? Are they really going to help their career? I was told that if I was applying for a post doc, I should probably leave out of my application all the activities I do, as the potential employer may worry that I do not do spend enough time in the lab. (Just to stress... my PhD is my absolute priority, I make sure that I prioritise my PhD first and I never do an 'activity' instead of my PhD. I do them as well as, and mostly in my spare time).

So why do I do them?

Honestly, I started getting involved these 'activities' in an effort to meet people. I moved here from London after growing up in the North West of England and going to university in the North East of England. I knew very few people in the far North East of Scotland (/arctic circle), probably about 6 people. I am a sociable person, so I started getting involved with things and I got involved with science things, because I am rubbish at sport and those seemed the best option for me. I also enjoy new experiences and love a challenge. I struggle to say no.

I am a registered STEM ambassador and during the past 2 years I have blown up film canisters for 5 year olds and talked about my PhD project to a group of people that wanted to hear about it. Just because the opportunity was available.

I started up Au Science Magazine because I felt that the University of Aberdeen produces some really great science, and really great events, but students and people in city did not know about any of it. How can a story get on the BBC news website, yet students from the university  know nothing about it? (I am not sure why I felt so strongly about this; it isn't my job to feel like this!)

I wanted to share with people just how exciting 'science' can be, because I find it exciting. I started by trying to get involved with the student newspaper, but that attempt failed somewhat, so I put forward an idea for the science magazine. It worked, and I met a great bunch of people through the magazine.

I started Aberdeen Skeptics in the Pub because it looked like fun...

As a PhD student you are supposed to give a certain number of hours to 'development activities' but make of that what you will. You could spend your time teaching, attending some of the skill development courses that the university runs, enter yourself into business competitions (like Biotechnology YES) or do nothing at all. These alternatives could all help develop communication skills, without needing to get involved in 'public engagement'. The time is your own.

The situation gets even more difficult as a post-doc. Jobs are hard to come by and research papers are a necessity for employment, if 'public engagement' is not specifically written into your employment terms -why waste any precious time outside of the lab?

Do academic researchers have a duty to communicate what they are doing? (I would say yes if they are publicly funded). But what if they are industry funded? Do they have a duty to share their work?

The university depends on people giving up time and being involved in these kinds of activities, but what real incentive is there for the students? Is the promise of 'experience' or as a C.V. enhancer enough?

I know there are a million and one reasons why the universities encourage people to take part in 'public engagement' just take a look at http://www.publicengagement.ac.uk/why-does-it-matter/manifesto.

So why should students get involved in public engagement? Why did you get involved? Alternatively, why do you not get involved?


  1. A good reason not to get sucked into PE is that PE appears to be run by sociologists who think nothing of sucking your time into their useless vortex. It's their experiment. Avoid.

    That said, you're doing your own thing and ignoring them, and that is truly admirable.

  2. I really only got involved with PE because Manchester Uni has a huge PE team and really encourage post grads to be involved- we are all added to the PE opportunities mailing list the moment we enrol as the uni do so much in the community. Because of this I've helped out with organising community open days, I've run tours out of my lab, worked science week doing science busking and this year have managed to do some stuff for the science festival! Yes they're all science based- but there's common communication/time organising skills in all activities!

    And personally I think being stuck in the lab as a PhD/MSc student can leave you so divided from the outside world and this isn't going tohelp you for when you come out of the academic world into industry/an alternate career not in science (if you want to). It's definitely not in my contract to do it but I don't want to be an academic so I think it's essential (just like work experience was at high school!) Plus many people are scared of academics- so this gives us "normal" skills!

    May have gone off the point. But peeps, do PE. Don't become stuck in the vortex of the lab!


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