The Science Communication Conference 2010 had been a much awaited event in my schedule and it was a great privilege to attend the conference having been awarded the bursary by the organisers, the British Science Association.
The conference was held in one of the best venues I have been to in the UK: King’s Place. It suited the needs of the conference perfectly with its big concert hall for plenary speaker events and many smaller located close by were used when the conference split into many parallel events. The centrally located foyer, with its little island tables, was ideal for networking during breaks. The catering service did a decent job with the food and the supporting staff did an excellent job to keep things running smoothly.
I missed the first part (the introduction to public engagement, presentation of the department of business, innovation & skills and a session on jargon) of the conference due to prior commitments on that day. You can read about what happened in that period here. I reached the venue very close to the end of the lunch break and barely had time to grab a bite. I was looking forward to meeting tweeple but that had to wait till the next break.
The first session I was going to attend was called Elephant in the Room. The obvious truth that had been ignored which was to be discussed was dialogue in science. The session had a very interesting start when it was launched by four ‘agitators’. Their role was to spark thoughts in people’s minds about public dialogue in science.The main questions they raised were:
- With so many years of having ‘dialogue’ with the public, we have a good idea what type of questions they tend to raise. Should we then stop the dialogue?
- Has it really worked? Can we have a ‘dialogue’ in the real sense of the word when we do it at such a large scale?
- Should we abandon calling this a dialogue and call it a discussion instead?
The audience was split into groups to discuss their takes on what they felt when the agitators were making their points. I can categories the discussion under merits, drawbacks and the big questions related to ‘dialogue’ in science.
- It has led to the creation of the branch of scientific ethics.
- It may give taxpayers the sense of security that they know where their money is being invested.
- It should be done for learning and sharing, which are important parts of science in their own right.
- It is about listening and learning and is not time bound, it goes beyond political requirements if done well. (1)
- Scientists may gain alternative perspectives.
- Often it is not easy to understand where to draw the line in a dialogue.
- It can discourage blue skies research.
- It can tend to filter out extreme views, which may be important sometimes. (2)
- Dialogue meant different things to different people. The group unanimously reached the question, “What is dialogue?” and more importantly, “Is it necessary to define it?” (3)
- At what stage of research should we have a dialogue?
- What role does PR play in a dialogue?
- Is it really a two-way process as we think it is?
- Can dialogue have the same impact on science policy/research as news media has?
- Can public science dialogue ever be actually about science, as opposed to ethics/ policy/ finance? (4)
The session concluded with the agitators concluding the thoughts of the whole group they represented in a nut shell. Although I left with more questions than I had entered with, there was a satisfaction in the fact that I had learnt so many things just about dialogue in science. The conference was already proving to be a great learning experience as I had expected.
The next session was called Young people tell it as it is. The aim of the session was for the fellows of the Prime Minister’s Global fellowship program to discuss with the audience their thoughts on how can we engage the young in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) subjects. Under the program, these students had visited countries like Japan, India, China & Brazil to understand how STEM subjects are promoted.
I’ll summarise what they had to say which is not very different from what I would’ve said had I been asked to speak of my experience as an undergraduate student in engineering. Developing countries have a natural bend towards STEM subjects because of greater availability of jobs in the sector and the ease with which one can change fields later on in their career. This has led to the polarisation of the student’s perspectives towards the subjects they wish to study.
What came as a surprise to me was when these students described what their peers (UK students) felt about choosing STEM subjects. Some viewpoints expressed:
- We are confused about our career options on choosing STEM subjects.
- All one can do with a STEM degree is teach in schools.
- There seems to be no room for creative thought in STEM subjects.
- All we do in STEM subjects is read and then write exams. Not as much fun.
What I was really expecting to hear was that: STEM subjects are hard, it takes a lot of effort to do well in exams and that jobs in the sector are few to get. But none of those thoughts were expressed by UK students.
The audience then broke into groups to discuss how can young people be helped to choose STEM subjects. Lots of interesting points were made:
- Make science compulsory till the age of 18
- Role models in science can play an important role.
- Make science innately a creative subject to learn
- Have more hands-on science in school
After this session, some people had signed up for a drinks reception. It was held in a pub close to the conference venue. I met up with a lot of interesting people there including a whole gang from the Wellcome trust and British Science Association, a chemist blogger from Bristol and Chris Smith from the Naked Scientist while hanging out with a fellow blogger, Marianne Baker (you can read her account of day 1 here). A very useful time to network over casual conversations.
What happened on Day 2? see here.