Scientists on soapboxes: Taking it to the people

[ Wed. Jun. 16. 2010 ]


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Liz Else, associate editor and Shaun Gamble, contributor

"If you're confused by climate change, baffled by biodiversity and puzzled by particle physics, join us at Speakers' Corner to cut out the middle man and get the truth behind the headlines."

That was the invitation and challenge from the Zoological Society of London, the folks that runLondon Zoo. Just show up at the few square metres in London's Hyde Park that have become synonymous with freedom of expression, and look out for a bunch of scientists on soapboxes.

Fifteen scientists and science popularisers turned up on Monday to help invent a new form of science communication. This was the kind of public exposure that would make even an experienced stand-up comedian anxious, so wisely they all came armed with props, from a giant plastic ladybird to a blow-up globe.

The speakers' remit was to talk about the science the public care about most - or perhaps, more honestly, ought to care about most. So the kick-off session was Earth Evolution with talks including "Life on Mars from life on Earth", "Where do species come from anyway?" and "Pheromones: Smells at the heart of life".

Up next was Earth Challenges: "Bees in crisis: Well known fact or widely held belief?", "Why deforestation in the tropics should worry us" and "Global warming and a cold winter".

Last, and cut a bit short because of organisational glitches, came Earth Solutions: "Why we need science like we never needed it before", "Lessons from Ban the Bulb" and "Conservationists must learn Chinese".

Five at a time, the soapbox scientists were left to their own devices, giving mini-lectures, or asking questions to drag in the punters in true Speakers' Corner fashion.

Warmed-up by members of Team ZSL clutching questions sent via Twitter, the public began to quiz the speakers. Is global warming real? If it is, what can we do about it? Will humans evolve? Are polar bears becoming cannibals?

The speakers had questions of their own. Why fight to preserve the British green belt, but not the foreign rainforests? Is development worth the price of diversity?

This kind of getting down and dirty with the public is a rare thing in the UK, where we tend to prefer our science on TV shows with David Attenborough, Brian Cox or Kate Humble, in public lectures featuring Richard Dawkins or in occasional forays to the more populist Cafés Scientifique.

But apart from the odd crying child and a completely confused elderly Japanese couple, everyone seemed to find scientists on soapboxes a most agreeable way of whiling away a few summer hours.

Is this something that ought to happen more often? Chatting afterwards, one of the speakers, Exeter University professor Stephan Harrison, said he had come round to the view that engaging with the public was not just an important thing to do, it is a scientist's obligation.

New Scientist's own senior consultant Alun Anderson - whose "Vanishing Arctic" talk was guaranteed to appeal to a public in love with polar bears - agreed, adding that this kind of one-on-one connection could be positively "life-changing".

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The problem remains convincing the public that there are pressing issues that deserve their attention, without allowing an unbalanced presentation of the facts. Polar bears may be resorting to cannibalism, but will people remember why?

Some topics are clearly more appealing to the public than others. It speaks volumes thatJonathan Baillie, director of conservation programmes at ZSL, literally had to shout to draw an audience to hear about endangered creatures that aren't as cute and cuddly as polar bears or pandas.

The truth is that science is seldom a majority sport, especially in times of economic stress, yet in an increasingly technological age when new jobs will depend on it, the need for science popularisation is arguably greater than ever.

Robin Dunbar, head of the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Oxford and a professor of evolutionary anthropology, is fired up by the challenge.

He was burning with factoids guaranteed to disturb even the most bullish. Did we know, for example, that the number of UK-based applicants applying to study philosophy and English at university was holding steady but that the number applying to study chemistry and biology was showing such a linear decline year on year that by 2030 these departments would have no students at all?

That's all the more reason for doing more of these events, as apparently some of the speakers are now thinking of doing according to the event's organiser Seirian Sumner, whose team for the event also included Charlotte Walters and Kate Jones. Sumner is a featured essayist on how social insects got to be social in Max Brockman's book What's Next?, a who's who of science's next generation.

Given the modest £6000 funding (from Research Councils UK) it took to organise, such a simple event could hardly represent better value for money to a severely cash-strapped government. Assuming of course, that everyone is really serious about the horribly tough job of communicating science without patronising the general public: not the niche general public that pick up science magazines on newsstands, but the real masses who walk through places like Hyde Park, their minds reeling with daily concerns and science generally nowhere among them.

(Images: Aidan Weatherill)

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