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The Black Hole

Climbing up the Hill: Getting involved in Science and Society

As promised in my least work principle entry, today’s entry will try to identify relatively easy ways for science trainees and professors to help further the public knowledge of, and excitement about, scientific research. I’ll try to stick to dissemination of academic information and communicating with governments and Beth will follow up next week with getting general information out to the public (adults and kids!)...

BY DAVID KENT | FEB 22 2010

As promised in my least work principle entry, today’s entry will try to identify relatively easy ways for science trainees and professors to help further the public knowledge of, and excitement about, scientific research. I’ll try to stick to dissemination of academic information and communicating with governments and Beth will follow up next week with getting general information out to the public (adults and kids!)
We are by no means capable of offering a comprehensive list of things that you could partake in within Canada or indeed internationally, so please do contribute your ideas, anecdotes, complaints, suggestions, etc and they will be part of Quarter 2’s summary doc at the end of March.

The comment box below or an email to us would both work!

For Everyone:
Look up two terms in your field on Wikipedia, read them and see if you cry. If you do… fix it.

Sign onto various charters
(e.g.: Stem Cell Charter), read and respond to university and/or funding agency calls for input – your voice and name matter.

Communicate with your political representatives (especially Ministers of Education, Health, and (can we get one, please?) Science), let them know about exciting progress, encourage them to attend events, etc. If you’re worried about turnover, talk to the senior brass of the bureaucracy.

Open House Nights at your University/Institute – take part. If you don’t have them yet, help make it happen. Universities are interesting places especially for those that don’t get to see them often! Also, think about the charities that might support your research and ask them if they’d like to host something.

Volunteer with the Science Media Centre: This is the type of project that can really improve science reporting across the country and it needs the support of the science community.
For Professors (because their attention span for such rambling is probably more limited):

Write to newspapers (and not always in response to something! There’s this thing they call an Opinion Editorial)

Be an expert. Most universities have a site that the people can come to for further information on a topic or to find an expert (e.g.: UBC, UofT, and UofA) – make sure you’re on the list.

When your grant asks you to spend money on public outreach, give it proper consideration and make it count. These types of projects give your research and lab excellent exposure if done well. If you think it’s an inefficient use of money, write them and encourage them to pool those dollars into something larger.

Encourage your trainees (alongside generating excellent research of course) to participate in and maybe even build a career in these fields. Remember that you only need to create a professor to replace yourself something like 2-3 times over your entire career!

Use the FRSC. We don’t have as vibrant a Royal Society as they do in Britain – it’s not the quality of our fellows, but the lack of infrastructure supporting them. If you’ve been recognized with such a distinction, you have an amazing ability to command an audience.
Post the phrase “Dr/Prof X would be happy to have enquiries about his/her field directed to (insert email/webpage here)” on your website

For Trainees:
Use your student / trainee voice. I have seen far too many student-run organizations that are solely focused on socialising. Of course social programs are critical to support, but the real power of such organizations (student councils, trainee organizations at institutes, etc) is that they can be a single voice for many people, which gives you a bigger stake in decisions. As much as you think it’s not true, your supervisor and the university both want you to succeed, and they will typically find time to listen to you. That being said, take it seriously, prepare your case and bring it to them in a way that compels them to agree with you.

Write about your field. A great example of this is a UBC initiative called the Science Creative Quarterly, which aims to compile fun and interesting pieces about science and research. Give it a whirl, it’s a great way to start getting feedback if you’ve ever thought about a career in science writing or journalism.

Change things from the bottom up. Instead of taking the negative attitude that one of our frequent comment makers complains about… try to bring a positive change to your local trainee environment. One of the most exciting examples that I bore witness to in Vancouver was the creation of the
Jobs in Science Interview Series (JISIS)
. JISIS was driven almost entirely by a single person with an idea that spent months germinating… her passion for getting some help for those looking for alternative careers in science related disciplines was contagious and eventually morphed into a great series that still continues to help people get perspective and to deal with the changing human resources in academia.
On a final note, the Science Canada folks highlighted an article in the Globe and Mail that called for the next set of big ideas with respect to Canadian policy and I think that the science community needs to be part of this. In comparison, just today, my good friend Erika forwarded me an email from the newly formed UK based Society of Biology, an amalgamation of the Biosciences Federation and the Institute of Biology:

The Society of Biology is a single unified voice for biology:
* advising Government and influencing policy;
* advancing education and professional development;
* supporting our members,
* and engaging and encouraging public interest in the life sciences.
The Society now has over 70 Organizational Members and nearly 12,000 individual members.

That’s a lot of oomph.

ABOUT DAVID KENT
David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Sonja / February 25, 2010 at 05:34

    AMAZING post, Dave! So many ideas!

  2. Sonja / February 25, 2010 at 06:23

    P.S. As a follow-up, why not discuss how to balance the oft-more exciting, and more immediately rewarding, outreach-type work with the daily slog of ‘generating excellent research’?