Science communication is a difficult but vital part of engaging the public in science and technology, and in ensuring continuing public support for scientific research, university education and research council funding via the taxpayer. That said, it can be hard to know how to engage the public in your research, or for the interested public to know where to go to be engaged. One international science festival has a unique and brilliant solution: the scientists take their research to the pub.
The premise of Pint of Science is simple: you go to a pub and listen to someone talk about their research. Originally a “Meet the Researchers” event at Imperial College London in 2012, the 2017 festival saw over 175 cities taking part worldwide, including the UK, Brazil, Australia and Japan. Over three nights, the UK alone was celebrating research in 150 pubs in 26 UK cities, with a thousand speakers and an estimated 20,000 attendees listening to short, accessible research talks from real research scientists. Among the new cities for 2017 were Durham, Cardiff and Liverpool, joining veteran cities like Manchester, Leeds, Bath, Cambridge, Glasgow and more.
The true draw of the festival is that there can be something for everyone: several themed events are run under the Pint of Science banner. These include “Beautiful Minds”, covering all things neuroscience and psychology, or “Atoms to Galaxies”, taking in physics, chemistry and astronomy. Each theme is attached to a pub for three nights, and so with two speakers per night, you can showcase a wide and varied selection of local research for each of your chosen themes. It’s not just limited to the ‘traditional’ sciences either, as Pint of Science also includes the Our Society theme for social sciences like history and politics, as well as the Creative Reactions arm which is about bringing science and art together; the idea is to showcase the variety and abundance of academic research.
This was my second year organising the Newcastle branch of the festival after our inaugural success in 2016. Though the festival runs for only three nights in May, we started preparing in the preceding November, deciding which pubs we wanted to use, which themes we would like to include, and what we were looking for in our speakers; we had most of this locked down by February at which point we could think about publicizing and promoting the festival around the city. As both an event manager (for Our Society) and the publicity coordinator, I had many plates to keep spinning from November to May but thankfully a great deal of the organization can be done by email.
Being an event manager in this kind of festival allows you not only to bring your university’s research directly to the public, but also gives you the opportunity to create your own kind of mini-conference: you get to devise a topic for the evening and select the speakers, you must co-ordinate with them on when they are available, who they would be sharing a platform with, and what their talks should contain. Many researchers haven’t had the opportunity to speak to a novice audience before, and even the most esteemed professors appear to quake in their boots at talking to the public! On the nights of the festival you’re responsible for setting the tone, introducing the speakers and chairing the discussions. These are all valuable skills for an early career researcher and you get to practice in a relaxed, informal environment.
Even as a floating helper, as I was last year while furiously tweeting about the various talks happening across the city, you get to meet with the public and engage with a variety of people about some of the most fascinating research. A few examples: last year we used 3D televisions to show computer models of supernovas; we discussed how effective depression treatments really are; we explained how vital healthy mitochondria are to our health and development. This year we looked at the future of Newcastle as a smart, green city; we explored how chemists are designing better LEDs; we listened to different types of laughter to understand how our brain processes sound; and we were given a peek at how personalized cancer treatment could work.
The only sad part is that within three nights, the festival is over!
If you’re interested in outreach and engagement, Pint of Science is a brilliant way to get involved whether as a speaker or an organiser. You can check the Pint of Science website to see if there is already an event near you; if there is, you’ll be put in contact with someone on that organising team, but if there isn’t, the central team will let you know and there’s nothing stopping you gathering a few like-minded friends and colleagues to organise your own Pint of Science festival for 2018.
Natalie Tatum – BCG Representative