Ever felt frustrated by the public's ignorance of chemistry? Want to do something about it but can't find the resources and guidance? Help is out there, reports Richard Stevenson.

Ever felt frustrated by the public’s ignorance of chemistry? Want to do something about it but can’t find the resources and guidance? Help is out there, reports Richard Stevenson.

Researchers spend years learning to do good science and then find that no-one outside the laboratory understands why it is important. It’s no use grumbling that ’someone’ should do something - report after report on public understanding of science* has stressed that scientists themselves must make much of the effort, reaching out directly to the public, or helping teachers to present a better picture of modern science. Research councils and other funding bodies have added this role to their mission statements, yet researchers on the scientific treadmill often can’t see how they can afford to participate. So the funders are making it easier for them. Rachel Bishop, programme manager for public awareness of science at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), says that the council is trying to provide researchers with adequate time, money - and respect - to get involved. 

EPSRC’s public awareness (PA) programmes include Partnerships for Public Awareness (PPA) awards and Senior Media Fellowships. So far it has committed ?3.1m to 109 PPA awards of up to ?40,000. Bishop says that proposals need to be innovative and inspiring - not just student recruitment campaigns. Applicants need to consider communications training for team members, and not to be afraid to include costings for publicity and evaluation. After a slow start, when engineers dominated, chemistry projects now account for 22-23 per cent of PPA awards, with materials another 11-12 per cent. 

What’s in it for me? 
Chemists can also apply for PA grants from bodies like the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Royal Society (Copus grants), the Wellcome Trust, the Nuffield Foundation or the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta). 

Each has its own agenda. For EPSRC’s PPA awards, the applicant must have been principal investigator on an EPSRC research grant or hold an EPSRC research fellowship. PPA awards also require partnerships: these can range from companies and public bodies, schools, museums and science centres, to communicators and designers. Project leaders for Nuffield curriculum grants, on the other hand, are likely to be education professionals, but research and industrial Scientists can figure among the partners. 

In their guidelines (see Contact points), Research Councils UK (RCUK) and EPSRC have identified reasons why researchers should participate. 

  • Promoting an awareness of science as ’part of the fabric of society’. 
  • Public accountability. 
  • Recruiting the next generation of scientists. 
  • Gaining acceptance for science and new technologies. 
  • Enhancing their career, through new collaborations, sources of funding, and improved teaching. 
  • Because it is enjoyable.  

Trying to address all these possibilities at once will mean falling between stools and failing. Equally, there are different ’publics’ to address: adults, young people, teachers and the media. Lastly, the kind of activity can be roughly divided into theatre (the classic lecture-demonstration), public events (eye-catching stunts and hands-on activities), education (ranging from curriculum material to ’enrichment’ activities), and crossover activities between science and the arts (known as ’Sci-art’). 

Theatre of chemistry
Demonstrations: This is home ground for chemists: a tradition that began with Davy and Faraday at the Royal Institution (RI) continues with the televised Christmas lectures. Many chemists have fond memories of showmen of the past - George Porter at the RI, Colonel Shaw and his pyrotechnics - and their line continues today. Graeme Jones of Keele University says that ’the classic lecture demonstration is as good as theatre’. Colin Pulham of Edinburgh University concurs: ’I’ve always thought that chemistry is a little bit of magic. It’s very easy for it to be visual, loud, smelly - it stimulates all the senses. You can do the magic, and then you’ve got the explanation for people who really want to understand’. 

One of the most respected performers is David Phillips of Imperial College, London. A former deputy director of the RI, he received the 1997 Royal Society Michael Faraday prize for excellence in communicating science. He admits that he enjoys ’the theatre of being in front of an audience. My father was a bit of an actor and comedian and public performer, and I’ve got some of his genes. I do it for all sorts of good reasons, but I have to say that I do it because I enjoy it’. Even when head of a busy chemistry department, Phillips kept up his schedule of about 30 lecture-demonstrations a year. He mainly concentrates on schoolchildren, but never underestimate the importance of the parents they bring along, he says. 

Pulham agrees. He and his colleagues used PPA money to develop lecture-demonstrations for remote communities in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland - areas of real cultural and scientific deprivation. They found that after daytime school performances excited children bring their parents along to the evening show. 

Tony Ryan of Sheffield University gave last year’s RI Christmas lectures, but as the holder of the first EPSRC Senior Media Fellowship his PA activities are developing more widely. He has performed at science centres, has a regular spot on local radio, writes newspaper articles and has been working on TV documentaries. The fellowship allows him to spend about a third of his time on these activities - a double benefit, he points out, because it means that the university can hire a young lecturer to take over some of his teaching load. 

Training is an important element in the PPA scheme, and both Phillips and Pulham have used their PPA grants to help younger scientists get established as communicators. Ryan likewise sends postgrads out to schools, but cautions that if you aspire to be an academic researcher you shouldn’t let PA activities take over until you have an established career. In any case, it does not come easily: ’If you want to do public awareness well, you need to learn to speak without using your professional jargon. You need to reduce what you are talking about to something that can be understood by a primary school child and a pensioner’. 

Stunts: Nevertheless, there are times when all scientists are encouraged to join in, such as National Science Week and Chemistry Week. These provide focal points, but with so much going on it can be hard to get noticed. Providing a spectacle will attract attention at any time. Graeme Jones of Keele partnered Daresbury Laboratory to bid for a place in the Guinness book of records with a 10m tall DNA molecule in a shopping centre: the aim was to get passing shoppers to make small molecular models and talk to the scientists. ’It’s spectacle’, Jones says. ’It’s something that’s big, that’s going to attract the attention not only of the general public but of the media. That’s what science is lacking.’ 

Hands-on events require care: hosts can get jumpy about ’chemicals’. For the DNA days Daresbury scientists used a simple method to extract DNA from shopping items like Kiwi fruit or onions. However, the methylated spirit for the extraction raised fears until one team member suggested that cheap eau-de-cologne would be just as effective. Safety goes beyond ’chemicals’: atoms from molecular models could be mistaken for sweets by small children, or become as hazardous as marbles if dropped on the floor. 

Education: Educational projects can be hard to pull off. Researchers and industrialists are keen to get involved because they see big dividends and can build on the obvious successes of lecture-demonstrations. Producing school materials - booklets, posters, CDs, websites, competitions - seems easy, but detailed knowledge of curriculum changes is essential. ’A danger at the moment’, says Andrew Hunt, director of the Nuffield Curriculum Centre, ’is people banging on about the current national curriculum, whereas by the time they’ve done their project the curriculum will have changed. That emphasises the need to have a partner who really knows what is going on.’ The danger of educational projects under the PPA scheme, where the project leader is an EPSRC grantholder, is that they are ’producer-driven’. 

Partnerships: Hunt stresses, however, that education specialists need research and industrial partners for up-to-date case studies. One such partnership between the Chemical Industry Education Centre (CIEC) at York University and the Institute of Applied Catalysis (iAc) has developed a catalysis website. CIEC employed a teacher, Margaret Ferguson, to write the material, using examples from iAc’s industrial partners. Tim Lester, iAc’s education and training officer, explains that it was intended for 16-19-year-olds taking A-levels or Scottish Highers, but figures show that it is being used by undergraduate courses and colleges overseas. 

Partners can provide skills or resources in kind. For example, Daresbury engineered the giant DNA molecule - ’They were the Viagra in the project - they made that model stand up!’, jokes Jones. Often the key partners are professional communicators, designers and publicists with expertise that the researchers don’t possess. 

To help in this area, EPSRC has appointed mentors for successful PPA applicants, to help them get the best out of their ideas. EPSRC holds an annual conference for those considering an application, and the Wellcome Trust also offers pre-application workshops for its Engaging Science grants. 

Sci-art: Linking science with the arts is a whole PA subculture, though few chemists have got involved. Jeremy Frey of Southampton University recently used a PPA grant to mount an exhibition at the Christ Church picture gallery in Oxford, using striking images generated from experimental data, micrographs and photos. Cristina De Matteis of Nottingham University started similarly with money from Copus and BBSRC, exhibiting molecular graphics in cinema bars, later moving on to fuse molecular images with the everyday. ’Chemistry has its own visual language’, she says. ’I was interested in exploring how you could interface that with the imagery that the public comes across. I’m not suggesting that the stuff I do is art - it’s more about visual aesthetics - but the great thing about art is that when you go to a gallery you do your own thinking.’ 

De Matteis has worked with a designer to make ’molecular lamps’ in a Nesta-funded project, and on PPA-funded short films linking chemistry with everyday rituals such as getting ready to go clubbing. BBC2 broadcast these in the middle of the night, but the viewing figures amazed De Matteis: ’over the course of a year you’ve got audiences of millions’, whereas an exhibition will only be seen by thousands. 

TV is the medium that chemistry needs to crack. ’It’s really hard’, comments De Matteis: ’my short films are perceived by media people to be fairly hard science, but I would say they’re incredibly light science’. Several leading chemists are working with documentary producers, and work by popularisers like Adam Hart-Davis is admired, but the challenge is to get chemistry into mainstream programming. The Paws Drama Fund puts screenwriters and producers in touch with scientists, but Graeme Jones suggests another fertile target: DIY and gardening programmes, where chemistry really is everywhere. 

How did we do? 
Evaluation should be integral to any project: did it meet its objectives, was the money well spent, has it had any effect? Assessors frequently criticise this in applications; hard numbers can be gathered for attendances, website hits etc, but qualitative measurement requires social science techniques that most physical scientists don’t possess - or may disdain. Hunt feels that evaluation should emerge naturally from the dissemination and implementation plan, yet ’in many of the proposals that come to the Nuffield Foundation and a good proportion of those that go to EPSRC, the section on dissemination and implementation is pathetic’, he says. However, the cost of a proper evaluation of a large project can be as much as ?10,000 - way beyond the scope of Copus or EPSRC awards. Several communicators suggest that funders should arrange the evaluation. 

Public engagement needs constant invigoration. After a decade or so of activity, assessors are tiring of the same old ideas re-emerging - too many reinvented wheels or ’me-too’ projects. Yet current funding mechanisms make little provision for sharing best practice and replicating successful projects. Local links make for strong partnerships, but can lead to isolation, while one-off project grants do not encourage continuity. EPSRC may try including a ringfenced PA element in longterm grants for large research groups, but ideally new funding streams are needed to carry on the good work. 

*The 1990s’ term ’public understanding of science’ (PUS) is now seen as patronising, and current practitioners prefer ’public awareness’ (PA) or ’public engagement’

Source: Chemistry in Britain


Richard Stevenson

Promoting to the public

The RSC’s Committee for the Promotion of Chemistry to the Public (CPCP) aims to advise RSC management on activities and initiatives to promote chemistry and chemical science to the public. CPCP oversees Chemistry Week organisation and the RSC’s participation in joint international celebrations of chemistry and chemical science, such as the chemical landmarks programme. 

Contact points  

  • Psci-com links to a wide range of internet resources on public engagement with science and technology. 
  • Setnet, through its network of local SETpoints, provides ’one-stop shops’ for information about collaborations to enhance science education. 
  • BBSRC: Information on BBSRC’s National Science Week and School and Community awards. 
  • EPSRC: click on ’public awareness’, and follow the navigation for information on EPSRC’s PPA awards and Senior Media Fellowships, and to download the Partnerships for public awareness: good practice guide. Also gives examples of previous awards and links to associated websites. 
  • Nesta.
  • Nuffield Curriculum Centre: follow the navigation for details of the 21st Century science and Science for public understanding projects and for curriculum innovation grants. 
  • Paws Drama Fund.
  • RCUK: To download Dialogue with the public: practical guidelines. 
  • Royal Society: For Copus grants, and for media training awards. 
  • RSC: For information on the RSC’s Public Activities Small Grants Scheme and for the Network for Chemistry Communicators. 
  • Wellcome Trust: Follow the navigation to the Public Engagement Programme for information on the trust’s grant schemes, workshops, education activities, and the ’sciart’ programme.  

Contact and Further Information

Richard Stevenson
Science writer (freelance)