Behold the wonderful Ivory Tower: the metaphysical, secluded space to which all scholars have a key. For generations, scientists have huddled within its glittering walls, pursuing their esoteric academic research in splendid isolation from the real world.
Inside the Tower, cloistered academics divorced themselves from the general public. They gathered into like-minded groups, and established universities and other centres of learning, leaving the rest of society to manage in their absence.
Years later, even as people bask in glow of the information age, they continue to live in the shadow of the Tower, surrounded by the gadgets they take for granted but barely understand. The gap between the public understanding of science and pure academic research has never been greater, and this is a matter which should concern us greatly.
Lives depend, and elections are decided, on issues such as MMR vaccination, stem cell research, GM crops and energy generation: all areas in which people remain largely fearful and ignorant. In order for both ministers and the general public to make informed choices, and for society to progress, the level of scientific literacy must rise. To do this, we must bridge the knowledge gap between the Tower and the people.
Unfortunately, the school system cannot do this alone. While both teachers and pupils try their best, they are fighting a losing battle against increasing politicisation of the syllabus, huge class sizes, and funding shortfalls. Fundamentally, and most tellingly, the current curriculum favours shallow recollection of facts over deep scientific understanding.
Our long seclusion has also affected public perception. Rather then being welcomed as useful members of society, we are dismissed as ‘boffins’ by those who readily buy into the mythical stereotype of the ‘mad’ scientist; invariably male, this character comes complete with lab coat, frizzy white hair and bubbling test tubes.
Clearly, it is time to leave the Tower. Or at least open a window. Some of us have to bridge the gap and communicate with the general public.
I’ve been involved in science outreach and education for the last decade. Formally, I tutor maths and physics to students at every stage from primary to undergraduate. By teaching beyond the syllabus, I’m able to connect seemingly disparate topics, helping my students to understand and love the subjects, and enabling them to achieve higher grades than their teachers ever thought possible.
‘Informal’ outreach (outside a classroom) is equally rewarding, but presents a much greater challenge. Initiative and project management skills are required, altruism is expected, and since outreach jobs are rare, you may have to create a role for yourself. This is possible: In 2006 I obtained a £500 grant from the IOP and used it to stage a two week Einstein event at the University of Leicester, in association with the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. As a result, I’m now co-ordinating a national tour of their ‘Einstein: Man of the Century’ exhibition, together with my public lecture, ‘Einstein’s Legacy’, both of which will be appearing at the IOP (76 Portland Place) in June.
If you would like to get involved in public engagement, I recommend that you first become a STEMNET Science and Engineering Ambassador, and volunteer for a couple of their activities. If you’re more ambitious, and want to put on your own major event, you will need persistence, vision, a good team and a source of funding. You should also attend the excellent (and free) IOP Outreach Workshops.
Whichever path you take, the secrets to successful outreach are to have fun, to share your passion, and to inspire your audience. Good luck!