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Public engagement raises the visibility of women in science

Scientists are breaking the boundaries to capture our attention. Nathalie Pettorelli

In recent years, being able to engage the general public with Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) has become part of the job for many academics, who are increasingly required to show that their research is relevant and provides benefits to society. Research councils now demand that scientists detail their pathways to impact. Media training has become routine for most scientists working in a higher education institution and outreach has become an activity you must report against annually and detail on your CV.

Public engagement activities are often viewed as an unnecessary demand on an academic’s precious time. Yet these activities have the potential to make a difference in scientists’ careers, by raising their profile and widening the reach of their work. For example, a piece of science presented at a major science festival, such as the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition is more likely to be covered by the media.

Media coverage gets the scientists’ names known and is likely to gain them invitations as conference speakers and journal editors. These are “impact” accreditations, all of which improve the job prospects and grant winning potential of scientists. As such, public engagement activities are no burden: they are a powerful means of promoting both science and the people who do science.

Public engagement activities take a variety of forms, including science festivals, public lectures like TED talks, writing lay blogs and articles and Café Scientifique. But do these events enthuse the targeted audience, or are scientists preaching to the choir?

People attending events like the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition are far from random – STEM students, science journalists, teachers and academics tend to form the bulk of the audience. These attendees aren’t there by mistake. They have planned to come; they have specifically searched for that TED lecture on the web; they want to learn more about science.

But are these the communities that scientists should be aiming to “engage”? Of course we want to keep people interested in science. But we also want to reach people who wouldn’t normally come across science in their everyday lives. Publicly funded science should be for the masses, not the elite, and scientists have a responsibility to deliver widely across the society’s spectrum. In doing so, a majority will appreciate and understand the contribution of the STEM community to the economy and human well-being.

So, how do we reach these people who would not otherwise seek out science? Events like Soapbox Science offer a pretty radical solution. By taking cutting-edge UK science to the streets of London, we transform public spaces into an arena for learning, exploration and scientific debate. It’s sustainable, cheap, highly reproducible, and flexible. The aim is simple: inspire people who never normally get exposed to science.

Events like these offer scientists a chance to break free of conventional communication methods like lectures and graphs, giving them a fresh platform to engage with the general public.

It may sound like street performance, but the message is far from frivolous. All Soapbox Scientists are women, making it a powerful platform to address the female brain drain in STEM careers. The low visibility of women in science is one explanation for the paucity of senior female scientists. Without accessible, visible role models it is difficult to attract and retain women in science.

Science communication techniques can be used to provide more visible women in science. Many of our country’s top female scientists are eager to engage with the public and share their stories and experiences through their career, but it is an uphill struggle. Soapbox Science is so far the only UK science event that actively promotes the participation of women in science.

Public engagement initiatives like Soapbox Science provide a wide audience with direct, easy access to these insights. They can help promote the emergence of role models that will spur on the young scientists of the future, while challenging stereotypes on who or what a scientist really is. Ultimately, this can help inspire more girls to take on STEM subjects at A-levels and beyond, while pushing for the much-needed changes in the STEM culture to achieve the gear-shift in women’s representation in science we need.

Soapbox Science is taking place this Friday, July 5th, at Queen’s Stone on the Riverside walkway, South Bank.

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