The BIG Event is an annual conference held by the British Interactive Group which focuses on public engagement and science communication. We sent two members of our Public Engagement Committee (the researchers holding the DPhil and Postdoc positions) along, and they filed these reports. This one is by Irina Pulyakhina, Postdoc in the Julian Knight lab. To read the report from our DPhil student representative, see our separate report.
If I told you that I’m going to a public engagement conference, what would you imagine? A conference on public engagement? What does it mean? Do people just tell each other how they talk about science on public? Is it just as serious as any other conference? Do people wear suits?
Having just visited my first – and, hopefully, not last – public engagement conference, first of all I can tell you that such conferences do exist. The one I visited was a big gathering of people from the UK and Europe interested in/specialised at/working with public engagement. Hence the title – the BIG event. This year it took place in the beautiful city of Belfast – but I’m not here to promote Northern Ireland, so let’s talk more about the conference!
One of the biggest impressions the BIG event made was how amazingly well the informal style of clothing and behaviour worked with the serious attitude towards the event – lecture halls were full (even for the 9 o’clock lectures!), speakers were treated as real experts, and a good ten minute discussion followed almost every lecture. The atmosphere at this conference was, however, very different from my previous experiences in molecular biology and genetics’ conferences. Here people treat you like a friend and like an equal – even when you see them for the first time and know almost nothing about public engagement. I never felt like I was an outlier, or a less important member of the group because science communication is not my main job.
Oh, by the way – science communicator and public engagement officer. These two sound very similar, however, as I was told, they imply rather different duties. As a public engagement officer you need to make sure that you run the events that involve a two-way communication, when both the scientists and the public interact. As a science communicator, you need to make sure that at least one-way communication is happening, usually that is the public. So it turned out that there is a layer of theory when you talk about public engagement, it’s much deeper than go-on-the-street-and-talk-science-to-strangers.
And demos! At least every-other person brought a small demo with them. Small fun things, always with a bit of education – which is natural, as we are talking about scientific communication after all. And it was great fun to see how people who said “I have no scientific education and know nothing about science” would start explaining Newton’s laws or principals of molecular biology – and did a very good job at it!
Another fantastic thing I learnt during the BIG event was that not all adults are the same. You might say – of course we all differ from each other. But what I mean is that public engagement seems to attract people who are not as ‘practical and cynical’ as others. Unlike a lot of us, PE people believe they can make a change, they believe that communicating with children is the key to that change, and that children will be appreciative and enthusiastic about sciency activities as long as the organiser himself is enthusiastic about what they are doing. It’s not just about money and status for PE people. Which in a very positive way make them less like ‘grown-ups’, maybe because they spend so much time interacting with children. Or does it work the other way around, and children only let the people who are sincere and open into their circle?
In the scientific community, especially when we write papers, we are supposed to write a “Conclusion” section. So, the conclusion I’ve made after having visited the BIG event is this: it is fun doing serious science, but it might be even more fun to forget about the “serious” bit and talk about it to your friends and folks around you. And there are people who can help you do that in a professional way – so you don’t have an excuse not to do it.