How many times I have found myself at a party with friends being asked “so, what is it exactly that you do?”. As scientists, we are generally both excited, and at the same time daunted by the possibility of finding ourselves in front of this question when the person who asks is not a scientist.
Research scientists are very passionate about what they do, but we are also afraid that the person in front of us will get either bored or scared soon after we start speaking about our work. I asked myself on several occasions: why is this the case?
There are several reasons behind this, the most important of which I believe to be:
- Scientists are used to speaking in a very technical language, and they might forget that their interlocutor has no idea of what “streaking a plate” means or that “purifying your protein” is not actually part of a satanic ritual
- The person that asked the question might not be familiar with science at all having encountered it only during high school studies and having forgotten all about it for ten years or more. It is possible that his/her view of science is very distorted, too and that your answer will not live up to their fantascientific expectation
Whichever the reason, I consider this very worrying for our society. Our world is based on scientific achievements, and we should be very concerned about the fact that the majority of people ignore or dislike to hear about scientific research. With imminent societal and global problems such as climate change or food and water crisis, how can a society based on democracy be able to make learned decisions on how to handle the situation if they lack scientific knowledge?
Outreach activities: an important part of the solution
This lack of knowledge needs to be addressed. One step towards the solution is the organisation of scientific outreach activities aimed to engage non-specialised audiences and young people. Outreach activities can include scientific workshops, webinars, scientific fairs and more. The aim of these events is that of interesting and engaging people with little or no scientific knowledge by offering them the opportunity to participate in fun scientific events. In return, we get a better-informed population and we ignite interest in potential future scientists.
How can scientists get involved and how can they reach their selected public? Setting up outreach activities can be expensive. But fear not: there are grants out there that allow you to gather funding for your project. For example, for what concerns the chemical and biological fields, learnt societies (such as the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Biochemical Society, the Microbiology Society, just to name a few) offer grants that can help you fund your activity. Once the plan is complete, and the funds gathered, the selected audience can be reached in person (for example young students can be recruited by contacting their schools), but also through social networks: we are very lucky to live in a socially connected world that makes use of instruments such as Twitter and Facebook, which allow to easily and quickly reach a very big and diverse audience.
Our in-house workshop: a good example of outreach activity
As a practical example, I would like to tell you about the activity we are organising thanks to the Biochemical Society grant we recently won. Together with the Canadian “École des Protéines” (Protein School), a new outreach program of PROTEO (the Québec Network of research on protein function, engineering and applications), we are setting up an interactive workshop directed to upper secondary school students that will take place in the University laboratory of Prof. Joelle Pelletier. “Technology goes bio: enzymes to the rescue!” is an activity that aims to give small groups of motivated young candidates a concrete taste of what the job of a bio-scientist looks like. In our workshop, students will be taught the concepts of enzymatic digestion, optimal conditions for enzymatic action, electrophoretic migration and gel staining, all while studying a practical example (detergents used to break down a fictional meatball stain on a T-shirt) in a fun and welcoming environment.
If you are a scientist there are so many reasons why you should get involved: aside from the very important task of contributing to make science more accessible to a wider number of people, your laboratory and your research will get very positive visibility and valuable possibilities of networking with different people with the further advantage of being exposed to fresh external ideas. If you are organizing a workshop, the graduate students and postdocs in your laboratory will get important teaching experience, and they will develop the capacity to speak about their research to a non-specialised audience.
If you are a member of the public or a young student, you should get involved because this is your occasion to get passionate about something you probably know very little of. It will allow you to broaden your knowledge, making you more aware of scientific socially related problems. If you are a young student, scientific outreach might help with your future career decisions, too: do not forget that YOU are the potential scientists of the future! Our promise to you: science is not scary, and it can be a lot of fun!