Yesterday, with a host of podcast luminaries, I ran a discussion session on science podcasting at the British Science Association Science Communication Conference – or a podchat, as my brain insisted on referring to it for reasons of brevity.
The conference itself seemed to be mostly attended by science communicators, with a good representation too from early career (usually PhD-type age) research scientists – although I’m sure the BSA could confirm that with numbers. The conference organisers clearly recognised the importance of networking at a conference, with structured sessions integrated very early on into the two-day proceedings. The “networking speed dating” gave us 7 minute sessions to introduce ourselves to a group of 4 other delegates – little more than a minute each. The process was rinsed and repeated until we’d met twenty or so people and given them the twitter version of our life’s work. Gimmicky on the surface, it actually meant I at least recognised a few faces by the end of the session – having come knowing about 2 people at the conference.
The conference seemed very friendly – several life scientists commented that at their research conferences, this really was not the case. I suspect that the relatively flat career hierarchy among young science communicators as opposed to the many ages of academics at a research conference contributed to this, and the fact that the scc delegates make it their business to know how to communicate couldn’t hurt.
The talks I attended (including the plenaries) seemed to me to be pitched at an accessible and introductory level – I don’t consider myself an expert PE (public engagement) practitioner and I never felt out of my depth. I think this would make it a great conference for people new to PE for that reason – and the opportunity to meet like-minded scientists and communicators is very valuable, especially if you’re someone who feels isolated in your research group as a result if your PE commitment, or just the aching loneliness of the freelancer.
From this comes my main criticism of the conference – I saw lots of great examples of PE projects and practice over the two days, but very little to really surprise or challenge me. We heard a lot about how scientists need to engage with the public as a social duty and as a way to influence policy and secure funding; about how scientists are traditionally bad at this but are getting better. We heard about how scientists need to learn the value of two-way engagement because the public have a right to shape research agendas and will actually benefit from seeing the effects of their work; how scientists are traditionally bad at this but are getting better. And we heard that there are “dinosaurs” in academia who tell their researchers to get on with research and stop piddling around with talking about it; impact being written into mainstream research council grants mean that while this was once a major problem, it’s getting better. I don’t feel as if there’s much very revolutionary in this and never had a “so that’s what I should be doing” moment. It’s not a major criticism, in the sense that the BSA have put together a well-organised, friendly conference with good speakers – but there could have been a bit more to frighten the chickens*.
That said, there were plenty of good examples of very successful PE and citizen science projects which provide lots of great ideas for projects – and if this was the conference’s main remit, I think it was very successful. Visionary and disruptive challenges to the community represented are, perhaps, the icing on the cake of excellent conferences – and even without the extra decoration, The British Science Communication Science Communication Conference was a very tasty cake.
*I know that’s not the right expression but I’m having a mental block on what exactly it is. Something to do with horses?