Some thoughts on science communication

Science communication – it’s an interesting one. I think I can speak on behalf of most people who indulge in outreach is that they started out with very noble ideas about changing the world, public perception of science, inspiring the next generation of scientists, and perhaps educating a few people along the way. I have had the fortune over the years to take many different platforms from school events, speaking to thousands of children in large theatres, to radio and (a little) television. I have had many experiences ranging from downright disheartening to unspeakably wonderful.

Outreach has become very important for science in the last few years especially in light of the impact agenda. The impact of such activities must be measureable and one cannot underestimate the importance of evaluation of outreach events in whatever form they take. I don’t doubt that it is better to be strategic with such activities given the demands on our time (especially paid time). Sometimes in the fight to get “bang for our buck” we inadvertently sweep aside the armies of students, teachers, and scientists who give up their spare time to speak to a café sci, a school event, a science fair, or local groups. These events often go unevaluated and may not contribute to any impact tick boxes but does this make them any less valid?

Over time I have come to realise that the noble reasons for doing outreach aren’t always the reasons I keep coming back to it. I enjoy outreach for the same reasons I enjoy performing dance – it’s the excitement I get from the show, the performance, and the connection with the audience. I derive pleasure from telling stories and making people smile, or feel something even if it is just for the 30 minutes I’ve spent talking to them. Most of the time I can deduce from the audience reactions, questions, and feedback people have enjoyed themselves. It’s entertainment, simple as that.

I think its ok to do outreach on your own time “just because”. If I chose to speak to a group of 20 octogenarians about science it doesn’t tick many of the impact boxes. But I enjoy it and they enjoy it and that is a valid human experience. Many people chose to spend their own time doing these activities and it’s their choice, ergo theirs to decide if they are wasting their time or not.

I am not for one minute suggesting that large, targeted activities and proper evaluation are not necessary. They are definitely important and give us data and markers for many purposes. We should just be careful not to write off or be snobbish about smaller or less targeted outreach activities. People are making connections, being entertained, and being made to think, even if it is just for one glorious fleeting moment.

It’s hip to be square

Recently some people on the internet have been getting their underwear in a tangle over the usage of the term geek/nerd. This arose because of Mark Henderson’s seminal (heh, I said seminal, heh) book about how scientists shall inherit the earth called “The Geek Manifesto”. Rumblings of “it’s not helpful” have been rebounding around the twitters like a game of pong. Some people in science and technology don’t want to be branded a geek/nerd on account of apparently negative connotations.

Here’s the rub – geek/nerd ceased to be pejorative some time ago. At the very least it is sort of adorable and the most, aspirational. The internet rules the world and the internet is in turn ruled by vast swathes of people who self-identify as geeks/nerds. The creative digital industry is awash with folks who will answer to that branding. Sections of the music industry too are propped up by geek/nerd tendencies.

The terms have even been reappropriated as verbs. To be geeky/nerdy about something is to know everything there is to know about that particular thing. Whether that thing is computers, music, or fashion is up to said geek/nerd.

The geek/nerd stamp is everywhere. Take fashion – all the cool kids have been geeking it up for years with thick framed specs, ill-fitting jumpers, and retro wear (par example). It’s not just hipsters, it is increasingly mainstream as can be seen by doing a quick google of geek chic.

Most people who really know about music, record music, play music would confess to being geeky/nerdy. Hell, there’s even a genre called “Nerdcore”. See acts like MC Lars for reference.

Even mainstream TV has jumped on the bandwagon with shows such as the Big Bang Theory and the IT Crowd. Now I know that these shows were designed to “laugh at the nerd”, but in reality a lot of people sympathise and identify with the main protagonists. I mean, who wouldn’t want to wrap up Moss and take him home in your pocket?

People try hard to be geeks/nerds. So next time you get branded a geek/nerd for being a scientist/mathematician/engineer be proud.  What is means in reality is that you are hip, clever, and part of a culture that will inherit the earth. Mwoahahahhahahhahaha mwoahahahahaha mwoahahaahha ….*cough cough*