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.