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The incredible value of going public

by Phil Prime | In depth

22 November 2021

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As the Science Museum opens its doors to a new exhibition curated with Cancer Research UK as an expert partner, we speak with two science communication masters about the benefits, ethics and sheer fun of communicating your research to the public.

In the early 1800s, Sir Humphry Davy – by that time a well-established Royal Institution lecturer – began including spectacular, and often dangerous, chemical demonstrations in his public talks. Eventually, the popularity of his lectures meant the sheer volume of carriages at the Institution’s location on Albemarle Street led it to become the very first one-way street in London.

That’s the kind of stir Professor Brian Cox could only dream of today. It’s also a good reminder that scientists communicating their research to a public audience is not, by any stretch, a new craft. However, the public’s appetite for science is, in fact, on the rise. And with more traditional forms of public engagement bolstered by increasingly powerful and accessible digital technology, communicating your research to the public has never been easier.

Which is a good thing, says Professor Frances Balkwill, because at its heart there is something deeply fundamental about the practice. “It sounds a bit grandiose,” she says, “but we have a duty to communicate our science.”

Balkwill is a group leader at Barts Cancer Institute, Queen Mary University of London. She studies the links between cancer and inflammation, alongside being a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences and holding an honorary Fellowship of the British Science Association. Despite a very full and busy day job – she takes her public engagement duty seriously. “We get paid money, public money – especially Cancer Research UK-funded researchers who benefit from funds raised by donors, and volunteers – and so, the least we have to do is explain what we do and why we do it,” she says.

Frances Balkwill is Professor of Cancer Biology at the Barts Cancer Institute, Queen Mary University of London

It’s an ethos that has driven her to write many children’s science books as well as taking on the huge task of setting up Centre of the Cell at Queen Mary – the first informal science education centre in the world to be located within a working biomedical research laboratory. All this outreach experience has now been channelled toward Cancer Revolution – a new exhibition created by the Science Museum and Cancer Research UK.

Balkwill’s own work will be featured – she also helped shape the center piece of the exhibition; a two-metre-high installation representing the tumour microenvironment.

“It’s a very substantial piece of art,” she says. “I ended up going to a studio in Brixton, to see a model of the piece and saying things like ‘the blood vessels should be shaped a bit more like this and while the extracellular matrix looks good, I’d make it a bit more like this’. It was such fun doing it.”

And while Cancer Revolutions is the world’s first major object-rich exhibition focusing on how cancer is prevented, detected and treated – it isn’t the only show in town. Outwitting Cancer is currently running at The Francis Crick Institute and showcases the latest research through the scientists involved.

Outreach and empathy

Hana Dethlefsen, exhibitions manager at the Crick – an institute which has always put communication at the center of its operations – knows the key to the exhibition is understanding the audience you want to reach.

“For me, it’s so important to home in on why research matters to the visitors,” she says.

“The main part of our exhibition is a series of interviews between researchers and people who have an experience of cancer – either they have a diagnosis or have a family member or friend who has. That way it really cuts to why the research matters, because the people who are interviewing the researchers are fully invested in the outcomes of the research.”

It’s this ability to identify how people might interact with what you as a scientist want to tell them that was a priority for Balkwill. “I thought, if I were a cancer patient, would I really want to see a two metre-high installation of a cancer?” She says. “But I felt the design was sufficiently open that it didn’t feel sinister. It just looked dynamic, and very interesting.”

The installation of a tumour microenvironment is the centre-piece of the Cancer Revolution exhibition.

And, perhaps especially for cancer-related science outreach, empathy can go a long way to bridge what can be quite a gap between researchers and the public.

“At the Crick’s exhibition we have video installations showing interviews with Charlie Swanton, Karen Vousden and Simon Boulton,” explains Dethlefsen. “And yes, they talk about exciting science, but it also means we can be real humans to visitors, you know, show we’re not robots. The more we can show that human side of ourselves and why we’re doing the research and why it matters to people, the more we can build a positive relationship.”

From empathy to pragmatism

Of course, all researchers communicate about their work. Often in fact. But doing so to a public audience requires a change of gears that doesn’t always come easily. So, is it really worth finding the space in a very busy professional life to do so?

There are reasons beyond the ethical to communicate your work to a range of audiences. “These days,” Balkwill says, “if you can’t write a good paper or a good grant, then you’re not going to get anywhere. Science is all about good communication and I’ve always found that having this outreach strand to my career has been enormously helpful.”

Dethlefsen has also seen researchers benefit from sharper communication skills. It’s a very pragmatic flip side, she says, of what researchers can get out of talking about their work in general terms. “The people who make decisions about funding, they have to care about a researcher’s work.” She says. “They won’t always be experts and they need to understand the impact of the science.”

Science is all about good communication and I’ve always found that having this outreach strand to my career has been enormously helpful.

Perhaps unexpectedly for those who don’t regularly talk to the public about their work, there is also a lot to be said for what, essentially, amounts to crowd-sourcing a critique of your research.

“I’ve had so much useful feedback from non-specialist audiences,” says Balkwill. “From a selfish point of view, scientists can benefit because they just improve the clarity of what they’re doing. Somebody might come and ask, ‘but why are you doing that?’ Or ‘have you ever thought about this.’ Answering questions like that helps you to put your research in perspective.”

And, of course, all this has side-stepped the simple fact that it can also be a tremendous hoot. “While it can definitely benefit scientists’ work in many ways,” says Balkwill. “It’s also very rewarding and just plain fun, and I’ve been very, very fortunate in being able to do so much.”

Hana Dethlefsen is a Public Engagement Manager at The Francis Crick Institute

And that’s no small thing. It must be a two-way process in order for a thriving public engagement environment to develop. And thrive it must, says Dethlefsen. While public disposition toward science in the UK is reassuringly positive in general, there are pockets of society where the opposite is true. “We can see in the wake of the pandemic, there can be a mistrust of science and researchers. The more transparent we can be about the work that we’re doing, the more we can build those relationships with the public and gain their trust.”

To do so, says Dethlefsen, engagement can’t just be about science. It also has to be about how that science is done. And while that might not be an easy sell, it is a vital one. “One of the biggest challenges we face is to talk about the process of science and how long things can take,” she says. “The more that the public can understand that, the more that they can be on our side.”

How has it changed?

While road-altering bumper crowds thanks to 19th century polymaths might be a thing of the past – the public desire to hear about research clearly isn’t. It’s just that the delivery methods have expanded. ‘Old’ media, ‘new’ media, virtual talks, media-rich exhibitions – even augmented reality – have become the modern-day lecture theatre. Not to mention actual modern-day lecture theatres. This means that there are fewer barriers between the desire to reach a public audience and the means to make that happen.

“I was amazed, and really pleased, to discover that some of our researchers use Instagram to do their own outreach,” says Dethlefsen. “They’re just so keen to do science communication.”

You can get into the science and be entertaining. It’s not one or the other. The science is interesting – just pitch it at the right level and give people a reason to understand why it matters to them.

And it’s not just the medium that has changed. Particularly encouraging, says Dethlefsen, is that young researchers continue to take the idea to their hearts. “It’s great to see people who are earlier in their career getting involved right from the beginning,” she says. “And that makes me really hopeful that it becomes embedded in their work and it doesn’t drift away as they get more senior.”

There’s positive change too when it comes to the vital question of representation. One of the most powerful things about good public engagement is that it can crystalize in the minds of young people the idea they too can be a scientist.

“What I’ve found really exciting about who is volunteering to work with us is that it is really diversifying who is out there in the public, showing themselves as being researchers,” she says. “There are so many more women, so many more ethnicities, there’s so many younger people, people of different sexualities. I cannot remember when I was a kid, seeing that kind of representation. And I think that really would have made a difference to me.”

The song remains the same

Despite the incredible variation in the types of public engagement and, increasingly, in the types of people doing it, there are some key things that remain universal.

Chief amongst them is to always remember your audience says Balkwill. “When dealing with a non-specialist audience, whether they’re adults or children, you’ve got to think of a way of explaining your science that relates to their lives.”

Not always, it’s true, an easy task. But there is a more candid way to think about this. “Sometimes I frame it with a question,” says Dethlefsen. “It might sound kind of rude. But I always think, as a non-researcher, ‘why should I care?’ And that’s something you should always try and answer on behalf of an audience before you try and engage with them. Think to yourself ‘if I stopped a 10-year-old on the street, why should they care?”

For Balkwill, as she set about writing her first children’s science books, this was a question that she really couldn’t avoid. “The early books were really written on my kitchen table. I had kids at the right age at the time, so I was immersed in that mindset!”

If you want to do something substantial in public engagement, you can’t do it on your own.

For outreach on a relatively small scale, a bit of consideration of who your audience is and what they might want will go a long way. But to step up a gear, there is real benefit in going further with some proper audience insight. When Balkwill was approached by the eminent immunologist Siamon Gordon to write a book about AIDS for children in Africa – a continent she had never visited – she wasn’t entirely sure how to approach it.

“Me and my illustrator decided the best thing to do was go out to South Africa and talk to the kids,” She says. “You know, find out what they thought would be useful for the children of the world to know about HIV and AIDS, and then go back and write the book, and then come back and test it.”

The approach paid off, and the book, Staying Alive, was given for free to thousands of young people around the country. “And we do this all the time with Centre of The Cell – which had over 214,000 visitors since opening in 2009,” she says. “We conduct front end evaluation with our target audience, and we evaluate the impact of our activities.”

That kind of appraisal requires a joint effort from people with a variety of skills, and there’s a lot to be said for that, says Balkwill. “In my experience, if you want to do something substantial in public engagement, you can’t do it on your own,” she says. “If you want to have a full-time academic career, then you need to find people who have experience and training in science communication to help. Ultimately it’ll make it better as well – it’s really good to work in collaboration with artists and writers to co-produce things.”

Balancing act

Another fundamental of public engagement is the constant high-wire act of balancing facts and being, well… engaging. It’s something which often calls to mind a question for budding outreachers – what’s more important, the science or the entertainment? But that, says Dethlefsen, is a false dichotomy.

“You can get into the science and be entertaining. It’s not one or the other,” she says. “The science is interesting – just pitch it at the right level and give people a reason to understand why it matters to them.”

And when it is done right, it really can change lives. “A couple of years ago, we recruited a first-year medical student as a part-time explainer,” says Balkwill. “She was Tower Hamlets born and bred and she had been home-schooled by her mum. However, she hadn’t been taught any science. She came to Centre of The Cell when we first opened, and she loved it so much that she taught herself science to GCSE. She got into sixth form college and went on to study medicine at university. Now she helps inspire the next generation.”

It’s a fantastic reminder of why all of it, from high-end exhibitions to small-scale efforts by individual researchers, is so important. And if you are wondering if this is for you, there is a simple rule of thumb says Dethlefsen. “Just go and try it!”

“Whatever you do, it’s not going to be perfect the first time. But you just have to get out there and give it a shot.


Cancer Revolution: Science, Innovation and Hope is open at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester until March 2022, and in London from May to October 2022.

Outwitting Cancer: Making sense of Nature’s enigma will be open at The Crick until July 2022.


Top tips for engaging the public in your research

Fresh from our in-house research engagement team, here are a few things to bear in mind before taking your science to the public:

Tailor your activity to the audience

It’s a point mentioned by both Balkwill and Dethlefsen but how, exactly, do you do that? There are several ways to gather this kind of information:

  • If you’re doing a talk or webinar, you could include questions as part of registration process.
  • Conduct a quick poll at the start of the event.
  • Never underestimate the power of asking for advice from someone with engagement experience in this area.

Plain speaking

It seems obvious but it always worth remembering that writing or speaking in plain English is important. A few pointers to get the most out of your communications: ​

  • Distil your message into a few key points​.
  • Explain technical terms (…do you really need to use them?)​.
  • Don’t assume background knowledge​.
  • Provide context​, keep it short and simple​ and use analogies and images to bring your work to life​.

Don’t forget the ‘why’

It can be tempting to start with the ‘what’, missing the vital context that allows your audience to connect with the significance of your work – the ‘why’. Here are some handy examples of the ‘why​’ of research.

  • Why do you do research?​
  • Why is this research needed?​
  • Why are you so interested in this science?

You are the voice

If you are doing a talk, be sure to look after your voice​. Warm up before the event, take regular breaks and have a drink available​. Some useful exercises:

  • Release tension​. Simple exercises like shoulder and neck rolls, big fake yawns and massaging your jaw and cheek muscles​ – great for people who hold tension in their upper body when presenting. ​
  • Diaphragmatic breathing​. Take three deep belly breaths, then extend the exhalations up to 10 seconds and try adding “ahhh” sounds​. Great for soft spoken people to aid projection.
  • Tongue twisters​. Use tongue twisters, nursery rhymes or songs to practice a slow steady rhythm with clear enunciation​. Great for people who tend to talk very quickly when presenting​.

This is just a taster of things that can improve the quality of your outreach, for more help, tips and support contact our research engagement team at [email protected]