European Space Agency astronaut Tim Peake during the final fit check of his spacesuit ahead of the International Space Station spacewalk on 15 January; pic: courtesy of ‘Destination Space’

Making Sense of Science

11th March 2016

The British Science Association, a charity founded in 1831, has a vision of a world where science is at the heart of society and culture. Deborah Mulhearn profiles British Science Week, one of the outreach initiatives by which the BSA aims to diversify the community of people engaged with science.

Hands up anyone who struggled with science at school… anyone who felt that it was all too esoteric and elevated, and that it didn’t really matter anyway because it wasn’t that relevant to our everyday lives and the jobs we were likely to end up doing. You at the back there, pay attention, please!

As if to bear this aversion out, the 2014 Public Attitudes to Science Report, by Ipsos Mori Social Research Institute, found that more than two thirds of us are uncomfortable discussing or engaging with science. And yet it also found that 84% of UK adults feel that science is so important that we should all take an interest in it, and that 90% of us believe that scientists make a valuable contribution to society.

It seems, though, that we are largely happy to leave science to the scientists. It’s partly to do with the traditional educational division between arts and sciences, the ‘two cultures’ that meant children taking one or other route. But over the past few decades there have been efforts to bring the sciences and arts together, both in schools and in wider society, to encourage children to go on to study science at university, and to show people that those ‘two cultures’ are completely interlinked and interdependent, and that their separation is unnatural and detrimental to society.

British Science Week is one such initiative aiming to break down the barriers between science and the general public. This is an annual programme of activities and events, taking place this year between 11 and 20 March, to show how science underpins and affects all our lives. “Science is the way in which we explore the world around us, and that includes the cultural world of art, literature, music and sport, for example,” says Dr Christina Fuentes Tibbitt, Engagement Manager at the British Science Association, which runs British Science Week.

“One of the unique aspects of British Science Week is that it encourages and supports communities to run events themselves,” she says. “Rather than us imposing a theme or programme on participants, we want to see ideas and projects coming from the grassroots.” The BSA has developed partnerships, not just with schools, but also with cultural organisations, artists and interest groups. “This year we have some fascinating new projects, working with organisations that are not traditionally associated with science. It’s a way for those who are more comfortable on the creative arts side to recognise the creativity in science”, says Fuentes Tibbitt. “People’s confidence to talk about and enjoy science grows when it is presented in an accessible way.”

One example is Girls in the Game at the National Football Museum in Manchester, which links to the museum’s current exhibition Pitch to Pixel, about football gaming. Girls in the Game is inspired by the success of the England Ladies team in last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup. Activities include an introductory coding workshop for young people, based on the science of computer gaming. The idea is to link computer science and sports science, a popular route for girls into science-related education and employment.

Our resistance to science is something of a puzzle. Public trust of the media’s dissemination of science and scientific debate is low, certainly. But science museums and discovery centres, on the other hand, are trusted organisations that try to present information without bias and allow people to make up their own minds, particularly around current scientific debates such as climate change or fracking.

“Despite the public nervousness around science and scientific debate, science-related leisure activities are hugely popular, especially with families,” points out Janet Stott, Head of Public Engagement at Oxford University Museum of Natural History. “Science museums and discovery centres consistently have the highest visitor figures, and are a lot less intimidating than art galleries can be, for example. You don’t need to feel you know anything to enjoy a visit to a science museum, or that you are being judged on that knowledge. Our science museums are unique, inspiring and welcoming spaces, that aim to sustain and perpetuate that childhood wonder that we all felt about the natural world.”

Museums have an important role to play alongside schools and colleges when it comes to science learning, says Stott. “Where classroom learning can provide one dimension of experiencing science, the informal learning environment of a museum can open up connections between scientific enquiry and material evidence. Because of our collections and most importantly our access to experts and expertise, we can offer many activities that can’t be done at school.”

British Science Week is one of many initiatives bringing science to a broader public in informal, non-intimidating settings. Another is Destination Space, a collaboration between the Association of Science and Discovery Centres and the UK Space Agency. It has been running since October 2015 and supports an education and events programme around British astronaut Tim Peake’s space flight to the International Space Station.

From Aberdeen Science Centre to Techniquest Cardiff, twenty UK museums and science centres have been looking at life in space using Peake’s mission as an inspiration. Audiences have learned about a range of space-related subjects from how astronauts achieve safe entry back into the earth’s atmosphere to how they go to the toilet in space. The collaboration has meant that museums have had unique access to space-related resources including space suits, robotic equipment, and – yes – space nappies. These events have been instrumental in building up awareness of the international space community’s achievements.

TV programmes such as Brian Cox and Dara Ó Briain’s Stargazing Live, broadcast from Jodrell Bank Observatory, have done much to popularise science and increase scientific knowledge. Enterprising Science, a partnership between King’s College London and the Science Museum, promotes the idea of ‘science capital’. This builds a picture of how much science literacy, in the form of qualifications, attitudes, skills, experience and knowledge someone has, and how this can be developed.

At King’s College London, a new Science Gallery aimed at 15-25 year olds will explore the interface between science and art. This is not a traditional museum, though. There are no collections, but rather a rolling programme of artists and scientists working together on exhibitions and projects. Crucially, the ideas and content are developed, co-curated and documented by the young audiences themselves, who are drawn from the King’s College catchment area around London Bridge.

“We want under-represented groups to tell the stories of what science means to them,” says neuroscientist Dr Daniel Glaser, the Science Gallery’s Director. Dr Glaser was the first scientist to be asked to sit on the judging panel for the Man Booker Prize, and this bridging of the scientific and cultural worlds is something he believes must happen more and more. “This appointment was saying explicitly that science is part of culture, and that more broadly, there is a role for non-experts to set the scientific agenda.”

This is the rationale behind the Science Gallery, he explains. “If our young people are not setting the scientific agenda, then why would they choose science as a career? If we truly want people to engage with science and how it affects our lives, then we should be listening to potential audiences at the start of the process, and not just revealing what’s been hidden behind the hoardings when it comes to the grand opening of the gallery.

“The scientific agenda is controlled by an unrepresentative sub-set and here at Science Gallery we want to provide a space where everybody from our catchment area can tell the story of future research themselves. We need to have an open conversation with the public about how public money is being spent, and this is one way of trying to do that.”

As the current season FED UP: The Future of Food draws to a close, preparations are underway for the launch of the open call for proposals for the 2016 season. This year, the focus will be on the mouth and is likely to explore both public health issues around tooth decay and stem cell research. “As part of our mouth-related programme, we also looked at the science of kissing. This content came out of discussions about some of the cultural motifs and images prevalent in society today, such as the famous ‘upside-down-kiss’ from the film Spiderman,” explains Dr Glaser.

“We have to ask our audiences what they want, and be willing to tolerate behaviour we may not be completely comfortable with in a museum. Yes, it’s a risk, but it’s the only way to engage people who wouldn’t normally engage with science, or indeed with museums,” he says. “Science is far too important to be left to the scientists.”

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