Avoiding the magic fact machine

It was Universities Week last week – a campaign to highlight the impact of higher education institutions on UK individuals, communities, culture and businesses.

One of the projects rolled out for the event was the web-based ‘FactShare Generator‘. If you happen to like car-crash science communication, go and have a play. Otherwise, I don’t want to dwell on it. It is suffice to say UNIVERSITIES ARE NOT BLOODY MAGIC FACT MACHINES, and that it made me angry enough to write a piece for Comment is Free, where I tried to take the more positive track of celebrating a project I do like: I’m a Scientist Get Me Out of Here.

UCLA picture of a man made of stone, in a university. It is SYMBOLIC.

I’m a Scientist probably sounds terrible. It’s not. It pitches teenagers’ questions against groups of scientists (amazingly diverse, cheeky, surreal questions too). Importantly, the contestants aren’t the super-star scientists you see on TV. They are everyday workers, and because the questions are not just factual queries, but about the scientists’ lives, the project provides a sense of science on a day-to-day level. Most of all, it’s striking how often scientists reply with “I don’t know”. It’s not in a dismissive way. If anything, it’s said with excitement. Not knowing is a source of inspiration for a lot of scientists.

This point about being able to say “I don’t know” is, I think, really important, and I was pleased to see it pulled out in the comment thread. However, also in the comments Scott Keir posed a challenge:

What I haven’t seen on I’m a Scientist yet (though I will keep looking), are the researchers answering a question and then saying, “and what do you think?” In some ways, that’s a similar model to the magic fact machine – the researchers have the answers. So contestants, if you’re reading this, please try asking what the questioner and other students reading it think too. I’m prepared to bet that sometimes, it’s the students that will have the better answers.

I know a few of contestants took on this challenge (see also this response from one of the mods). Still, it’s a good challenge, and a continual one.

I’d add a smaller challenge of my own: contestants should try to be imaginative in the resources they send students to with links. Or find ways of encouraging students to find resources for themselves. There’s a lot of linking to Wikipedia. When I worked on a science website for schoolkids back in 2001-3, I’d always challenge myself to link to something other than the BBC. I knew that if someone was interested and googled, they’d find and trust the BBC link anyway. As a writer, I wanted to be able to give them something else. Obviously, I link to the BBC if it was a really good page worth sharing, but I always have a good dig first. I now instigate the same personal rule with Wikipedia.

The challenges raised by I’m a Scientist aren’t just for the contestants though. Reading through some of the blogposts written by contestants – Tom Crick, posted yesterday, Paula Salgado and Stephen Curry from last year –  I’m struck by how much work it involves. This is on top of all the other things they have to do as professional scientists. They are all also keen to say quite how much they’ve learnt and how much they feel they’ve contributed. There’s a great comment under Tom’s post from another contestant, saying how much she learns from the other scientists in her zone, and I love the bit in Paula’s piece about how emotionally invested she became in the experience, and why. So, yet again, the question is how can we find (more) ways to make this sort of work part of a scientist’s job, not just an add-on?

Moreover, what other projects can we run that open up universities to outside questions? What other projects might be able replicate the sort of discursive work I’m a Scientist (at its best) provides, but for people other than schoolkids? What other projects might invite the public to learn from universities, and also allow universities to learn from the experience too? Brightclub? Cafe Scientifique? Something a bit more subversive…?

Whether you have an answer, or just another question, do let me know what you think.

24 thoughts on “Avoiding the magic fact machine

  1. axiomsofchoice

    The FactShare Generator reminded me a bit of http://www.impactworld.org.uk/ only not quite as well executed.

    Rather than an us and them approach to University/science outreach I’m in favour of projects that are in the citizen science model where the distinction is blurred. Citizen science encompasses e.g. researching/writing Wikipedia articles on science even though this research doesn’t break new ground.

    1. alice Post author

      Yes, citizen science is a good example which I didn’t mention. A lot of citizen science just uses the public to do scientific work rather than get them to discuss/ unpack it in any way – what’s your response to that criticism?

          1. sophiacollins

            Oh, and I *hate* the term outreach. Public engagement shouldn’t be primarily about recruiting more scientists (which is what people usually mean by outreach). It’s about democratic accountability, being an integrated part of culture, etc.

            1. sophiacollins

              Just my observation that that is how the word is used. When people use the term ‘outreach’ to talk about engagement activities, in my experience, they then immediately start talking about how important it is to get more students interested in studying science, etc. It may be a consequence of the fact that the bits of universities who try to recruit more students to the university are mostly called ‘University Outreach’. You know how universities are with language…

          2. Tom Whyntie

            To attempt an answer to both in one go: both concepts rely on some kind of conceptual barrier between the “scientists” and the “citizens”. Taking each term absolutely literally, I’d define “outreach” as (uni-directional) communication from the “scientists” to the “citizens”. “Citizen science” is “science” done by “citizens” (usually under the supervision of the “scientists”).

            Both terms rely on constructing this barrier between “scientist” and “citizen”. This is, of course, ever so slightly ridiculous; there are no scientists ;-)

            1. Jason Millar

              I tend to agree that “outreach” sounds like “public relations”. It has a very insincere tone to it, in my experience anyway. I like the idea of citizen participation, beyond treating citizens as mere data sensors.

  2. alice Post author

    via twitter, Danny Birchall suggests access to libraries and public lectures. I think those are good ideas, but they can both be rather uni-directional, no? I think they can be v powerful too, but how can they be run to maximise opening up for academics to learn from the public? (not just dissemination?)

    1. Danny Birchall

      Uni-directional, maybe, but the fact is that most universities sit of a shedload of resources, from journal & magazine archives to prominent guest lecturers, & providing some way of sharing these with the people who share a location if not a vocation with the university can make a big difference. And I’m not thinking specifically in terms of science here, but open public lectures (which you can bet the NewCHums won’t be doing) can be participatory both in terms of a platform to speak/question, and in talking to fellow attenders. Any university should aim for a ‘community’ that includes non-academics and non-students as participants.

      1. alice Post author

        I completely agree that unis should open the doors to only only let stuff out but share their resources (and I’d say architectural resources, and social capital, as well as knowledge) but with this post I wanted to add the extra challenge of listening.

  3. Marianne

    Actually last year, Andrew L in my zone (Silicon) asked ‘what do you think?’ rather a lot. I don’t think it was just him either, I just remember his back-atcha responses most!

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  5. sophiacollins

    Hi All,

    I’d like to comment on the points Scott raises and interactivity in I’m a Scientist (disclosure: for those who don’t know, I run I’m a Scientist).

    I agree, it would be nice to see more conversations develop in the comments. And we wouldn’t want to give the idea that scientists have all the answers and hand them out to grateful publics.

    BUT, the whole basis of the event is that it reverses normal power structures. School students set the agenda, ask the questions they want to and then VOTE for the scientist they want to give £500 to (this is to be spent on a science communication activity – so you can think of it as a grant for public engagement with science). As far as we know it’s the only project in the world where young people make a decision about science funding in any way.

    In a way, the students are interviewing the scientists to decide where they want to award the money. It’s not asserting your superiority to answer an interview panel’s questions. It’s recognising their superiority!

    I’m not saying the students are superior to the scientists. Just that the reversal of power helps combat the idea students start off with of being intimidated by the scientists. It levels the playing field so that students and scientists can talk.

    We can’t do everything, but we are doing our best. And I think there aren’t many projects in the world that do so much to bring scientists and others together on an equal footing, and make teenagers feel they’ve got a voice in science and a relationship with it.



    1. David Pyle

      The comment boxes can work well in IAS – and I certainly had valuable to-and-fro conversations with students that stretched across a few days (both in the questions, and the chats) in the March session.

  6. Tom Hartley

    An example where I asked the student what they thought about the issue:


    I agree its a great idea to do this, and I had hoped to get involved in a bit more interaction on the website (BTW the online chats are nothing but interaction, and are incredibly frenetic and exciting for all involved).

    That said if you review the questions on the website you’ll see that many of them do not lend themselves to a “what do you think?” type response.It seems to me that in many cases students enjoyed getting a direct answer.

    1. alice Post author

      I think your final point is a good one – people often want an answer. One might argue that this is a want science shouldn’t feed. I’m personally unsure about that (as in really I don’t know either way, I don’t mean “unsure” as a rhetorical way of saying I don’t like it).

  7. jenni

    Alice, I agree with the sentiment of this piece. engagement with the public is about just that, engaging with them. not just talking at them. In theory ‘I’m a scientist, get me out of here’ is a brilliant way to facilitate this process of engagement- let the children and adults interact with each other and both sides will take something away from the experience.

    When this idea works, it works brilliantly- just look at the increasing numbers of scientists going into schools to talk about their job, and science in general as part of the STEMNET scheme. Or the success of event like oxford’s annual Wow!How! event which relies on science volunteers to run it’s diverse range of science stalls. What all the examples have in common is a dialogue between the engager and the engagee. The ability for the person doing the outreach to ask questions back at the aser at ask the asleep in order to test the asker’s knowledge and push their knowledge further. It is this that I’m a scientist is missing.

    I should say that I’ve actually just been evicted from the sports zone, and that sport isn’t really my area. However I do a lot of university outreach work, undergraduate teaching and some museum volunteering and do know a fair vit about materials on sport being a materials scientist who just won a lecture competition with a lecture on sport. So I was pretty confident I’d be able to communicate some fairly decent answers amd set up some good discussion even with my lack of specialisation. What I hadn’t bargained on was the lack of actual dialogue and the type of questions 13 year olds ask.

    Firstly, the questions. Possibly I was naive. Of course 13 year old boys who are let loose on computers instead of sitting down to a ‘proper’ science lesson are going to be a little wild. Of course i was going to
    be asked over and over again who my favourite team is and what car I drive. But really, are their birnomg question we were told to expect really just about the possibility of aliens and why snot is green?

    To be fair, I did get some brilliant questions, some that really made me think. And I also learned a lot from the other scientists answers. But that really brings me onto my second point which is that of dialogue. Some of the questions had Anderson that tied into other subjects. In those cases I quite often finished my answer with ‘so now you know that can you explain xxx’, and left links to relavent books/radio shows/ website (richard wiseman and infinite monkey cage came up a lot!) But not once did I get a response to my question, even when I said ‘send me a comment if you’d like a hint’ or something along those lines. I’d like to think that they knew the answer or they went away and had a bit of a discussion about or, or at least thought about it. But frustratingly I have no idea.

    And so, while I agree with the sentiment of this article, and went into this event with the approach you suggest, I wall away disappointed, unsure if I’ve made a difference and feeling like I’ve missed something.

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  9. JDM

    Say what you like about IAS.

    Then name me one other exercise that attracts a similar volume of bench scientists to do PE of any kind.

    Hats off to Sophia for actually communicating with scientists, rather than making them roll their eyes and shut the lab door.

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