I attended the annual “Science In Public” conference at UCL on 20th and 21st July. I was there partly as the author of a short piece about the conference for the British Society for the History of Science journal, Viewpoint; this piece can be found in the journal and will eventually appear on the BSHS website. For my blog, I will share some general impressions that did not seem to fit into the article, and expand on others that only got a brief mention.


The conference began with a series of four short talks that were supposed to constitute an “overview of the main challenges facing science in public research discussions in the present day”. These took the form of “Pecha-Kucha” style presentations where each speaker is allowed to display 20 “slides” which automatically advance every 20 seconds (or a total of about six and a half minutes). I felt this format did not work well here. Pecha-Kucha was originally introduced as a way of enabling young designers to display their work; letting the visual material lead the way in a context in which it is only secondary to the oral content (or ought to be) is not a recipe for success; and surely communication about science communication is just as important as science communication itself? Timed presentations, where the message has to be delivered in a short, punchy manner, are OK – but please let’s not let the visuals take over. (Scientists too place too much emphasis on the visuals – although they usually do have a genuine need of them, to show graphs etc, this can be overdone. Many times I have heard a physicist or student say “my talk is on this memory stick” and I want to scream “No it’s not! Your talk is what comes out of your mouth, what’s on the stick is just an accessory!”)

The Trouble with Powerpoint

My experience of the wider “STS” community at events like this paints a similar picture with regard to the use of visuals. Many speakers seem to think they ought to use them, but are not sure what for, so they default to the dreaded bullet points and great wodges of text. It’s bad enough when the speaker reads out that text word-for-word, but a great deal worse when (as happened during the Pecha-Kucha session) they are saying something completely different. At one point I wrote down: “Cannot read screen full of words in 20 seconds when speaker is saying something different!” Of course presentations in SiP can often include the sort of data that need to be displayed visually; but even then, not everyone makes the best of the medium. One speaker at the conference showed changes in some statistic, year by year, as a table of values, and I couldn’t help wondering whether he’d ever heard of graphs!

Verbatim Presentations

Generally, though, the standard of presentation was pretty good. I was watching out, in particular, for any talks given in the “verbatim” style in which basically a paper is just read out, word for word; but only one came into this category, and I’d be willing to accept that the speaker was too nervous or lacking in confidence to do otherwise. But I’ve noticed at numerous “STS” events that this is an all too common phenomenon, even among seasoned performers, although unheard-of in physics. It’s inappropriate because the paper is often read too fast, and there is no engagement with the audience because the speaker is looking down at notes. And the verbatim style rules out two very useful tools available in an oral context: body language and informal language.

(Footnote: I have since discovered that one other talk was basically read out, but this was extremely well camouflaged!)

Room for Debate

Another thing that intrigues me about these “conferences” is that there is often precious little conferring. True, there is always a question period after each talk, and occasionally a question or comment will stimulate other questions or comments rather than a 1:1 dialogue with the speaker; but here, the design of the room usually makes it hard. It is difficult to have a discussion in a lecture theatre, and indeed, if one is sitting at the back it is often difficult to even hear the questions. Of course there is not much you can do about a plenary with a potential audience of 100 people; but during parallel sessions, it ought to be possible to fit the audience round a rectangle of tables to facilitate discussion. One of the talks at SiP was about a public engagement event on nanotechnology. The speakers reported that the scientists involved had adopted a “lecturer” rôle and were not prepared for listening to the members of the public present or “taking anything away” from the event. But when I asked about the physical layout of the room – were the scientists “at the front”, in the lecturer position? Were the audience and the speakers able to look one another in the eye? – they did not seem to think such things were relevant. I believe they are, on the basis of my experience, and that of others, in Café Scientifique. I hope we will be able to convince the organisers of such events in future that if we really want engagement, we should be prepared to manipulate traditional academic settings to facilitate it.

Science and Ethics

During one of the talks, it occurred to me that the “science and ethics” debate had not been mentioned, despite the fact that, it seems to me, the worryingly close relationship between science – and physics in particular – and the military must surely put off quite a lot of potential recruits. Perhaps I am out of date here and everyone else has decided that this isn’t a problem any more. Yet the speaker in this particular talk, on the attitude of trade unions towards science, revealed that one of the questions in his survey of trade unionists had been “scientists have a power that makes them dangerous” (agree/disagree etc). Among trade unionists the number agreeing with this was low, but it was much higher in the general public. I would like to see more figures on this because I don’t think this debate has gone away – I think many scientists simply see the military connection as inevitable, but it must surely be challenged.