A Conversation About Science

David Basanta

I don’t particularly like stereotypes but some-times they are right. I am a professional mathematician that as a kid would rather spend weekends and holidays programming my computer and reading books than hanging out with friends and playing football . Even as an adult my first instinct is always to try avoid talking to people I don’t know. As a result, I find the introduction of the internet as the best invention in the history of mankind (certainly superior to sliced bread and maybe, just maybe, equal to beer). Why I am telling you all this? The reason is that I am also part of a science outreach organization whose aim is to bridge the gap between researchers and the public. We do that by taking researchers out of their offices and laboratories to bars and cafes.

Just a few days ago we wrapped up the 3rd US edition of our Pint of Science festival (which started in the UK 4 years ago). Pint of Science US took place during 3 consecutive days in several different bars and cafes in 13 different cities. One of our first speakers was Bob Gatenby, a mathematical modeler (and, I am told, chair of radiology at the Moffitt Cancer Center in his spare time). He is describing how maths can help us find new ways to treat cancer patients. Pint of Science is not the first effort to bring scientists to the public. Unlike previous global science festivals, however, it has successfully brought the idea of not lecturing the public but engaging them in conversation.

If you are anything like me you are probably rather uncomfortable with the idea of giving public lectures, let alone the idea of conversing with the public. Still, many of us understand the importance of engaging with society at large. We take it for granted that a modern democratic society should be a one where citizens can understand the challenges it faces. Many of these challenges directly involve science, those such as climate change, GMOs or vaccination. We can assume that other people will take care of this for us so we can go back to our blackboards and get on with our work. Sadly, although there are some very notable exceptions, this does not seem to be working well.

We need more channels to engage with the public: academic scientists should be trained to present their work to lay audiences. Without intermediaries. In fact, Universities and academic institutions should incorporate these efforts when hiring, promoting and awarding tenure. And this involvement is far from a drag: it is incredibly satisfying and enriching. My own experience with Pint of Science tells me that, when discussed well, people love talking about all kinds of scientific topics: from the role of carbon dioxide in climate change to the biomechanics of shark teeth to modelling cancer-immune inter-actions with Lotka-Volterra equations. People in our events are eager to know more and are not afraid to ask questions, often of a very different kind from the ones we are used to in a departmental seminar (i.e.: your model shows that tumour cells evolve by consuming more sugar, how should I change my diet to minimize the odds?) Participating in one of our events as a researcher can be a humbling experience: away from the safety of our slides and the types of questions we can almost anticipate from our colleagues. You will almost certainly find people that have a unique and fresh point of view. We certainly can do with being exposed to that once in a while!

The trick is to engage the audience. It’s not about using one of your old presentations and dumbing down the content. It’s about finding new and creative ways to present your work, why you care about it and making that excitement contagious.

After this year’s festival we are aiming to expand our efforts beyond bringing mathematicians and scientists to the pub. As a result, and under a new name to reflect this: Cage Free Science, we are aiming to bring both scientist and their work to more places than ever. I encourage you to join ours or other similarly aimed efforts. Wanna join?

 

David Basanta is a mathematical oncologist at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center. His website is:
https: //labpages. moffitt. org/ andersona/basanta. html

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