At our recent Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) meeting, it emerged that whilst students were holding lots of great outreach events, no-one agreed on who the outreach should be aimed at, or why we were doing outreach at all. It’s a problem that stems from further up the chain. Many research grants these days require the grant holders to demonstrate ‘impact’. This could be in the form of spin-off companies or patents but there are some fields that can’t claim this sort of entrepreneurial impact and in these areas, outreach forms a key part of the much-needed impact factor.
The trouble is that grants are then awarded (often including a budget specifically for outreach) without there being any consensus as to who we’re going to ‘reach out’ to or how this impact will be measured. When will we know if our outreach has been successful if we don’t know what we want to achieve from it? Part of the issue is that there are many different reasons for undertaking outreach – here’s my top five:
- To get more kids to study science at A level/Highers/college/university
This is the most popular aim of outreach, so most science outreach targets children of school age. Initiatives such as the IOP’s Lab in a Lorry give kids science demos with the cool factor that might be missing from the weekly chemistry class.
- To encourage more young people to consider careers in STEM
Closely connected with reason one, but this outreach is more likely to discuss how science is useful and scientists are needed in our society. It tends to be aimed at teenagers, who are starting to make big life decisions.
- To increase the number of women/people from minority groups who study science and choose science based careers
My own field of physics has a particularly large gender imbalance, and many of us who would like to change that are looking to the next generation. The impact of positive role models is huge, so many women in physics feel that it is really important to get out there and be seen promoting science in public.
- To engage adults outside of STEM with science
Adults are often overlooked when it comes to outreach, but by omitting adults we do them and science a great disservice. Most people are not scientists, but all tax-paying adults fund our research. To justify our work to them we need to come down out of our ivory towers and think about the practical purpose of our research.
- To persuade policy makers that science is important
If we can’t persuade policy makers that science is worthy of funding, then how are we going to get the money to continue our research?
When undertaking outreach, it’s important to identify what your reasons are before you plan your event. Doing it just to enhance your CV or tick a box on a grant application isn’t an effective way to do outreach. Understanding your motivations will help you to plan a more successful and rewarding event, benefiting both the audience and you.