Earlier this week, I attended the BBSRC Eastbio Annual Symposium, a meeting for PhD students funded by the BBSRC’s doctoral training programme. The theme of this year’s meeting was ‘Making an Impact’. Alongside one or two talks on the REF impact of ‘spinning out’ scientific businesses that I found utterly, soul-crushingly devoid of anything honourable, there were a number of great talks on the value of public engagement.
Of these, the talk I enjoyed most was given by Dr Jan Barfoot of EuroStemCell, who spoke about the huge number of ways in which researchers can engage the public in their work. Amidst the extraverted commotion about bright clubs and elevator pitches that had permeated the rest of the symposium, I took comfort from Jan’s acknowledgement of the other ways in which people like me might want to communicate with those who might find their work interesting. As has been explored in great depth in Susan Cain’s book Quiet, there are quite a few people, 33-50% of the population, who find the idea of networking, public speaking and generally ‘putting yourself out there’ lies somewhere along the continuum of unpleasant to terrifying. This minority of introverts is well represented in academia, though sadly for me, not well represented enough to have done away with oral presentations, conference socials and the idea that there’s something wrong with you if you don’t enjoy talking about our work to people who might not give a shit.
Jan’s talk got me thinking about the public engagement I do. In doing so I realised that the majority of the activities I’ve been involved with since my arrival at St Andrews have been written (have I mentioned that I don’t enjoy giving talks?) writing these public engagement pieces has almost always been made much easier by my experience of writing posts for this blog (maybe some of the more popular blog posts I have written even count as public engagement). I generally write these posts with a scientifically clued-up, but non-specialist audience in mind – PhD students, researchers in other fields, interested members of the public – most of whom I expect will have stumbled across this site via Google. As I’ve practiced writing for this audience a fair amount, I find it relatively easy to switch into this mode when asked to write bits for the St Andrews Campaign magazine (see below) or the Development blog. As lame as it sounds to those who crave the rush of applause and laughter, blogging is my bright club.
Of course it takes time and commitment to keep it up (no-one thinks much of a one-post “Hello World” blog) but I didn’t say it was easier than other forms of public engagement. It’s just a better format for me. Considering the investment of time it requires alongside the real benefits it can have, it’s a shame when other researchers dismiss blogging as less meaningful than the engagement work they do. Something which happens all to often. Consequently, I always feel guilty when writing posts for it during work hours. Why should this be the case? I wouldn’t feel bad about practicing a public engagement talk or meeting a community of patients for whom my research is relevant, so why the self-flagellation over writing? No doubt, this perception will be further reinforced when REF Impact Statements are circulated across departments across the UK, with blogging being written up as just something that all academics in all research groups do, probably under the misapprehension that a PURE research profile like this counts as a blog. This does a real disservice to those whose blogs often act as a first source of information for those googling something they’ve just heard about on the news, or those whose blogs help raise and maintain the profiles of the universities at which they work.
If you want to blog, do it. You’ll write better and one way or another you’ll probably get asked to write in a more formal capacity for the organisation you work for. Just don’t expect to be promoted, or even appreciated, because of it.