Question, investigate, and share

Editor’s Note: Anna Perman and David Robertson contributed equally to this article.

Sara and Gina are collecting baby teeth, to build a palace.

Gina: “The experiment has gone so far, without even being made, that it’s become an interesting journey. What we saw as the end was actually the start.”

Sara: “And the end doesn’t matter so much.”

Gina: “There is no end. But I don’t want to be sticking teeth to a sculpture for the next ten years.”

Gina Czarnecki is a Liverpool-based artist working on a sculpture made of donated baby teeth, to be displayed in the Science Museum. Her collaborator, Professor Sara Rankin, a member of the Blast research group, works next door to the museum at Imperial College, London. Sara is not an artist. The sculpture is something that she does on top of her successful career researching on stem cells.

Her First Baby Tooth Comes Out By Andrew Griffith, http://www.flickr.com/photos/waldenpond/2185704104/

Gina and Sara chose to use baby teeth as a material for the sculpture because, although considered something that can be thrown away, they are actually a source of valuable stem cells. They can be used for science, but the teeth bring up issues of belief and myth because of their association with the tooth fairy. There are also issues around consent, in that the teeth have the added value of having been donated.

But the project seems to have moved away from science, which brings into question whether the artwork, or the science is more important.

“For me, the science is a priority,” Sara explained. “I don’t want to become a science communicator, and I think my value is in bringing my specific knowledge and expertise to any project in terms of the science.”

From an outsider’s perspective, it seems that if the science is hidden in an artwork, the tangible returns from such science outreach is tiny. It is unlikely to have a profound impact on most of the audience, and generally, outreach is of little benefit in an academic career. So why do scientists like Sara bother with projects that bring their work to a wider audience?

Andrew Phillips, another member of the Blast group, runs more traditional workshop-based outreach with the Royal Institution. Like Sara, the problem is not lack of motivation to participate in outreach projects. He explained how getting the time to and funding to fit these projects in is often prohibitive for scientists.

“Everything is time – that’s probably why these masterclasses are so expensive,” he said. “Many outreach projects don’t require much in the way of raw materials, but the thought, planning and administration needed means that the time spent adds up quickly.”

The motivation for any individual scientist to reach out with their work will vary, from promoting their research to loftier aims of enlightenment and a vast range of more nuanced positions in between. But one common thread is likely to come up time and again: they enjoy it.

An important reason that Sara’s project works is the enjoyment she gets from her collaboration with Gina. When we interviewed them ideas flowed between them seamlessly. They got lost in the implications of the project, and it was hard not to get caught up in their enthusiasm.

This personal connection is crucial to making a piece of science outreach work. For Gina and Sara, it is not just their relationship but the relationship with the public that is important. The project hasn’t even been built, but the trust that their contributors are placing in them is something beautiful.

Sara told us about an incident with a fellow mum at her child’s school. This woman’s son didn’t want to give up his teeth, but she offered to give them to the project anyway, once ‘the tooth fairy’ had visited. Sara flatly refused – to her the point is not collecting a certain number of teeth, but the fact that people are willing to give something that is a part of themselves in order to create the artwork. Without consent, there was no relationship, and the teeth would be valueless.

The point is that research and medical treatment using human material requires a relationship of trust between the donor and the recipient, whether they be a patient in need of a transplant, or a research lab. And this applies to outreach too. What really gets people interested in science is when they feel a personal interest in a project, and a connection to those who do it.

But if a connection is so important to get a positive outcome, then outreach without that bond runs the risk of backfiring and actually alienating the public. It is easy to think that any attempt at outreach is inherently good, and that all scientists should be encouraged to do it. But it requires both interest in a project and skill. Naturally, not every scientist will have those. Outreach should be treated with the same respect and care as any scientific study. This means that it can’t just be giving information. Outreach has to be an experience where those who usually wouldn’t come into contact with science are able to take a part in the process.

There is an easy, ready made community of, mostly middle class people who are ready
and waiting to consume science content. But what about those who are indifferent, or worse,
hostile toward science and would run a mile at the sight of a person in a lab coat? How can science compete for their attention over any of the other myriad activities on offer?

This is where Gina and Sara’s project feels incredibly effective, in that it does not look like
science, but frames a scientific question in terms that feel relevant to everyone.

Gina: “It’s about the donor’s belief either in the project or the institution.”
Sara: “Or in the tooth fairy.”

Gina and Sara’s project is all about big ethical questions and ideas of consent and belief, but more traditional outreach tries to put across the scientific process. In Andrew Phillips’ Engineering Masterclasses, he gets kids to build a simple hip joint to show how muscles must be working, even when we are just standing. To him, what is important is not getting across facts or figures, but the concept of seeing the entire system. “For me it’s a fairly basic research point, but it’s important to get them to realise that you can’t look at something in isolation,” he explained.

At this point, outreach and education diverge. Education prioritises a curriculum of some form, with learning objectives, whereas in outreach, the content is secondary to the experience.

This brings us back to the question: what is the point, if not to educate? Is it to create scientists? Is it to encourage them to fund science? We think it is more general. Good outreach should show its audience that they are valued, and give them a broader perspective of, and sympathy with, science. It can give participants the confidence and tools to be inquisitive, to break down questions into their parts, to think about things from every angle and examine evidence before drawing a conclusion – or pursuing further questions.

“Children are going to start asking questions, parents are going to start asking questions and that’s how you engage with them,” Sara says. It’s a sentiment that cuts to the heart of science, and underpins the concept of outreach. Question, investigate and share. In their research in the Blast lab, researchers do the sharing last, when they are confident in their findings. What matters in outreach is sharing the question, the uncertainty and the process of a scientific journey of discovery.

That’s an objective we at the Inside Knowledge team can sympathise with.

Image via Flickr / Andrew Griffith

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One Response to Question, investigate, and share

  1. Pingback: Tooth Fairy Palaces and Ivory Towers « David Robertson

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