What we've found out from scientists so far

We’ve been asking lots of questions of the sort of people who might get involved in the event, to work out what they want from it, how we should set things up, etc. Apparently this is called formative evaluation*.

This is what we’ve found out from scientists so far and it’s been extremely helpful. If you’re a working scientist and you have anything to add – or just want to say that you agree with what’s below, please feel free to comment below, or email

Our questions were:-

  1. Timing (1 week or 2? 1 hour/day reasonable commitment?)
  2. What kind of scientist will have the time? PhD students? Post-docs? Other?
  3. What info would they want above and beyond instructions on using the site? E.g. Would they want curriculum info?
  4. What would their motivation be for taking part? Aside from the idealistic stuff, is the prize sizeable enough to motivate?
  5. Would scientists want to upload media – e.g. images, video?
  6. What level of IT expertise can we assume? Ability to upload vids to YouTube?

So far we’ve asked these questions to Profs Melanie Welham and Rod Scott from the University of Bath and Dr Nick Dickens of the Institute of Cancer Research. Thanks to all of them for their help. If you’re a scientist working in industry I’d be particularly interested in your thoughts on these questions, in case they are any different.

1. Timing

1 hour a day seemed feasible, especially as most of it (i.e. answering questions) could be done in their own time (evenings or in between other things). They thought two weeks seemed reasonable – shorter would be too short to get going.

For time of year – avoid conference season (April, July, August) was the number one consideration. And avoid May for Uni staff as there’s urgent exam marking to do. Spring term, June or November would probably be ideal. But busy times will vary according to field, institution and grant application deadlines.

2. Which scientists could do it?

Most would have some time, although general feeling that PhD students (still keen) and Profs (more freedom to take a wider view) would be most likely to do it. Post-docs have to be very focussed on publishing. Although one person pointed out that post-docs might find it a convenient way to get involved in engagement activities – much easier to answer questions online than to take half a day to visit a school.

3. What info?

The last thing scientists need is more detailed papers to wade through, but a one page summary of what bits of the curriculum the event was hitting would help to orientate them. Very important to stress time commitment and the flexibility to scientists who are thinking about getting involved.

4. Motivation

Everyone was more motivated by the idea of engaging young people and ‘giving something back’ (well they would say that, wouldn’t they?;-)) . But £500 was a significant enough amount of money to make a difference – e.g. it would buy you a plane ticket to the States for a conference.

The scientists pointed out that these days, doing outreach is an obligation on Research Council grant recipients, so in a way we’d be doing scientists a favour by offering them a great opportunity to fulfil that. I like that idea. We are doing them a favour. We’re doing everyone a favour! Everyone will love it, it’s going to make the world a better place and, in fact, they should give us medals.

I do wonder sometimes if I’ve turned into a mad-eyed evangelist for this project. But I really do think it’s going to be great.

5. Images? Videos?

All of the scientists felt their field was quite visual and it might help explanations to upload images. There was less need for video, but some scientists would want to use it. But they warned we should be careful of ‘death by powerpoint’ or scientists uploading incredibly complex slides that don’t make things any clearer at all.

I reckon that scientists who do that will get a lot fewer votes, so it will hopefully be self-correcting. This should be one of the benefits of the event for the scientists taking part – immediate feedback on communicating to people outside their field!

However, we will need to check out publishing and copyright stuff. Scientists may not be able to put up recent results if they have not been published yet, if they want to get their papers into top journals. I will restrain myself from having a rant in favour of open-access publishing here, and let Ben Goldacre do it instead.

6. IT expertise?

It was felt that many scientists (especially older ones) may not have used YouTube, but that most use computers habitually, often very complex applications, so they should have no problem. I think we can comfortably assume higher IT literacy amongst our scientists than we do amongst councillors…

Concluding remarks

So that’s it so far from scientists. Generally everyone has seemed really positive about the idea, and to understand how it would work and what we are trying to do. Which is a great relief proves what I always said. We’re really looking forward to the event, finding out more and seeing it in action.

To repeat what I said at the top, please do comment if you are a scientist and have anything to add to the above. Or if you are anyone else who has something to add (relevant stuff, I mean, don’t try to sell me ‘male enhancement’ products, I get enough of that in my inbox).

If you’re a scientist or teacher who’s interested in taking part, you can now register your interest here. I look forward to hearing from you! Sometime soon I will also put up the results so far from our teacher research, which has been fascinating (to me, anyway)…


*If you want to know more about evaluation, I’ve found these two documents very useful. Research Councils UK, “Evaluation: Practical Guidelines”, which is exactly what it says on the tin, for science engagement projects. And “Measuring the outcomes and impact of learning in museums, archives and libraries: the Learning Impact Research Project end of project paper” from Leicester University’s Department of Museum Studies. This is handy for ways of thinking about learning in a non-educational context.

I also am deeply indebted to the lovely Graham Farmelo, of the Science Museum, who taught the museum studies part of my MSc many years ago. Graham taught us a lot about why it’s so important to consult your users all the way through and how to go about integrating research into the development process.

I have to say, during the years I spent working in TV this knowledge lay fallow. I never heard of anyone in TV actually consulting the audience – everyone is convinced that they know what the viewers want. But perhaps we’d have better TV programmes if they did. Anyway, now his insights are coming in very useful.

Posted on February 22, 2008 by in Scientists. Tagged , , , . Comments Off on What we've found out from scientists so far