I recently took part in a lunchtime seminar with a group of academics from Leeds University to discuss ethics and public engagement. The event was organised by ‘pepnet’- a network set up in 2013 to connect staff across Leeds Uni, helping them to share ideas and experiences as well as learn more about the importance of public engagement activities.
Focussing on ethics proved extremely thought-provoking. Split into small groups we worked through the same scenario entitled ‘Yorkshire Brains’ based on a real life two-day public event held at a local museum and organised by a partnership of Life Sciences research academics and a national brain charity. Targeted at all sections of the community from 5 to 105, one of the main aims of this event was to share the Faculty’s research into degenerative brain diseases with a diverse non-academic audience, giving visitors the opportunity to try out research equipment and techniques, including examining brain sections under microscopes. Highlighting the ethical issues involved fuelled much debate and diverse opinion. What sort of permission do you need for the public to look at human tissue? Is it okay to charge visitors to take part in such an event? How should you inform those attending that some of the data collated from the event could be used in future research? What to do and whose responsibility is it to ensure children don’t wander off from parents to interact and use equipment?
Plenty to mull over and there were lessons to be learned. In our eagerness to collaborate with external partners and connect with non-academic audiences, it’s easy for some safeguarding issues to fall under the radar. So it does makes sense, when planning an event, to put ethics firmly on the check list in order to carefully weigh up potential public pitfalls. It’s also well worth consulting the guidelines and safeguarding policies of your own institution. Forewarned is forearmed and it goes a long way in making sure you’re not lying awake at night worrying about your next event.
I watched the ‘Guess List’ for the first time this week. If you’ve not already seen it, it’s the TV show hosted by Rob Brydon which rehashes the old ‘Blankety Blank’ programme with a touch of Family Fortunes. Five celebrities help two contestants guess the answer to a range of survey-based questions e.g What do men say is a woman’s most annoying habit?’ Unsurprisingly, many of the celebrities’ guesses were way off the mark to the public’s actual answers – trying hard with innuendo or perhaps just too removed from reality ! But the contestants also struggled a fair bit too. All very tongue cheek and light-hearted – it’s a game show after all – but I couldn’t help thinking that it’s actually not that easy to second-guess what most people think. It’s hard because you’ve no particular age, gender, job, location etc from which to hazard a guess. In the end, you’re relying on your own hunches and beliefs on how ‘the public’ think.
In just under two weeks time, hundreds of academics across the UK will be talking about their research to this very same ‘public’ – trying to connect on a more serious note. It’s all part of Universities Week which runs from 9th – 14th June. So far, there are dozens of events planned across the country including an event about the science of cycling in Sheffield, a Scottish Gold exhibition in Glasgow, a University fun day in Leeds, to name just a few. The idea is ‘to inspire’ and increase public interest in and understanding of evidence based research. A chance for academics to raise their profile and their institution’s by leading events and also discussions on the web and social media. So what appeals to the public ? What are the challenges they want Universities to tackle ? To help researchers focus their engagement activities on the public’s curiosities and interests, there’s a poll breaking down key areas of interest – the things they think have a real impact on our every day life. It gives some interesting insight and dispels a few myths! For more information about how to take part in a national conversation click here
On a recent family holiday to Venice, I became so attached to a children’s guide book (bought while I was out there) that I wouldn’t go anywhere without it! I’d put a couple of guides in our luggage before setting off, keen to have some top tips at the ready – where to go and what to see in this magical city. But on the first day, within a couple of hours of wandering the little streets, passing famous landmarks – the Rialto Bridge, St Marks’s basilica and so on – I started to get frustrated with the guide books I’d packed. I found myself editing out long convoluted sentences in an effort to find an interesting snippet to read aloud to my husband and children. Sadly, many descriptions made us all switch off.
What I really needed was a back to basics Venice guide with a dash of Horrible Histories to handle questions like ‘Why did the Venetians decide to build the houses on water and how did they stay up ? or ‘Why do the gondolas have that funny shaped thing at the end sticking up?’ Arriving at one of Venice’s key attractions off St Mark’s Square – the Doge’s Palace, I lost patience trying to find an explanation of who the ‘Doge’ was.
Lucky for me that as we walked past the main entrance, through the gift shop, a brightly coloured blue book ‘Viva Venice’ caught my eye. Describing itself as ‘guidebook for children and the young at heart’, this was a little gem of inspiration.
As I flicked through, I warmed to the wonderfully simple descriptions and illustrations. It turned out the word ‘doge’ comes from the latin word dux (commander). The Doge was the governor of Venice and Head of the Republic and there had been 120 doges from 697 to 1797. At last a guide book to capture our imagination and make sightseeing fun for my children.
From that moment on, ‘VivaVenice’ became our trusted companion and favourite guide. As we took turns to reel off the City’s past and present we learned tons about Venice’s history and religion, its art and culture and its myths and legends. It made everything come alive – giving just enough detail without going over our heads.
So I’m keeping this book near my desk to remember the feeling of excitement and relief I felt when I picked it up. VivaVenice is a reminder that most of us are ‘young at heart’ when it comes to learning about something new. It also proves that when it comes to communicating or engaging with your audience then the less is more and the simpler better!0 comments