Dr. Paul’s piece is part of Science and Us’s on-going publication, Humans of Scicomm. All stories and experiences are written by the respective science communicators. Links to reach out to Dr. Paul are located above. Thank you for your support!
I’ve never had an interest in science communication and it wasn’t something I thought I would end up doing.
In 2012, I was working in a lab as a researcher in London, investigating what goes wrong in cells in motor neurone disease. One day, my lab friend Michael said, “Don’t you think it’s strange that we spend a lot of time looking down microscopes, but we never meet the people who might benefit from or be interested in our research?” He had a point, and it was especially pertinent as I was funded by a charity that received public donations.
We decided to do something about this and organised ‘Meet the Scientist’, an event inviting people affected by the conditions that we worked on into our lab. It was our chance to meet people, give them a tour, show them the techniques and equipment we use, the highs and lows of carrying out research, and how far we had come in understanding the conditions.
The idea was initially met with some resistance by our bosses who had many concerns including health and safety issues. We were slightly deflated with the lack of enthusiasm, but we had a breakthrough when we took the idea to a more senior person. We nervously went to his office and pitched the idea. He thought it was great! Once we had his support, it filtered down so that our bosses were keen to help and get involved. However, we had no experience, and had to learn how to run, market, budget, and organise an event, along with talking to lots of different people — something we were not used to!
Despite our inexperience, we managed to invite 100 guests to a very successful event in September 2012. It was a joy to see everyone come together to share and talk about their experiences, from frustrations about their local healthcare to future hopes, regardless of their condition. It was an eye-opener for everyone in the lab and we got as much out of it, if not more, than our guests. Michael and I have since moved on from lab work, but it’s fantastic to see ‘Meet the Scientist’ now become an annual event there.
Following ‘Meet the Scientist’, we thought it would be great if we could share scientific research with more people and meet people who were interested in hearing about it. However, instead of inviting people to come to us, we would go to them in public places like cafes, bars, and pubs. Going to the pub is a cultural part of life in the UK and is seen as a place to go socialise, relax, and talk with your friends. We wanted science to be part of that culture, the same as going to a gig or a comedy night. The idea of these kinds of talks is not a new one, but we had a twist: run different events at the same time in multiple places and cities. Much like a music festival where you are spoilt for a choice of which stage or band to see, you would be spoilt for the choice to hear about science discoveries! We decided to call it ‘Pint of Science’.
Again we floated the idea with our friends and colleagues. The feedback was generally positive, but we weren’t really progressing beyond the idea. A large part of this was because we didn’t know what we were doing, or what we were supposed to do!
We were also unaware that ‘science communication’ existed as a field and industry in its own right. We had criticisms, people thought it wasn’t a good idea; for them we weren’t doing anything new and it was pointless. We were boosted by enthusiasm and naivety, which in some ways helped because we were coming from a very different perspective and way of thinking. However, being ‘outsiders’ and feeling that we didn’t belong in the industry meant that we couldn’t gain or learn from other people and existing networks.
Our next breakthrough was when we secured our first speaker: a high-profile professor who had recently been a government advisor and had happened to work in our department. Together with a couple of friends, Michael and I mustered up the courage to make an appointment to talk to him. We shuffled into his office and said, “We’re running a science festival in pubs, would you come and speak at one of the events?” To our surprise, he said “Yes, of course!” We left happy that we had bagged such a great speaker but were terrified that we now actually had to do something and deliver some events!
This first ‘yes’ made it easier to approach more scientists to volunteer as speakers -“Oh if that Professor is speaking then yes I will also speak and be part of your festival” — unaware that we, the team organising it, didn’t have a clue about what we were doing. The idea snowballed and we also got some sponsorship from a local company as well. We were so excited to get that, but at the same time we didn’t know what to do with the money as we were running things as we went along!
In May 2013, Pint of Science ran 45 events across three UK cities. I think the best way to describe it was that we muddled through it. What started as an idea for a one-off festival turned into enquiries from people around the UK and beyond. Michael and I were both unemployed as our contracts had ended and we decided to see what would happen if we said yes to everyone…
Fast forward to 2019 when over the same three days Pint of Science ran nearly 3000 events in 400 cities in 25 countries to 140000 attendees. Thousands of scientists shared their research and gave people a space to question and inspire one another, all whilst providing a platform for scientists to gain skills and confidence in presenting to a wider audience and organising events. Pint of Science is nothing without the incredible people and volunteers who have made it happen in their own ways.
The journey has been a remarkable rollercoaster. It was a very steep learning curve to go from working in a lab by yourself to managing and running a large international organisation to deliver events. More so because it started as a one-off project between friends with no intention to grow so big and so rapidly; our needs constantly changed and most of the time we found ourselves reacting without much ability to plan or be proactive — something that has come full circle now with the pandemic, forcing us to move our events online.
I still don’t see myself as a science communicator; even though that is essentially what I do, it goes beyond that. If you have an idea for something, get the right people on board and try it. It may not work out but the experiences you create, skills you gain, the networks you become part of, and the people you reach often go well beyond what you thought was possible.