Escape Room: A researcher's view of Public Engagement

Escape Room: A researcher's view of Public Engagement

Escape Room: A researcher's view of Public Engagement

Struggling to keep your head above the water of work? I’m sure no matter what your career stage, this crosses your mind when your experiment doesn’t work for the fourth time with a deadline around the corner. You sit, dejected, in your office chair and scroll through your e-mails to find a request for assistance with public engagement. Now, you might be forgiven for thinking “I don’t have time for that…”, but I urge you to hold that thought for a second. My argument is twofold.

The first is the classic: the impact you could have on society. There are two rather depressing headlines I’ve read in recent years… the first is a politician saying that people have had enough of experts. The second is that measles has gone up and MMR vaccine uptake is down. This is a wake-up call. In the war of information, we (researchers) are losing. Pseudoscience, disinformation, and “fake news” have swept through social media and we’ve been caught off-guard, complacent in our approach of sitting quietly in shadows, publishing in journals which no member of the public is going to so much as glance at.

It is our duty as researchers, custodians of truth and data, to emerge from the shadows and disseminate research as far and wide as possible. Sound dramatic? It is. The statistics on MMR speak for themselves. Simply put, it is absolutely no good us slaving away in the lab developing knowledge, if people ignore it or can’t access it.

The second is what’s in it for you. I have delivered several careers talks to school groups at the Babraham Institute. The irony being that I’m still unsure of my own path. But perhaps, it’s not so ironic after all. I actually find these talks an ideal opportunity for self-evaluation. What doI want to achieve? Why am I here? How can I make best use of my skills in the future? The bulk of my schools’ talk centres on this uncertainty and how it’s healthy to be open-minded and to challenge yourself over the path you have planned in your head. I often ponder my life plans after these events and usually tweak my thoughts as a result.

The public are basically a great sounding board because they’re not in too deep. A few months ago, I got to enjoy developing the escape room with the fantastic team - Chiara, Piotr and Izzy. These guys, I will be frank, put a lot more effort in than me; however, I think that highlights an important point… we have a great Public Engagement team who understand that sometimes your research is having a tough spot and your time is pressured. That’s okay, give a little time, it doesn’t have to be lots!

Anyway, my point is that at the end of the escape room sessions at the Cambridge Science Festival, we sat down with the contestants who’d taken part and had a cuppa and a chat. Within ten minutes we were discussing the ethics of gene editing using CRISPR. You’ll have few opportunities to get that level of discussion with people that aren’t involved in research day to day.

Overall, Public Engagement is great, not just as a “do good” activity, but for yourself and your own development. It offers perspective on why we do what we do. Now, more than ever, that perspective will be critical for ensuring research is important and relevant to the public (in their eyes as well as your own). Going forward, we must be even bolder in our strategy of reaching communities who currently do not interact with academia. That will only be possible with researcher involvement. Come on, make the truth great again. 

The team are delivering over 25 sessions of the Cell Escape in the Faraway Forest at the Latitude Festival from Thursday 18th to Sunday 21st July 2019. Can you solve the puzzles and save your cells?

This is the third of three blog posts in a series about the Escape Room project – you can read the others at:

#1 The Cell Escape! Developing novel ideas for engagement 
#2 The Cell Escape! The science behind the scenes
#3 The Cell Escape! A researcher's view of Public Engagement