“The problem with the London sci-comm crowd,” a friend once smiled to me, “is that they can’t invite their mates to the pub without giving it a title and calling it outreach”. That jest has been on my mind lately, as many among us fret over the future of the UK’s oldest science outreach organisation, the Royal Institution, after a botched attempt to modernise its stately London headquarters left those same hallowed grounds under threat of sale. Inevitably, these conversations have led people to question what it is the Royal Institution does, and whether this qualifies a proposed multi-million pound bailout from the public purse. Some would go so far as to claim that the venerable institution has become hopelessly outmoded and outclassed by a new breed of irregulars, who fight science illiteracy and disengagement like guerilla soldiers in new battlegrounds (mostly pubs) and under new organisational structures (mostly volunteers). The threat to the Royal Institution’s Mayfair headquarters exemplifies this narrative: being at once a venerated and deeply historical building while also a vainglorious monument that arguably has little to offer the day-to-day practical challenges of engaging the public with science. Old, fossilised, slow, and expensive, versus youthful, flexible, rapid, and cheap. Do we care that the king is in check when the battle is fought by the pawns?
While there has been a surge in events to populate the social calendars of metropolitan nerds, I’d stop short of writing off the need for the Royal Institution on this trend alone. While they service a growing demand from young (and some not-so-young) people to explore their nerdy interests, I don’t believe that’s the same thing as outreach – even though they both share similar outcomes. The best way I can describe it is “science culture” – the active participation by a group of people in a shared interest. A cultural scene snowballs, it develops, it seeds future activity, it produces leading figures. But just as club nights are not music outreach and watching the football in a pub is not sports outreach, science-themed evening events for a narrow audience fail to be outreach because they aim to serve the most accessible audience and not the most intractable one.
It’s an old argument, one I’ve had before. Some years ago I met an old friend for a drink, a smart and self-effacing man I worked with on the government’s disastrous Science: So What? So Everything campaign. (Ostensibly a science engagement project, it approached the problem just as you might expect a high-flying businessman to: science was a product that needed selling. You could PR it into relevance. But now isn’t the time to discuss that.) When we sat down in the last two seats in a crowded Soho café, we found ourselves next to Ben Goldacre and friend. Naturally, the conversation turned to the Science So What? project. Goldacre argued that the £2m wasted on that would have been better spent on supporting the then-burgeoning science cultural scene and the theatres he and his friends were regularly packing out. I countered that it was likely the 40,000 audience he touted were almost entirely made up of self-identified nerds. The remit of SSW was to engage with people who didn’t like science at school and hadn’t looked back since. Funding an event that didn’t explicitly pursue that audience would have betrayed that goal.
My friend didn’t say much through all of this, until we were alone sipping the last of our coffee. He pointed to a workman leaning one arm out the window of his white van, reading the Sun. “Take him. He doesn’t need to understand how the large hadron collider works, and he doesn’t have to care,” my friend said, “but he does need to understand why we’re spending billions on it. Because when the Government decides to shut that funding off, he’ll be the one they justify their decision to. Not us.”
That observation stayed with me, and has informed my personal view of outreach ever since. For better or worse, it will always be to me about securing the status of science within society, largely by engaging with people who don’t need to and don’t care to understand it.