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Algae smoothies, electric race-cars and smartphone-controlled spacecraft: Imperial shows how excellent communication can engage the public in science

by AprilSix Proof

IMP telescope

“Britain has the lowest level of Government financed investment in Research and Development, as a % of GDP, of the G7 countries” the Royal Academy of Engineering recently observed. This is particularly harmful because the evidence shows that innovation-the process by which ideas crystallise into new approaches, services or products- depends on public funding to provide a safety-cushion for private investment. This is because innovation is an inherently risky activity with no guarantee of success, and the innovator and his backers shoulder all of the risks, while the rewards are often widely dispersed across society.

Yet we will only spur greater government support for UK innovations if our universities get better at engaging with the public and communicating the real-world benefits of their research. Rather than treating their innovations as closely-guarded secrets sealed within journal databases and laboratories, research institutions should be encouraged to engage the public in the work that they do.

Imperial College London-ranked among Britain’s top three Universities in the 2016 Times University Guide-recently offered a glimpse of how things could be done differently.

On 7-8th May 2016, we accompanied broadcast crews and print journalists to see Imperial College open its doors to the general public for a weekend of live experiments, public debates and interactive technology demonstrations showcasing everything from ‘smart boxing gloves’ to smartphone-controlled spacecraft and drones.

The event engaged the media and the public with ‘hands-on’ experiments, from testing your IQ against artificial intelligence (AI) to testing the effects of music on chess games. The aim was to demonstrate how the innovations born in Imperial’s labs could bring tangible benefits to the lives of the visitors.

Ever conscious of the STEM skills shortage, Imperial gave a masterclass in how to engage children in science with hands-on demonstration of ‘gas guns’, ultra-thin body armour, ‘smart boxing gloves’ and demonstrations in how to use their minds to control objects through wearable headsets that translate brainwaves into commands. Children were allowed to ‘compete’ against Artificial Intelligence to show how machines will soon perform vital everyday tasks far more efficiently than us. They were even taken on an intergalactic tour in a rather unwieldy pop-up planetarium where one errant foot caught in the tent peg almost caused the Universe to implode on top of its occupants.

What made this stand apart from the average festival or conference was that it wasn’t just a niche audience talking to itself. Every aspect of the Festival was designed to show how Imperial’s innovations connect to the real and present needs of the visitors and of future generations, transforming science from an abstract idea in a petri-dish into something real and present that is fundamental to our everyday lives. A light, shock-absorbant material called Armourgel demonstrated how Imperial’s innovations could protect motorbikers from lethal accidents while tasty green ‘algae smoothies’ showed how genetic modification could be used to make nutrient-rich foods taste better.

The impressive turnout of families and young people at a science event was no accident; Imperial’s pre-event communications campaign involved a conscious effort to reach out to a younger, more diverse audience. The pre-event publicity drive deliberately focused less on the technical detail and more on the real-world future applications of science for ordinary people-from how robots “could do your housework” to how iPads will do surgery”. This meant that, for the first time, the Festival was previewed in populist publications such as The Stylist and Time Out, not the usual place you go to find out about the latest scientific research.

The Festival offered a glimpse of how scientists can bring science to life, helping to encourage more young people into STEM, and to drive greater public investment in our world-leading research. Crucially, it showed how universities could start to bridge the gap between the research community and the masses who could form their future customers and investors, helping bring our universities greatest ideas out of the lab and into our lives.

Paul Noonan, Proof Communication

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