Fergus McAuliffe: Serving science at the table

He imagines an evening, an ordinary family at the dinner table, and the conversation is about science – about the current hottest topics of debate, a new discovery, a new breakthrough – and no one begs off from the talk, saying that they don’t understand and want to change the subject.

That is how Fergus McAuliffe replies when asked what, decades on from his current relative youthfulness, he would like to have achieved.

The ambition of Fergus, who is education, public engagement and communications manager at the Irish Centre for Research in Applied Geoscience (iCRAG), has another important dimension.

“One of the key things we’re trying to do in Ireland at the moment is to bring more women into science, because there’s a huge talent base there that we’re missing out on by not getting more girls into science.”

He has some personal experience of this. From a family of seven, with two brothers and two sisters, Fergus is one of the three sons who all went into science; but neither of the daughters did. He would like to see that scene change.

Fergus, winner of the 2013 FameLab International science communication competition, will be at the 2016 Sofia Science Festival on May 12, discussing issues of how today’s scientists should interact with a wider audience and within the academic community.

At iCRAG, where research is being done on finding and harnessing of raw materials while protecting the environment, the public engagement programme is an integral part of the work.

“There’s a huge effort on the part of the centre to train everyone, all 150 researchers, in public engagement and to provide them with as many opportunities as possible to get out among the public. This centre is just one of 12 such centres in Ireland, and every single centre has the same ethos, they all have a public engagement manager and all, as part of their work, are charged with bringing out the message of their science.”

At the same time, iCRAG has public perception research embedded into the mainstay of its research programme.

That means that in parallel with its geoscience research work, the centre also has a research programme on the public perception and understanding of geosciences, “so in a way, we’re researching what people think of our research”.

“While our work is just getting started, hopefully we’ll get some really good material out of it and we can feed that back into our public engagement programme.” This perception research, Fergus explains, is intended to establish how people see the issues in geoscience, what they understand and what they do not, and why – for instance – some geoscience activities are well-received by a community while others may not be.

On the wider topic of science communication, there are a number of issues – just one among them, quite obviously, how to communicate effectively and accessibly about research and findings, another how to deal with stereotypes about scientists and science itself.

And that in the age of the internet, extremely rapid communication, social networks and the Twittersphere – and an age in which the world wide web, for the potential good it offers, also can be a swamp in which disinformation lies in wait for the unwary or uninformed.

Asked about the risks, of the internet helping to spread negative perceptions about vaccinations, GMOs and climate change, for example, Fergus says that it is true that the internet has become the first port-of-call for people wanting to find out about something specific.

“Media like radio and television are quite good on broad science issues, but people use the internet to find out about something specific they may not find on radio or TV.

“There’s a tendency out there, that if you see something written down, maybe it’s true – so that makes our jobs as science communicators harder, because we’re trying to compete, to bring out the message of science and get it noticed amid a lot of noise.”

It is to be hoped, he says, that when people look for information online, they look at a number of sources and make a judgment about which is the best.

“Alongside that, it also means that we, as science communicators, must ensure when we put something online, it’s written in a way that’s very clear but also engaging,” Fergus says, underlining the risk that an online user is always just one click away from fleeing something that is dull, even if it is the most accurate.

Does this mean that scientists also have to learn SEO, search engine optimisation? “That’s part of it, attached to each research department you should have someone who can help with that, so that if a scientist writes an article and it gets posted on the web, it’s found.”

Science, like so much else, is rather difficult to cram accurately into the 140 characters of a tweet. That is not to say there is not a way around that, “an entire industry now based on the need for the creation of scientifically correct and informative infographics”.

Replying to a question about the issue of dealing with a generation accustomed to instantaneous everything, perhaps with dire consequences for attention spans, he says that perhaps the best route is to convey to people that “good science isn’t instantaneous and you need to stick with it.”

“Science is a method. Facts aren’t science. Science is trying something and maybe it works and maybe it doesn’t.”

Asked about the issue of perceptions of scientists and the degree to which they’re trusted, Fergus says that he can speak about Ireland, where the level of trust in scientists is actually quite high, especially if the scientist is based at a university rather than a company.

But he adds that polling has found that while most Irish people find science interesting, most also “fear that it is too complicated for them to talk about or understand”.

Fergus cites a favourite example: “I’ve never played a musical instrument, but I am more than happy to talk about my favourite musical artists; I’ve never played sport to a high level but I am more than happy have my say about a European sports final, and I’ve never studied political science but I can have my say about politicians – but maybe there is something different about science, when people don’t know an awful lot about it, they don’t want to say anything at all”.

How does one overcome that?

There are a number of things to do, Fergus says. One is to confront the stereotype about scientists, as people white coats cloistered in research labs, and show them as they are, regular people with pastimes and families and who can appear in public dressed like everyone else.

Another is exemplified by an initiative in Ireland called Science Rising.

As explained by Science Foundation Ireland, that initiative underlines that “the ability to question, imagine, collaborate, discover, answer and create is deeply engrained in Irish people and in a collaborative way across government, industry, academia and education we want to support participation in science at all levels to help Ireland realise its full potential”.

Says Fergus, “you may have heard of the saying that Ireland is the land of saints and scholars.

“The purpose of Science Rising is to make Irish people aware of the country’s huge scientific heritage, of the big discoveries made here, make them aware of this heritage and this history and make them proud of the science that happens here…I guess there’s a long-term move to change that, to ‘Ireland, the land of saints, scholars and scientists’.”

He adds a call for a change of approach by scientists themselves.

Scientists being interviewed sometimes demur from a question outside their field, “saying, I’m not a paleobiologist, I’m not an atmospheric scientist, or whatever – but maybe if they’re just being asked a general question, they may not be an atmospheric scientist but they’re probably well-qualified anyway and they should make an attempt to answer the question.”

In turn, he adds, that there should be understanding about the scientist straying from their comfort zone, “so that when they go back to their university, their colleagues should understand that they were making an effort, speaking outside their comfort zone, and there should not be any repercussions for having done so”.

The age of live-streaming, when those interested around the world can watch the latest Nasa announcement as it happens, or the achievements of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission, also have their influence.

“One of the great things was when the Rosetta mission got the Philea lander on to the comet, it was the same day that there were images posted by Kim Kardashian online with the hashtag ‘break the internet’ – and it was absolutely brilliant that the most talked-about thing that day was not Kim Kardashian, she didn’t succeed in breaking the internet, but it was that on the comet, the gravity is so low because the comet is so small, so that when the lander bounced, it bounced for a kilometre and a half, for 90 minutes.”

There’s some fuel for dinner-table conversation for you. If in the coming decades, Fergus and those like him succeed, no one will be hanging back from the chat about whatever science has in store.

Fergus McAuliffe’s presentation, “The whole world is a stage or the tale about science” is on May 12 from 5pm to 6pm on the main stage of Theatre Sofia. In partnership with the embassy of Ireland in Bulgaria.

CMK 21082014 REPRO FREE NO FEE "TSS3" (The Science Squad Series 3) Picture: Clare Keogh
Picture: Clare Keogh

For the full programme of The Sofia Science Festival in English, please click here, and for information on tickets and access to the festival, please click here.

The Sofia Science Festival is organised by the British Council Bulgaria and is under the patronage of the Bulgarian Ministry of Education and Science. The Sofia Globe is a media partner of The Sofia Science Festival 2016.



Clive Leviev-Sawyer

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via amazon.com, and, on the lighter side, Whiskers And Other Short Tales of Cats (2021), also available via Amazon. He has translated books and numerous texts from Bulgarian into English.