The ‘expert’ has had a troublesome time in the past few years. The rise of ‘fake news’, widespread issues of trust in the media, and the apparent increase in scepticism towards the scientific community are all signs that being known as an ‘expert’ may no longer hold the meaning it used to.
Laura Holland inside the synchrotron hall at Diamond Light Source. © Diamond Light Source

Scientists are true experts. The adage of ’10,000 hours to master your sport’ applies to scientists too – that’s roughly how much science a graduate emerging from a PhD will have completed. Being an expert doesn’t always make a person right, just as mastering a sport doesn’t guarantee that you win every game or race, but it certainly means that you can’t underestimate the time and dedication in understanding their craft.

The enormous amount of knowledge accumulated by most scientists is often overlooked by scientists themselves – they can find it hard to shake off the jargon, or remember that for most people, the laws of science which are engrained through study in academia, were either never learnt or are long forgotten.

However, science is more than theory – it is a living discipline which every human interacts with daily. From the worry of a warming world, to the race to find new antibiotics, we must all engage with science whether we choose to or not.

The darker side of expertise rears its head here – one of the stand out moments in the Brexit referendum was Michael Gove stating that ‘the public have had enough of experts’. The findings from research are often uncomfortable – they urge us to change our behaviours in ways we might not like, they present frightening or unpalatable versions of the future, or they run counter to many people’s lived experience. The tension between studies linking drinking to cancer at a population level, for example, will always be contrasted with personal experience of the uncle who drank pints every day until he died age 103, and the pleasure of a glass of wine feels tainted with new threats when these links are pointed out.

So how can scientists take their work to public audiences, and create a playing field which enables them to communicate their research fairly? Their role as experts is undeniable, but a didactic and one-directional mode of engagement is clearly not effective.

Science communication and public engagement are the disciplines which aim to help scientists communicate their work with diverse audiences. Communicators are experts in language and message, and are there to help scientists see the world through the eyes of others, be that patients, school students, local communities or even funders and politicians.

I am a science communicator at Diamond Light Source, the UK’s synchrotron light source. We are home to a 562m particle accelerator which produces light brighter than the sun, allowing researchers to study the atomic and molecular structures of the world around us. We are home to over 9000 experiments every year, producing light around the clock for researchers from all over the UK and further afield.

The facility I work in is incredible. It is a feat of engineering, and the work we do to tackle issues as diverse as malaria and HIV to improved battery technology and perfecting concrete mean that it’s impossible to get bored.

One of the most amazing moments of any day is taking a school group through the doors and watching their eyes widen as we enter the enormous experimental facility – as big as Wembley stadium and unlike any other lab they’ve ever seen.

Big science has a really important role to play in linking scientists with public audiences. Our size and the range of work we do make us a perfect place to talk about how science works, what it can achieve, and most importantly, how people can get involved and contribute. Encouraging young people that science is ‘for them’ is a huge challenge – it can seem daunting to many young people, and the perception that science and engineering are hard and elitist subjects is hard to shake.

One of the most important things we can do is enable young people to meet our staff actually doing the science and engineering, and to prepare our staff well for engaging publics with their work. Our philosophy of opening our doors as often and as widely as possible is key to our engagement programme, and we currently welcome around 7,000 visitors each year.

Our next open day will be a special one for us, celebrating a decade of science at the facility. Researchers from around the country will be participating, and we will have interactive arts, virtual reality demonstrations and a chance to get into our awe-inspiring facility. We hope that the people who attend will leave feeling excited about the possibilities of science, curious about the way science is carried out, and empowered to engage with research and the way it impacts on their lives.

If you’re interested in the next Diamond open day more information can be found here.

About the author

Laura Holland, Public Engagement Manager, Diamond Light Source

Laura Holland is the Public Engagement Manager at the UK’s synchrotron light facility, Diamond Light Source. After studying cell biology and medical biosciences at university she has now worked at Diamond since 2007, and has brought her public engagement experience to @DLSProjectM, Diamond’s biggest ever public engagement project.