Welcome to our 28th chat write-up with Tom and Jonathan, respectively from the Wellcome Trust and Royal Society of Chemistry, the two charities that have been supporting the Nappy Science Gang for all these months. This time we won’t be talking about detergents, fabrics or nappies, but about… money! More precisely, where does the money for science communication and public engagement come from? What kinds of project do they decide to fund and why? How do they know if a project has been successful? And what do they like the most about Nappy Science Gang? Read below to find out.
Q: What do you expect/hope to get out of a citizen science project? What’s in it for you guys, so to speak?
Jonathan: Interesting question. For us, funding a project like this is about reaching people who we wouldn’t normally be able to reach and helping to demonstrate that science is something that is relevant to all of us. Not just people who do it as a day job. It’s a great job as we get to have at hand a wide range of projects. For us, there are small things such as coffee mornings right through to large multi-year projects.
Tom: At Wellcome we are interested in getting all sorts of ways of engaging people in conversations about science. Citizen science is part of that, but even more so it is about putting the power in the hands of everyone; helping people to use science to answer their own questions rather than relying on ‘professional scientists’ who will only be researching the questions they can convince funders to support.
Q: What other types of projects are on the go, parallel to Nappy Science Gang?
Tom: We have so many projects on the go! Probably several hundreds at least in the UK at the moment. In terms of citizen science there are fewer, but one is ‘Ask for Evidence’, a website run by Sense About Science. This is about people asking questions and working out how to get answers, some of which involves citizen science.
Jonathan: Wow! I can’t compete with Tom’s hundreds, but we probably have 75 or so other live projects at the moment. One on the go at the moment that I’m really excited about is the fact that we have been able to support the Worker’s Educational Association to introduce some science content into their adult learning courses.
Q: How do you measure how successful a project has been?
Jonathan: The question of measuring the success of an outreach/public engagement project is an incredibly tough one. And to be honest, not something that we have yet cracked.
Q: What would you want to see in a project to consider funding it and how did NSG fulfil your brief?
Jonathan: There are a few key things that our reviewers will look for. 1- Does the project know its target audience? 2- Would our funding make any difference? 3- Do we believe the project team have the capability to deliver? If all those questions get a ‘yes’, then there is a fairly decent chance we might be interested in supporting it. The main thing than NSG had going for it was that Sophia/Laura and the rest of the team knew exactly who they wanted to engage – you guys. And more importantly, they knew exactly how they wanted to do it.
Tom: For me NSG excited me as it was not about teaching people some information. I liked that it was about people exploring their own questions on level terms with scientists. But there are other things that can make a project worth funding. Other considerations are the importance of the science topic, how relevant it might be for society to discuss it at large and indeed whether the audience for the project has access to other opportunities to engage with science.
@Tom and Jonathan, I have to say I feel like this project has been really helpful in re-engaging my brain in baby land. It’s been a real place to come and think that is supportive and in an area I have daily experience.
Q: Do you have any support for a project when the funding finishes? It feels like we are just getting into our stride but the end is looming.
Tom: Projects can come back for more funding. That is up to Sophia to put in another application.
The Ask For Evidence website I just mentioned is on their second People Award grant as we speak (the same grant scheme as we supported NSG through)
Jonathan: Same answer as Tom really. We actively encourage successful applicants to come back for more dosh to expand their projects (if we think they have been good that is).
Q: Have you found the current government have limited your ability to do what you set out to as effectively? Or that your responsibilities have grown in response to funding cuts elsewhere? And also, where is your funding from?
Tom: Wellcome’s money is from an endowment that is invested and we spend the money it generates. We currently have about £18billion and spend about £850m per year. The money initially came from us owning (and then selling) a pharmaceutical company. Our investment is now spread globally in all sorts of companies. The funding cuts from government has meant that more people are asking us to support the projects that may have been supported by government previously.
Jonathan: Most of our income comes from our publishing activities (the RSC is a very successful publisher of scientific journals). Luckily, this means that the change in government doesn’t have a huge impact on how we can spend our money. As a charity, we are obliged to invest our profits in ‘promoting the chemical sciences’- which means we get to support great stuff like NSG.
@Tom and Jonathan: That’s interesting, and fortunate that you’re there to take the strain I guess…
Tom: We are lucky, but we are only here to support projects about science and health, so we can’t fill all gaps!
Q: I imagine that the financial independence is a fantastic way to do unbiased science! Are you subject to lobby pressures and agendas from government or industry or are you pretty much free to dispute and refute through good science?
Tom: Interesting! What is unbiased science? We can fund what we want provided it fits our remit, but any funding is subject to biases (even if unconscious). What is important to fund is always going to be a subjective call with people with valid but different answers. We try to be responsive to the needs of the research community and the people like Sophia running projects like this, but in being responsive that also means we are as a matter of course open to lobbying. Lobbying being people saying to us we should do something and us (sometimes) agreeing.
Jonathan: I think the Royal Charter for the RSC says something along the lines of ‘advancing the chemical sciences’. This means that we can lobby government for what we think is best for chemists and chemistry, without any other agenda. Whether this is schoolchildren, students, academics, people working in industry etc.
Q: I guess you have such a historic position that you have a voice which is respected. Can you think of an instance where you have been able to positively assist a governmental position for better science?
Tom: In terms of government policy, Wellcome was very heavily involved in pushing for the government vote on ‘3 parent babies’ as they were referred to in much of the media.
Q: Have you ever found your scientific goals at odds with something the RSC has published? Do you get any say in any content published through them? Thinking along the lines of the lack of poor results for drug trials making it into journals for example.
Jonathan: Really interesting. Our journals publish the best scientific research, and our own goal is to do just that – provide the best information for chemists out there. So I guess that means they are never really at odds? The main thing for me is that the RSC continues to be a successful publisher. That means that there is some cash for me and my colleagues to do the fun stuff with kids and members of the public!
Q: Is there anyone you haven’t been able to reach yet that you would love to break through to?
Jonathan: Absolutely. But the beauty of running a grant scheme is that we don’t even know who those people are yet. If you asked me 6 months ago, I wouldn’t have been able to say that there are over 700 mums out there who are really interested in the science behind the nappies that they are using. The important thing for my colleagues and I to remember is that there are very few things that we are the experts in. Therefore it would be ludicrous for us to try and reach people without knowing their interests etc. That is why we support people like Sophia (and many others) to it – they know their audience and how to reach them. For example, it wouldn’t cross my mind to host something like this at 21.00 because that is when mums might have a bit of spare time, it is not something I’m an expert in.
@Jonathan: haha I’m trapped under a sleeping 4 month old and working on two other projects right now so it’s very convenient.
@Jonathan, we learnt by experience with that one. It turns out lots of us in the group have babies that go to sleep a lot later than the books all claim…
Q: Do you help with any resources other than financial? Like press or access and so on?
Tom: We have help beyond the funding. We provide press support, have conferences to help our grant holders learn from each other and also get involved in some projects by sitting on advisory boards for example.
Jonathan: We are able to help with a huge amount of resources. It all really depends on who is asking. Everything from careers support for students right through to mentoring schemes for small businesses.
Q: How diverse is the range of people working within your organisations? Do you think your diversity has any impact on your capacity to outreach and if so can you see a way to develop it into a better position? By diverse I mean gender, age, nationality, religion, sexual orientation and also position within the scientific community from industry to primary school?
Tom: We are not as diverse as we could be at Wellcome by a long way. It is a work in progress though. We have had a programme for some time to try and increase diversity. We are also keen to make sure the people we fund are diverse.
Jonathan: Ditto Tom. Which is another reason why we have a grant scheme. It definitely would impact our ability to outreach (3 white girls and 2 white guys in an office in Cambridge). That is why we support people to reach out in their own communities – they know a whole lot more about it than we do.
@Jonathan I like your attitude, trusting the hands that do the task. Refreshing.
Q: Have you ever used social media as a way to gain access to a wider audience? Twitter would love it…
Tom: We support a lot of projects using social media and have someone at Wellcome whose whole job is to engage with the public and scientists using social media! My favourite was one run by Erinma Ochu called Hooked on Music. Check it out on YouTube!
Jonathan: Definitely, the RSC have a strong online presence and we have supported a wide range of projects based around it. It all depends on who the audience is (Twitter is only a good tool for a certain demographic. Despite how I may feel, not everyone uses it).
Q: What do the Wellcome Trust and RSC value most at the moment in terms of public engagement? What is your main focus and target audience? I’d also be curious to know if most of the applications you get for public engagement projects/events are directed at adults or children.
Tom: We don’t have a main focus. We support so many projects and they each have to make a case for why they are worth supporting. We do get more project applications about engaging kids than adults.
Jonathan: The truth is that we don’t really have a main focus. And ditto Tom regarding kids. It is an audience that most people feel more comfortable engaging. Arguably because it may be easier?
@Jonathan, my theory about kids and science communication is that it’s a bit like vegetables. We think kids ‘should’ eat vegetables, and go to the science museum, because it’s good for them. So a lot of adults who don’t eat vegetables themselves, or do science stuff themselves, force it on kids. Which is the wrong way to go about it…
Tom: The focus on kids is sometimes because of people wanting projects to result in the next generation of scientists. I don’t think many projects actually make a massive difference to whether people want a career in science though.
Jonathan: What Tom says. And trying to determine whether any projects have an impact on career choice is no easy task.
Q: Okay, so I will ask the question that we all want to know @Tom, how did you end up studying female arousal and did you gain any new understanding? And how do you feel that goes when you tell people about your educational choices?
@All, haha, I was wondering who’d bite the bullet and ask about that!
Jonathan: Ha. I’m not going to answer any more questions until Tom answers this one…
Tom: I learned a lot studying female arousal! It came about because I managed to get funding for my PhD from Pfiser, who make Viagra and I started my PhD the year Viagra was launched. They were interested in finding a female market!
@Tom, tell us honestly, when you were studying your PhD, did you find it, erm, helpful, when you told people what you were studying at parties?
Tom : There may have been occasions where my degree was useful at parties. Not as many as I’d have hoped though!
And on that note (Tom had told us in advance about his PhD!), we let Tom and Jonathan get back to their lives and thank them so much for coming here and engaging directly with the Nappy Science Gang, who wouldn’t be here (or wouldn’t be as good) without the WT and RSC’s support. Thank you!
Jonathan : No problem. Thanks all. Any other questions or ideas that you think might be worth funding, feel free to send me an : «email»