Please visit our new site!


Science engagement for grown-ups

Jennifer Rohn 21 December 2008

Deep reflection: Hanage on good form (Detail from a photo by Chris Mcglashon, British Library Imaging Services)

Hanage moderated the fray with the command of Jeremy Paxman and the charm of Oprah Winfrey

It is one thing to pose a rhetorical question about some pressing issue of communicable disease – just how infectious was, for example, the influenza pandemic of 1918 – and quite another to be able to scan an audience and point to a national expert who probably knows the answer to two decimal places.

Pleasant surprises like this were common at the most recent event at the British Library (BL) in London. Entitled Infectious disease: what can evolution do for us? and presided over by Bill Hanage, a well-respected epidemiologist at Imperial College (as well as a regular contributor to, the evening was a brainstorming session designed to get interdisciplinary specialists talking to each other.

When I was invited to sit in, and without having done my homework, I had assumed that it would be yet another London public engagement exercise, designed to excite interest in science amongst the wider population. But that assumption turned out to be wrong. According to Sarah Kemmitt, a Research Officer at the Library, and a former post-doctoral research scientist in the field of soil microbial ecology, is an experiment. After selecting a timely topic, she and her team book an expert to introduce it, then gather together an audience of scientists, researchers, policy makers, funders and other science stakeholders from both the public and private sectors. So it's not designed to educate or engage laypeople at all: it's meant for people in the field simply to explore a topic in depth from a variety of angles.

"We aim for it to be stimulating, fun and informal and to contrast with the lecture/workshop model of event," Kemmitt said.

The evening I attended was clearly a success. After being warmed up by a short, entertaining presentation from Hanage, we were encouraged to come up with provocative questions within our individual tables before the floor was opened up to general discussion. The main theme was whether and how we are conquering modern infectious diseases, with HIV, influenza, tuberculosis and malaria emerging as prominent topics. Antibiotic resistance was another strong thread, and evolutionary theory was an undercurrent overall – not surprising in an event that Hanage was presiding over. And preside he did, moderating the fray with the command of Jeremy Paxman and the charm of Oprah Winfrey. Seeming to know everyone in the rather large room personally, he was quick to draw out expertise when the need arose.

According to Kemmitt, this series is not a completely altruistic exercise: the Library aims to get something out of the quarterly events too, as a means of introducing and promoting the Library to local scientists, especially in the fields of environmental and bioscience, and showing them what it has to offer.

"More importantly though," Kemmitt said, "it’s a way to engage with scientists so that we can understand better how they work, how this is changing and what’s important to them. Ultimately, we’ll be doing some research into how scientists work, in a holistic sense, so that we can elucidate opportunities for the role of the British Library in scientific research in the future." She thinks this is important because the way researchers work is changing, and they want the Library to remain relevant and useful in facilitating research.

Related information

The first of four TalkScience events in 2009 will be held on March 17th, when Rod Page of Glasgow University will introduce What’s in a name? – the crisis in taxonomy.