Sex & Bugs & Rock 'n Roll: Science splashes music festivals

February 24, 2014

Sex & Bugs & Rock 'n Roll: Science splashes music festivals

After cooking up an answer in a pub, Sayer and colleagues approached the British Ecological Society and asked the society to fund a stand at a music festival last summer

Emma Sayer usually asks questions about the global carbon cycle and fills her days writing papers and grant proposals, and running two long-term research projects on different corners of the globe, including one in Panama. But recently she found time to mobilize a crew of volunteer colleagues to address another pressing question: How can science be made more accessible to the masses?

After cooking up an answer in a pub, Sayer and colleagues approached the British Ecological Society (BES) and asked the society to fund a stand at a music festival last summer. Intrigued by the idea, BES, which was celebrating its centenary, backed them for three festivals and asked them to set up shop at the International Congress of Ecology, held in London last year. The experiment in outreach resulted in a spotlight publication in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, and an invitation from BES to continue the festival circuit this summer.

"The overwhelming reception we got was really positive," said Sayer, who did her Ph.D. at Cambridge backed by fieldwork at STRI. The science roadshow, called Sex & Bugs & Rock 'n Roll, proved two things. First, a little creativity can go a long way in giving the public unanticipated and positive encounters with science. And perhaps unexpected to many scientists, public outreach can even cast one's own research in a new light. Sayer is a lecturer of environmental sciencies at The Open University but will soon move to Lancaster University.

Sayer and colleagues built the project around a single ecological theme, which, thanks to the rolling meadows featured in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, was easy to choose: wildflowers, a U.K. craze at the time. In the middle of the stand was a beehive, which invited discussions about pollinators (which are not just bees!) and the relevance of global pollinator decline. Bug hunts got whole families involved in identifying species. People were invited to choose a series of personal traits and figure out what kind of animal they would be on a dichotomous key.

There was also a dose of gross, like swabbing people's clothing for bacteria and growing it on agar plates. The best (or worst) were uploaded into a surprisingly popular Flickr photo album. There was also a game called 'Whose poo?' which asked festivalgoers to match replica dung to pictures of the animals that generate the real thing in the wild. "They really, really loved it," said Sayer. "It even got its own hashtag on Twitter: #poogame."

Sayer said the event not only fulfilled a growing expectation from funders for public engagement. It also invited new voices to the curiosity that drives much scientific research. "People would come up with these really tricky questions and we'd answer, 'You know, I've never actually thought about that,'" she said.

"By doing something that is fun and creative you can create more impact for your research and you can get something back," said Sayer. "We're not often great at communicating but one thing we're really good at is learning. And we can learn to communicate better."

Reference: Sayer E. J., Featherstone H. C., Gosling W. D., the BES Roadies (2014) Sex & Bugs & Rock n Roll getting creative about public engagement. Trends in Ecology & Evolution (Vol. 29, Issue 2, pp. 65-67) doi:10.1016/j.tree.2013.12.008


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