Academics are finding entertaining ways of publicising their research

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Today's university researchers face a new and difficult challenge. No longer is it enough for them to fathom out the laws of particle physics or the causes of continental drift. They have to be able to explain it to the likes of you and me.

One man who knows how hard this can be for some is Dr Dave Middleton, a social scientist and The Open University's research school academic co-ordinator, who has just taken part in a novel experiment to encourage the OU's up-and-coming researchers to find new and more imaginative ways of explaining what they do to a wider audience.

Middleton has, he says, spent his lifetime arguing against "the dull boring lecture and the arcane presentation full of jargon".

"It is important that researchers realise that their research has a social context. Their grants are funded out of public money and the general public has a right to understand how their money is being spent. But most of the general public wouldn't want to go and sit through a conference presentation."

Middleton's role includes helping to develop the careers of The Open University's 325 full-time research students, the majority of whom are based at the uni-versity's main campus in Milton Keynes. Last month, Middleton's team was responsible for organising a campus-wide festival of research, and as part of it he invited performance artists Kim Noble and Stuart Silver to work with postgraduate volunteers to look at new ways of communicating their research.

The results, which included a dustbin which talked to passersby, a series of interviews intercut with live bands, and a hoarding covered in graffiti, bemused and even startled some university staff, but were certainly a lot more eye-catching than the traditional lecture.

And for the young researchers who took part in the experiment, it was a "life-changing experience", says Middleton. "They have gone way outside the normal academic conventions. Now they feel they are something of an avant- garde. They want to go out and shake up the world of conferences."

One such convert is Saskia Van Manen, 22, who has turned her research into predicting volcanic eruptions into an interactive video game which she hopes to develop for schools. "I feel now I can much better explain to people what I am trying to do, in a jargon-free way," she says.

"Adding little flashes of creativity will hopefully have a big impact on how memorable my presentations of my research are. Disseminating research is equally as important as doing it. If you can't explain to your funding bodies what you do, they will not fund you."

Ironically, given this emphasis on dissemination, it comes as a surprise to many people to learn that The Open University has a full and varied programme of research. "The public perception of the OU is of a teaching university," says Middleton. "In fact, in terms of the amount of research we do, we perform very well compared with most other universities."

It is this research that underpins the university's courses. "Our research has always driven our teaching, not the other way round," says Middleton. "In geography, for example, where our research has a five-star rating [the highest], there is no division between research and courses; what academics research goes into what they put in their course materials. That's why OU course books are used in other universities, because they are a good way to keep up-to-date in the discipline."

And even bigger audiences are unwittingly exposed to OU research through BBC/OU TV programmes, such as the popular seaside jaunt Coast and the joke travelogue Lenny's Britain, in which comic Lenny Henry explores national identity through humour, drawing on research carried out by OU social scientist Dr Marie Gillespie. These shows have academic advisors whose research helps shape the script, even if they are never seen on screen.

As well as encouraging individual academics, the OU is trying collectively to raise awareness of its research activities. About six months ago it launched an online repository of its research, Open Research Online. This now contains more than 5,000 articles, making it the third largest in the UK, and is still growing. Professor Brigid Hey-wood, the university's Pro Vice Chancellor for research, said at the festival of research: "By the end of this year, we expect to be top of the UK league." For more information about Open University research go to http://www.open.ac.uk/research/

MEDIA SAVVY: BOFFINS ON THE BOX

"Things sometimes don't come out as you expect," admits Professor John Zarnecki, looking back over his TV and radio interviews. "I have been reported as having designed, built and launched the Cassini-Huygens space mission - all while I was working as a university lecturer. Actually, I ran one experiment on it."

A space scientist for over 30 years and director of the OU's Centre for Earth, Planetary, Space and Astronomical Research (CEPSAR), which is involved in a number of high-profile space missions, Zarnecki believes academics have a responsibility to engage with the public. "Too many researchers are bashful. We at the OU are particularly bad. We should shout about what we do."

He has braved everything from The Sky at Night to Melvyn Bragg. Like many academics today, he has had a small amount of formal media training, but says "there is no substitute for actually doing it".

"I realised - and it came to me in a flash - you are not doing a departmental seminar, you are not talking at an international conference, it is totally different. You have to just flip the switch, and go into a different mode. I used to imagine I was trying to explain something to my next-door neighbour. But there are many excellent academics who are hopeless at it, they just can't flip the switch. They do an interview for the local paper, and they think they're talking to Nature." There are other problems. "Actually doing media work is time-consuming. You may have to get up at 4am to get a train to London to do an interview for the Today programme, or if it's Newsnight you won't get home until 1am. And although the university encourages you, it does-n't give you any extra time; you do it on top of everything else you have to do." And there is still a concern among some researchers that a high media profile will damage their academic credibility and possibly their career. "There are still some people in the academic world - although they are in a minority - who look down on any public engagement, they regard TV or radio as devaluing their work. And these people still have influence," says Zarnecki.

"Of course, the 'gold standard' for academics is getting their work in a peer-reviewed publication, and that is absolutely as it should be. But if your research is high enough quality for a peer-reviewed publication, I can't believe that it cannot be presented to a wider audience as well."

TV is the glamorous end of the public engagement spectrum; at the other end, scientists from CEPSAR and its Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute do "a hell of a lot of very local stuff ", such as addressing meetings of local astronomical and science societies, says Zarnecki. "You don't get paid a bean doing it, and you talk to maybe 25 people in a village hall, it's very low profile, but these are real enthusiasts, it is fantastic for them to hear about frontline research from the horse's mouth."

He says nowadays young researchers at the OU and other universities get a lot more support in disseminating their research.

"When I started my career, there was zero training, zero encouragement for this kind of activity, but the new generation is starting from a very different baseline. Ultimately, the quality of their research is paramount, but they are encouraged to realise that it is part of their responsibility to tell more than 25 people about it."

In his former role at the University of Kent, where he spent 18 years, Zarnecki became used to new students approaching him and saying things like "I heard you speak at Croydon Astronomical Society five years ago, and it was so interesting I decided I was going to study physics". Public engagement can be very rewarding for researchers, he says. "You actually have the capability of changing people's lives."

You can see and hear Professor John Zarnecki talking about 50 years of space exploration in the first Open University Broadband Lecture, at www.open2.net/oulecture2007/

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