Paul Brett, BBSRC DTP student at the School of Life Sciences, engages in policy and public engagement activities
Paul Brett is currently a BBSRC DTP student in the laboratory of Professor Paul Dyer in the School of Life Sciences and investigates the sexual cycle of moulds for its exploitation in industrial biotechnology. He holds a BSc (Hons) in Biology, a MSc in Biotechnology, a MEd (Master of Education), a PGCE (Postgraduate Certificate in Education) and six year experience as a secondary school science teacher.
During his PhD studies, Paul has used his science background and experience in education to engage with adult non-specialist audiences. Paul has presented his scientific research at many outreach events, including Pint of Science and the Nottingham Festival of Science and Curiosity. He was also one of the organisers of the Nottingham branch of University for the Third Age (U3A) and during his time in this role, he organised about twenty different events across Nottinghamshire, with talks ranging from the potential of spider silk to the application of CRISPR technology and how it can help with climate challenges. In these events, UoN researchers were invited to speak about their research to groups of retirees. Paul reflects on this experience:
“It is a very different experience to present to a group of retirees compared to talking to children. Older people often come to the presentation with preconceived ideas and opinions from their own past experiences or from material they have previously heard or read about, and their questions don’t always align with the topic in the presentation. It is challenging to address those, because the questions you get from students in a classroom are much narrower and expected. Although challenging, engaging with senior citizens is very interesting and rewarding”.
Recent news stories have illustrated the need for better science communication to enhance scientific literacy in the population. Paul believes that developing as a scientist involves talking with and influencing the public. Paul recalls how he and the other UoN researchers personally developed their presentation skills and they felt pride that they were adding to the community. He recalls receiving feedback from some of his audience members and where that led:
“I had been approached by some audience members at the end of one of the talks, who said they had been very engaged and pleased to see the research that UoN was producing. They asked about any further talks that could be put on for their U3A community. It was from this discussion a bridge was built from UoN to this community, and the following year, members of this community actively took part in the Pint of Science ‘Creative Reactions’ event, so it became a two-way street of engagement. One of the artworks from that ‘Creative Reactions’ event actually made it to the NY Times”.
Following on from those outreach experiences, Paul wanted to help develop conversations between research and government.
“I’m sure everyone talks to their families about their research. Taking that conversation to the community and political level is simply the next step up”.
As a BBSRC DTP Student, during the third year of his PhD Paul had the opportunity to undertake a three-month placement in a topic unrelated to the focus of his PhD. With his background as an educator and his experience and interest at explaining complex topics in simple terms, Paul secured a place within the highly competitive UKRI Policy Internships Scheme to do an internship at the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) of the University of Cambridge. As part of the application and to showcase how to break complex topics into practicality he wrote a POSTnote style piece about an emerging fungal pathogen.
CSaP strives to make public policy evidence-based by supporting the link between expert academics and policy makers. Their approach starts with an issue identified by the policy maker, which the Centre tries to address by partnering the fellow with academic experts to build collaborations and undertake knowledge exchange.
Paul joined CSaP as Policy Intern from January to April 2021. He was provided with comprehensive background training, which was followed by close coaching in writing various articles and policy documents by a CSaP’s experienced communication officer. The topics of the papers varied from the governments approach to ‘Levelling up’ to how conspiracy theories threaten democracy, as well vaccine hesitancy and interviewing Dame Angela McLean about her experiences as Chief Scientific Adviser to government. These papers acted as brief of the complexity of the conversation topics and were useful to the Policy Fellows at CSaP to inform their policy activity.
At present, Paul is writing his PhD dissertation and hopes to soon be able to defend his thesis. He is looking for further opportunities to use his science and communication expertise in public policy and engagement.
Posted on Tuesday 1st March 2022