Funding is tough in higher education and many great ideas fall short of just a little bit of money to makes something cool a reality. This could be one of them.PalaeoGo is a concluding HEIF project that puts extinct animals into your smart phone using Augmented Reality. The idea was to enhance visitor experience at museums and science outreach in general. We have generic Apps in the app stores (App Store, Google Play) as well as a couple of bespoke ones specific to museums, The Etches Collection (App Store, Google Play) and Winchester Science Centre (App Store, Google Play) as well as a BU Campus version (App Store, Google Play). They bring dinosaurs to life and are hugely popular with children.
Perhaps the work we are most of proud of is that with Kingsleigh Primary School. In December 2019 we ran an outreach event which saw us take our PalaeoGo apps into school and we ran a dinosaur colouring competition alongside. This saw Year Two children compete for the prize of having their drawing come to life in a video. The community response was huge, and the school were happy with the outcome.
So, impressed with the idea and aware that once the project was over, and we had lost our talented digital artist Cameron Kerr (something which has now happened), such interventions would no longer be possible we began to plan a solution. We put our minds to trying to create the pipeline which would take a scanned piece of artwork from a child and produce their own video as the end product. In this way a school where ever they are in the World could run their own dino colouring competition. We now have that code all primed and ready as illustrated in this video, and we are looking for a talented web developer to package it all into a neat school/child friendly website, preferably pro bono.
So, ideas and/or offers of help are needed on how we move this brilliant idea into something that kids across the World can interact with. Answers on a postcode to the frustrated PalaeoGo team.
Understanding how something walks is a fundamental question in vertebrate biology. If you want to study the biomechanics of a living animal, such as a human, you simply get them to walk on a pressure treadmill and this captures the pattern of basal (plantar) foot pressure. With larger animals it is a little trickier and there is a reason why we only have a small number of pressure records for elephants since it is not that easy to get them to walk on a treadmill! For an extinct animal, such as a mammoth or a dinosaur, it is impossible. In such cases we use fossil footprints, substituting footprint depth for pressure, but unfortunately research has shown that this does not work as well as one might hope. Something called ground penetrating radar (GPR) provides an alternative.
Popular TV shows such as Time Team and The Curse of Oak Island have transformed public understanding of geophysics; tools by which archaeologists and geologists image the hidden subsurface. As one over enthusiastic presenter once said ‘it allows us to x-ray the ground, like Superman looking through the soil to see what is buried below!’ Ground penetrating radar was first developed in the early 20th Century but was not really developed until the Vietnam War when it was used to image subsurface bunkers and it is now used by engineers to view cracks in railway tracks and girders. It is essentially an electromagnetic transmitter/receiver, a mobile phone on steroids if you like, and its signal penetrates the ground with varying speed, determined by the properties of that ground. The signal is reflected back to the surface by boundaries that show marked changes in physical properties, thereby revealing the shape of those boundaries. It is generally a tool for imaging big stuff (think walls) in the archaeologist’s toolkit.
Our research team have been working for several years at White Sands National Monument (WHSA) in New Mexico which contains the largest assemblage of vertebrate Ice Age tracks, probably in the world. These tracks are preserved on a dried lake bed (Alkali Flat), but they are difficult to see which is why colloquially they are referred to as ghost tracks. Seeing them is quite important not only so that we can track and map the interaction of human hunters with extinct Ice Age fauna, but also for their conservation. Much of Alkali Flat is in co-use with the White Sands Missile Range, famous as the birth place of the American space programme, of the first nuclear blast at Trinity and Regan’s infamous Star Wars initiative. In places missile debris litters the ground and being able to map conservation priorities is important especially since the true significance of the track assemblage at WHSA became known only in 2018 with the recognition of human tracks.
Images of Ice Age human footprints at White Sands National Monument (New Mexico), also showing the ground penetrating radar and the foam mats used in the survey [Author supplied].
The research team have had some success in using geophysics to map large animal tracks, but to our surprise we found that high-resolution ground penetrating radar gives fantastic results. Now when we say high-resolution we are spacing our survey lines at around 10 cm or so; typical survey line spacing would normally be measured in metres. We place foam jigsaw mats out on the desert floor, the sort of things you get at play school or in your home gym, and move the radar across this surface line by line.
Not only can we image large mammoth and giant ground sloth tracks but we can also image to those of human hunters that co-existed with these animals. The electrical properties between the track fill and the printed ground are subtle but sufficient for the tracks to stand out. There are many advantages. Not only does it allow us to prospect for tracks, but it allows us to image buried tracks and deduced sequence of superposition.
GPR imaging of mammoth, giant ground sloth and human tracks at White Sands National Monument [Author supplied].
We also noticed something cool beneath the mammoth tracks. Below the base of the tracks we consistently saw a radar feature, hook-like in cross-section, we believe is caused by compressed sediment. Comparing these structures to modern plantar pressure records, kindly donated to us by researchers at the Royal Veterinary College in London and Monash University, we see a tentative match. It makes sense since that is where the plantar pressure would have been greatest beneath a mammoth’s foot and the sediment most compressed. The radar signal appears to be picking this out. In fact we can get a similar pressure record off the human and giant ground sloth tracks. We still have work to do but it appears as if the radar signal is able to give us a plantar pressure record from an extinct animal independent of the footprint itself. In terms of studying the biomechanics of Ice Age giants this is revolutionary especially for animals like the giant ground sloth which had a peculiar gait, walking on the outside of its feet.
Subsurface anomalies below mammoth tracks. These are caused of compression below the footprint caused by the plantar pressure. The spaceship like sculptures shows this; the top disc or surface is the actual footprint and the structure below the anomaly. They resemble the pressure patterns found for modern elephants [Author supplied].
At this point we firmly move to the near-future, because as with all new ideas there is validation work to be done. But assuming this all comes good and crucially the technique works outside the specific gypsum rich sediments of White Sands as we believe it will, then the implications are significant for those who study biomechanics. For example, we might be able to use it map footprints elsewhere especially where digging could be disruptive at such famous footprint sites like that at Laetoli in Tanzania where the oldest human footprints in the world are to be found. Or alternatively search for buried footprints around shallow or mass graves. But the big goal is to be able to obtain a plantar pressure record from beneath a dinosaur’s foot. We are not quite there yet, but given the right geological circumstances it is we believe possible and with funding we hope to try soon.
This work was carried out by: Tommy Urban and Sturt Manning of Cornell University, Matthew Bennett, Matteo Belvedere and Sally Reynolds from Bournemouth University and David Bustos, Daniel Odess and Vincent Santucci from the National Park Service in the USA.
Museums are often perceived as dusty cabinets full off dead and ancient things, especially those institutions you’ve never heard off. You know the ones, the neglected pride of county towns that could play a vital cultural and social role but struggle for funding.
For some, technology is the answer, virtually recreating museums and their contents online, or launching fancy augmented reality smartphone apps that overlay videos of the real world with interactive computer-generated content. We certainly see the potential for such apps to make museums more exciting, especially to young people, and have recently been using them to bring dinosaurs to life.
But sadly our experience suggests visitors just aren’t keen on downloading these apps. So is there another way technology can help revitalise musuems and similar attractions?
Using the phone’s camera to scan a code on a notice board or flyer brings forward a 2D computer-generated image superimposed on the phone’s live camera feed. Users can see a troop of mammoths walk over the horizon with the real landscape behind, or have their selfies taken with a mammoth. We’ve since created our own free app that recreates augmented reality dinosaurs and other extinct reptiles and mammals in 3D, without the need to scan a code.
We deployed the mammoth and a T. rex at various events in 2017 and 2018, allowing visitors to pose for selfies. The tech was embraced enthusiastically, not just by children but by older generations as well. We found the sense of technological wonder coupled with a chance to strike a silly pose with an extinct animal really appealed to the visitors.
But when we first deployed the app at a museum, in summer 2018 at the Etches Collection on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast, it challenged our thinking. In fact, it stopped us dead. When we had staff on site to show people what was possible with our own tablets and phones, the technology had an impact and people were excited to see it in action (although they did not always download the app). But no one engaged when we relied on posters and banners to encourage visitors to download and use the app.
We failed at the first step, not due to a lack of interest in the technology or in the 3D dinosaurs deployed, but due to the fundamental reluctance of visitors to download museum apps. We have since found this experience to be shared by others, such as Skybox Museum, who also struggle to get visitors to download their app deployed at their site in Manchester. In fact, the feedback we’ve received so far suggests that simply getting people to download a museum app, rather than a problem with the underlying technology, is the biggest obstacle to its success.
What makes people download apps?
To find out why, we immersed ourselves in a growing body of consumer-based research on smartphone apps. It turns out that the characteristics of an app are less important when it comes to getting people to download it than whether they trust the makers, and that brand loyalty and familiarity help build this trust. We also know that the potential for social interaction and pure enjoyment are more important than the usefulness or educational value of an app. People want to be entertained, engage with others and are wary of potential risks to their phones and personal data.
So when you’re asked to download an app at the doors of a museum, the default position is to decline. It’s a hard sell, especially if you have children in tow. Promoting the app in advance helps but, even if you overcome this reluctance, people still want a guarantee of fun.
What’s the answer? Games are an obvious possibility. Which regular museum visitor hasn’t seen a horde of children with clipboards on some form of quest or hunt? Promising a fun game is perhaps the key to getting children to try the augmented reality we know can change a museum experience.
The alternative is to make such resources available without an app, and we are exploring this. One solution might be to enable visitors to access it through their phone’s internet browser or via a standard QR code. Another idea we are trialling is to preload the technology onto a tablet hired like an audio guide at a museum’s entrance. As the software doesn’t need downloading it can be more complex, for example using locational technology such as GPS that can prompt the user to activate the device at a given spot and offer content tailored to their visit. But this would make social interaction and downloading those fun-filled selfies harder.
We believe that technology has much to offer the museums of the future. In fact, we would argue it’s essential to their survival. In particular, mixed reality, a form of enhanced augmented reality where real people and objects are displayed in virtual worlds, has some exciting potential to create immersive, engaging and educational content. But for once, the smartphone may not hold the key.
Computer animation (CGI) has revolutionised the film industry. No longer is a writer or director limited by the constraints of delivery and execution, literally any action stunt or visual world can be created. The limitations are now those of the digital artists, of the computation required, of time and budget. Jurassic Park (1993) showed what was possible; dinosaurs reborn as you had never seen them before. By the time of Jurassic World (2015) and its sequel (2018) hit our screens the wonder was gone; CGI was taken for granted. Given that anything is possible, should we not now expect a greater degree of scientific realism? The Martian, for example, was widely lauded for its scientific veracity, but even here scientific veracity (i.e. the dust storm, radiation risks and geological aspects of the landscape) were not allowed to get in the way of a good story; after all we go to the movies to be entertained not educated. Or do we? Subliminal learning particularly in challenging scientific and gender stereotypes matters. After all, aside from a rampant genetic hybrid of a dinosaur in Jurassic World it was ultimately the male and mad geneticist that is the true villain of the pierce.
Most scientists would agree that there are lots of good science programmes and documentaries out there today, but there are also some very bad ones. Many documentaries and films play to the lowest common denominator, ‘sexing’ up the risks to humanity of a particular phenomenon and combine stock images and video carelessly. The last point is a good case in point; just about every documentary that involves a volcano plays to the geological stereotype of red hot molten lava, when in fact gases and volcanic ash are perhaps the norm and only a few of the world’s volcanoes actually produce such fluid molten lava. It is a volcanic stereotype reinforced by countless movies such as Volcano (1997). Similarly the fact that the velociraptors of Jurassic World remained without feathers, despite the advance in science since 1993 that suggested they were in fact feathered is another example of a stereotype at work; we don’t see birds as frightening in the same way we see reptiles.
But is it really the fault of the film maker or animator? After all their objective is to entertain not educate and stereotypes are essential ‘short-cuts’ in storytelling. Is it not the fault of the scientist who fails to stand up and point out these failings? Perhaps as scientists we should challenge the loose use of science-based stereotypes, not just around gender, race and the mad-demonic and out of control geneticist, but all those stereotypes that miss-inform and miss educate? If we as scientist demanded more, were more vocal as critics especially of those who set out educate via documentaries, as well as those that seek to entertain would things change for the better? The Martian was subject to a surprising level of scientific scrutiny – with countless blogs and newspaper reports documenting what was right and what was wrong with the science. Perhaps fuelled by the claim to be the ‘most scientifically accurate film yet’. It was good to see. While ‘feather-gate’ (Jurassic World, 2015, 2018) still has palaeontologist grumbling into their pints (or not) perhaps they should have done more through public engagement and the use of their own animations to change the stereotypical dinosaur? In the world of CGI where anything is possible scientists have an increasingly important role in constraining the art of the possible with a dose of scientific reality.
Portrayal of the social contract between state and university in the UK
There are bridges to be built since animation has huge potential in public engagement. Public engagement is now an important part of most scientists work, a requirement of research funds and part of the agenda in most UK universities at least. It lies at the core of the social contract between state and the university; that money is received to educate and research and while freedom to explore both is essential the reality of societal and economic are clear. The growth of the impact agenda as part of the Research Excellence Framework in the UK has strengthened this as a drive to demonstrate both value for money but crucially societal return on investment. Scientist now blog, hold numerous outreach events and some are actively researching the process of impact and engagement itself. Animation offers one route to engagement.
A University funded project (2015/16) saw us working with a BU animation graduate (Katie Hill) to produce a series of short animated video clips to promote research in human evolution. After all BU has one of the World’s leading animation courses and also has some great scientific research to shout about. The clip showcased here shows what is possible with animation alone, and was generated to support footprint research at BU and to stress the importance of human evolution in a dynamic landscape. The story is based on published scientific research, the terrain is based on digital elevation models derived from satellite observations, the vegetation assets reflect those present at the site and the footprints are based on detailed 3D models captured by photogrammetry in the field. The behaviour of the volcano and the eruption is consistent with volcanoes of the region and referenced to real-life still and video images throughout. The only nod to fictional composition was to move the signboard inside the site enclosure and to reverse it orientation. The rest is accurate; a level of scientific veracity that in truth was not hard to achieve although the animation as a whole was not quick to produce taking six months of work. We used a second animation to help promote our work on springs and human evolution.
The point here is that getting things right in a world of CGI is actually not that difficult, but is matter of care and belief in its importance and collaborative working between scientists and animators. Scientists have to stand up and engage, not just grumble from the sidelines and if they embrace the tools of animation they have much to gain.
I hate meetings, pure and simple, I have said it now! I think that most meetings are a huge waste of time and I was refreshed to read the other day that others think the same. In fact this piece set me thinking of my past as a senior university leader.
I hate meetings not just because I am introvert, and serious one at that, but because they rarely achieve anything and in my experience at least in the University sector are about the information cascade rather than real strategic decision-making. In my experience decision-making is made by a very small group of University managers and is often strategically self-evident any way so needs little discussion, I should know because I was once one of them. Consultation and debate rarely change in a meaningful way decisions that are made by these elite, although they would fiercely deny it as a truth.
My mother once said to me that you make a decision in an instant but spend hours, weeks or even years agonising over it and second guessing that initial instinct. Malcom Gladwell is superb on this subject in his book Blink. It is the same in universities where the elite (Vice Chancellors and their deputies of various types), make the decisions and rarely do those decisions change. They manipulate consultation consciously and unconsciously, after all they have to seek a consensus from an academic body known for arguing about most things and prefer that consensus to be modelled on their own. In fact I have only one concrete example in 26 years of academic experience of a VC changing their mind in face of academic debate. It was Sir Paul Curran while he was VC at Bournemouth and he backed down in the face of academic opposition from Senate which in most Post-1992 Universities is only advisory. For me it was a defining moment in a truly academically led regime, not without its faults don’t get me wrong, but such academic collegiate leadership at the highest levels is now rare in UK. We have lots of good managers but true academic leaders are few.
I digress so back to my hatred of meetings. There are those who love meetings and away days and the like, extroverts to a tee I am guessing. I once was appalled to hear a colleague in a leadership meeting many years ago express their love of meetings: “gets me out of the office and lets me catch-up with the gossip”. I want to be in my office analysing and writing, not wasting time on gossip after all I am a researcher at heart, and one who also enjoys his teaching despite being an introvert. University meetings conflate three elements in my experience: (1) an important touch point for staff and teams (even an introvert accepts this); (2) information cascade and project monitoring; and (3) very rarely a decision point.
These three elements require very different things and most meeting chairs prefer to focus on the former two elements because in truth, except at the most senior levels in a university, few real decisions are actually made just referred up. Call me cynical but in my experience this is the truth and also a source of huge irritation for those not part of the decision-making elite. Isolating the first two elements from the other agenda is done at a chair’s peril because it exposes this, yet is essential to making meetings effective.
Now I have little positive to say for billionaire self-publicists like Musk, but the idea of him empowering people to walk out of meetings if they have nothing to contribute is truly awesome. His idea of asking for meeting papers in concise prose and insisting the first 30 minutes of a meeting is devoted to silent reading of those papers is even better. Banning slide presentation is fantastic to. I would go further however and insist that all papers are hard-copy and phones and tablets are banned. I used to have to attend a Leadership Team Meeting every fortnight with a large membership and a meaningless agenda driven largely by the information cascade. The papers got so big and everyone had tablets so the move to electronic papers seemed sensible – to save the environment. In fact attention at meetings fell and the length increased because most people got on with their emails and reading. A cynic might say that it improved productivity, not of the meeting but in email response times!
Taking the information cascade out of meetings is perhaps the key challenge for any chair and to hold a meeting as a default is a logical solution since most delete corporate emails and bulletins. While PVC at Bournemouth several years ago we set up a research blog as the information cascade and to replace static and tired information based web pages. The archive became that resource over time. The daily digest still pop’s into my email and I follow the links and read what I need. I never managed to integrate this with a reduction in meetings however with an agenda focused on key decisions which is something I regret but could have been done easily in hindsight. Open online discussions are something to consider. The team outside my office door, who are not led by me, have stand-up meetings which is an interesting innovation and while PVC the most useful team meeting was a half hour over a coffee every Monday morning. Called the prayer meeting by those who felt excluded (it took place in a campus coffee shop) it actually was useful as touch point each week for a team. There are lots of innovations possible here with the aim of separating out the functional requirements for meetings as long as they are driven by a desire to reduce the total hours spent in such activity! I would say that off course because my computer is where I want to be.
If you are a student reading this, then forgive the cynicism. You are the next generation of meeting attendees and chairs and I beseech you to learn by our mistakes!
Fake news and research is a story of the moment. Many professions self-regulate and academics are no exception. The system we use is peer-review, which governs the publication of research and in many countries the availability of competitive research funding. It can make or break research careers and is there in part to safe-guard against ‘fake’ research, but to what extent does it hold back creativity and innovation?
While there is a growing proliferation of journals across a range of disciplines, careers and reputations are made by publication in the most elite publications, such as Nature or Science, for which competition is fierce. But whatever the journal, getting controversial or truly innovative ideas published can be a challenge and is at least in my experience limited by the very self-regulatory system we as academics uphold. Peer-review aims to uphold academic standards of scholarship and should protect decision-makers and the public from bogus claims (fake news), but it can and sadly does become a form of censorship in some cases. Now in my experience reviewers often stray from a being a constructive and critical friend focused on issues of quality, presentation and logic, to expressions of opinion and reaction to a new idea and the boundaries here are unclear.
As a former journal editor I know just how hard it is to secure reviews from busy researchers. As a reviewer I know that such tasks can become squeezed into bad tempered and stolen moments at the end of a busy day. As an author, and a dyslexic one at that, I have experienced many painful reviews over the last 25 years, some deserved others not, and many have verged from professional to the personal. Challenging convention is what researchers should be trained to do, but many don’t choosing to replicate research and innovation slows. To do otherwise incurs pain and disappointment as peer review system can allow vested interests to stifle true innovation. I am reminded of a piece I wrote as a young researcher about R.G. Carruthers a British geologist so infuriated by the interference of reviewers he took the unusual step of publishing a private pamphlet in 1953. Carruthers was realistic about its success: ‘One has to recognize that the independent issue of scientific pamphlets is rarely a success. The life of such things, like that of the medieval peasant, is apt to be “nasty, brutish, and short”. Still there are times – and this is one of them – when there is no other way, if one’s work is to be presented as written, and free from the interference of others. Whether it be accepted now, or later – perhaps much later – is no great matter. But it will be . . .’ (Carruthers, 1953: p. iii).
A year or so ago I got a paper to review from an elite journal with some challenging findings and a long history of rejections, ill-tempered reviews and downright unprofessional behaviours on the part of some reviewers including breaches of confidentiality. I reviewed it fairly, the first fair review the author’s had received in several attempts to get the material published, but the paper was still rejected by the editor. One lone voice is not enough. The authors were so shocked to receive a kind review given their past experience that I was invited as an expert in the field to help them re-shape their work. I did so, and the new manuscript was tamer, better formed with more data and more considered, but it still ruffled too many feathers and was rejected yet again. Some of the author’s felt as if they were being accused of participating in a scientific forgery (fake research!) from the tone of the reviews. It has recently been published finally after six years.
This story, and the one about Carruthers, illustrates how difficult it is to get innovative ideas published and discussed openly, particularly when they challenge established paradigms and figures. It is after all for the research community as a whole to adjudicate their value, not just a couple of reviewers, acting as representatives of that community. I almost feel angry at the thought of how much innovative and provocative research might have been rejected in the name of the academic community, in my name and in yours (!), without us even being aware. Surely, open discussion of all ideas, however unusual, is essential for innovation and progression?
Peer-review revolves around well-established academics and experts in the field; the very people who often have most to lose by the publication of new models and ideas. Prejudice of all sorts is rife; institutional and national prejudices are often to the fore and are subconsciously applied without thought by many academics. Yet unconscious bias training as part of recruitment processes is now common in most of the UK’ universities. One of the people I consulted about this piece said bluntly ‘it is about academic morals and they are not as white as one would hope’. Treat as one would wish to be treated is a good adage but is easy to forget in a world dominated by competition. Academic competition, through such things as the research enhancement exercise in the UK and for scarce funding, coupled with the competition between journals for the most cited research breeds competitive behaviours. They are easy to measure and monitored by metrics, but there are no easy metrics for compassion, for mentoring and coaching of talent and innovation beyond your immediate research team. One academic I spoke to said ‘what do you expect? You go to see a lawyer and they charge a fortune per hour, or go to a private clinic and you pay handsomely to see a specialist, but you ask an academic expert with over 30 years of experience for their considered view and expect it for free!’ Most academic journal editors are not paid for their time. In the digital age it can take a matter of days to get a paper formatted, proofed and online once accepted, as productions time fall editors are under pressure to cut editorial processing times and consequently many editors (as I was) are encouraged to simply reject rather than nurture papers that need a lot of re-working.
Now to be clear I am not suggesting that we abandon peer-review, it plays an important role in ensuring that what is published is at least intelligible and meets some basic standards of ethical research. The case here when dealing with medical or drug trials for example is clear, but the need to nurture, debate and support the publication of innovative ideas needs greater thought. It is something that is under even greater threat with the current focus on fake news. There have been a number of experiments and new approaches over the years to try and make the process more transparent and less open to personality and abuse. Some journals now offer blind-blind reviewing, others publish the reviewer’s comments and the author’s responses, and there are a number of journals that now allow reviewers to debate the decision letter between them. Blind-blind has its advocates, but any form of anonymity allows abuse in my experience. It is the reviewer’s anonymity not the authors that is the problem and the lack of redress permitted by authors when treated unfairly.
For innovation in self-regulation we have perhaps to go back to the early origins of the peer-review system itself. A learned researcher would present their work via a formal lecture and the audience would discuss and question the author in person effectively providing peer review through active rather than passive debate. Those comments would be minuted and published along with the original lecture. Now we can’t restrict publications to oral presentations and conference invitations are far from unbiased now as they were in the past; you don’t invite the opposition to your own jamboree that often! My point here however is that a more open and transparent debate is needed, not one simply limited to a select, and often self-nominating few acting on behalf of a wider, and usually oblivious, community. The Arxiv (https://arxiv.org/) project is one example. Here articles can be uploaded and receive online comments, it also acts as a digital archive for more conventionally published works. Forums and publications that allow more open peer debate and active, rather than passive and hidden debate, is perhaps closer to the true spirit of peer review? Further experiments are much needed to protect society against fake news and research yet create the innovative, free thinking research talent that our society so desperately needs.
This post is based on a presentation given by Professor Bennett at Bournemouth University in 2018 entitled ‘The Dark-side of Peer Review’.
Most scientists agree that we have an image problem. This is serious at a time when research is at a premium to inform decision-making as argued so beautifully by Mark Henderson in The Geek Manifesto. We have a new generation of skilled science communicators on television today like Brian Cox, Jim Al Kalil, Alice Roberts and Iain Stewart to name but four and the quality and availability of science reporting has increased dramatically with the digital age. But the focus remains on discovery, the easy or sexy headline and therefore often on the trivial. Complex more nuanced, incremental stories are more often than not ignored. Every publically funded researcher is under pressure to engage the public and to increasingly justify what they do as part of the social contract with the public which funds them. For example, almost all funding in the UK requires statements now about pathways to engagement, but with this focus there is an ever present risk of simply pandering to the trivial and the easy as researchers seek publicity. It is something that I have been accused of myself.
The month of June is here which means for me the inevitable phone call to write something about building the perfect sandcastle. Professor Sandcastle, or the Sandcastle Boffin, was born in the summer of 2004 when I innocently became involved in a bit of summer ‘fluff’ for a holiday company. They wanted a formula for the perfect sandcastle. I obliged and the result caused a small unexpected media frenzy. The formula made it into the tabloids, was reported across the broadsheets and was a perfect regional story for radio and local television that summer. Much to my embarrassment I found myself portrayed as the Sandcastle Boffin. All was light hearted except for a barbed comment in the Independent, my newspaper of choice at the time, which cut deep: ‘haven’t they got anything better to do?’ ‘Yes of course I have, but you’re not interested in what I normally do’ I might have replied. The barb of triviality stuck fast.
The thing about the sandcastle story is that it would not die, despite the fact that the original research was never worthy in my view at least of publication. The following May I started to receive messages ‘we were so impressed by what you did for sandcastles last year can you . . .’ I was asked to create equations for love, happiness and luck. I turned most of them down but the idea of the ‘science equation as a’ tool was firmly embedded in a new generation of PR consultants. An appearance on the BBC Coasts programme with a linked session at the Cheltenham Science Festival helped cement the sandcastle connection, along with a slow but steady request for articles and radio interviews over the years. Most summers don’t pass without a request of some sort.
I have always delivered something when requested, seeing it as part of my remit as a modern academic to engage with the public slipping in messages about geology and earth history at every turn. I have resisted feelings of rancour when my real research has got less publicity remaining for the most part philosophical; if the public want fluff let them have it, better something than nothing, right? In truth it has done me no harm. The original interest gave me media training like no other and BU likes to remind people of its golden sands. It helped me as an academic appreciate the power and pitfalls of the media and the need for the sound bite and money shot in presenting more serious and challenging stories.
Despite this the barb still twists; I am not just trivialising my academic discipline of sedimentology that I care deeply about? Is this not an ever present risk as we strive as academics for more public engagement? It is easy for us to write into funding pitches that we will do school events, give popular talks, create websites, attend and run festivals but does this really engage the public in the value and power of research? Are we not just feeding the media-machine with yet more trivia in lip-service to our funding aims?
I have no idea whether my work on the perfect sandcastle over the years has made any real difference, it is impossible to quantify in terms of output. The truth is that measuring the consequences of engagement is hard and often undertaken post hoc. I am left without the answers but a gut feeling that is it better to show that science is all around us even in the humble sandcastle however trivial this may seem, than simply sit aloof concerned only about the more serious science stories that we may occasionally have to peddle.