Groups of students buzz around booths showcasing some of the most state-of-the-art research in the UK. A 3D printed replica of Richard III’s excavated remains is on display in the main lecture hall, watching idly on as a team of University College London PhDs put their heads together to explore the possible origins of life. Upstairs, scientists from the National Physics Laboratory let students try on augmented reality headsets, while a group from Rothamsted Research gesture towards different species of grass that cattle might need to eat if we want to make beef farming more sustainable.
The Summer Exhibition is free for everyone, but it seems that schools and colleges are making the most of the outing. ‘I always expect, in fact I know that students are interested in science,’ says Brian Cox OBE, Professor of Particle Physics and the Society’s Professor of Public Engagement, ‘But here especially, because the standard of the exhibits is so high, most of them are really right on the edge of current research.’
The exhibition takes place every year and has done since 1992. However, the tradition of exhibiting the latest scientific research goes back to the 18th century, when the Society held soirées. These were ‘social and cultural feasts,’ says Keith Moore, the Society’s Head of Library and Archive Services. ‘Soirées also gave women scientists their earliest opportunity to share their expertise with a high-level audience of their peers.’ The aim is still to be inclusive – crucially so given the vast skill shortage in the science, engineering and technology industries in the UK. Events like the Summer Exhibition are an opportunity for students to see the approachable, less intimidating side of science.
‘There’s this figure which goes around at the moment which says that we need about one million more engineers by 2020,’ says Cox, ‘and that’s just engineers. The same goes for huge shortages in physics, biosciences and medical scientists as well. The students here might be the people to fill those jobs. At this stage, their decisions can be effected by the smallest of things and this glimpse into the world of research can change how they feel about certain routes into the subjects.’
This can be particularly important for girls thinking about pursuing science. Many universities talk about the gender gap in scientific disciplines, particularly in engineering and physics and it often causes public debate. ‘There’s a perception with physics that it’s male dominated, which it is less and less actually,’ explains Cox. ‘Perceptions like that can affect some boys getting into physics as well because they might not want to go into a discipline that’s male dominated. But if students are coming here and seeing some of the female scientists that are working on molecular physics at CERN, for example, they might identify with someone. From my personal experience at the University of Manchester, I think we’re pretty much 50/50 men and women. But if you were interested in particle physics you’d need to know that. Events like this can readdress some of those perceptions.’
Attitudes towards science are always fluctuating. However, the glut of science news surrounding topics like climate change and health means that reporters often reach for the most interesting – and occasionally inaccurate – data. This coupled with soundbite university press releases, often give research a hyperbolic attitude, which can be misread or taken out of context. Mistakes and exaggeration can impact the confidence in scientific claims.
‘It damages public debate actually,’ says Cox. ‘Ideally what you want is an overview of things like climate science, something with a level of scientific literacy and factuality which allows people to step back and ask what’s the best, current view with convincing evidence. Some views would contradict each other because that’s the way science is. But in order to make your way through that minefield, you’ve got to not treat scientists like priests who say “this is the way it is” because scientists don’t know. They just say “to the best of my knowledge at the moment this is what I think”.’