What is it like to work with comic book writers and artists to turn research into comics?

Last weekend (Sunday 27th November) I gave a talk at the Edinburgh Comic Art Festival 2016 on what it’s like to turn research into a comic book.  We made a (low tech) recording of the talk (watch it here, see also the prezi here) but I also wanted to write about this project as I wanted to share and reflect on the process of creating a comic book to communicate research.

So, how did our comic, “Crowd Power: the COBWEB Guide to Citizen Science” come to happen in the first place?


As some of you will be aware, over the last four years I have been working on an ambitious EU-FP7-funded citizen science project called COBWEB: Citizen Observatory Web. We have, of course, been communicating our work throughout the project (in fact you can read our communications plan here) but as all the final deliverables and achievements have been falling into place over the last few months, we wanted to find some new ways to share what we have done, what we have accomplished, and what the next steps will look like.

Whilst we are bringing COBWEB to a close, we are also now taking our resultant citizen science software, Fieldtrip Open, through an open source process and building new projects and sustainability plans (which also means considering suitable business models) around that. Open sourcing software isn’t just about making the software available, or giving it the right license, it is also about ensuring it has a real prospect of adoption and maintenance by a community, which means we are particularly keen to support and develop the community around FieldTrip Open. And we want to bring new people in as users and contributors to the software. So, for both dissemination and open sourcing projects we really need to inspire people to find out more about the approaches we’ve taken, the software we’ve built, and to explain where it all came from. But how could we best do that?

During the project we had developed a lot of good resources and assets, with a lot of formal reporting and public deliverables already available, and accompanying engagement with wider audiences (particularly co-design process participants) through social media and regular project newsletters. Those materials are great but we wanted something concise, focused, and tangible, and we also wanted something more immediately engaging than formal reports and technical papers. So, this summer we did some thinking and plotting…  My colleague Tom Armitage joined COBWEB partners in the Netherlands to revisit our geospatial software open sourcing options with the OSGeo community; Tom and I met with the fantastic folk from the Software Sustainability Institute for some advice on going (properly and sustainably) Open Source and building the software community; and my colleague Pete O’Hare looked at the videos, demos, and footage archive we’d accumulated and suggested we make a documentary on the project. After all of that we not only had some solid ideas, but we’d also really started to think about storytelling and doing something more creative for our current target audiences.

Across all of our conversations what became clear was that real need to inspire and engage people. The project is complicated but when have shared our own enthusiasm about the work and its potential, people really take an interest and that open us longer and (sometimes) more technical or practical conversations. But we can’t get everywhere in person so we needed some cost effective ways to do that excitement-building: to explain the project quickly, clearly and entertainingly, as a starting point to trigger follow up enquiries and those crucial next step conversations. So, In August we did follow up on Pete’s suggestion, commissioning a documentary short (that’s a whole other story but click on that link to view the finished film, and huge thanks to our wonderful filmmaker Erin Maguire) to give an overview of the COBWEB project, but we also decided we’d try something we had never done before. We were going to try making a comic…

Why a comic? 

Well, first lets talk terminology… And I should note that if this blog post were a graphic novel, this would be a little side note or separate frame, or me explaining a pro tip to the reader – so imagine that as our format!:

Is it a comic, or is it a graphic novel? I think a lot of people will think about “comics” as being The Dandy, The Beano, Manga titles, or one of the long running mass market series’ like The Avengers or Archie. Or maybe you’d think of a comic strip like Peanuts or Calvin & Hobbes. Similarly “graphic novel” seems to be tied to the idea of long form books which look more like literary fiction/non-fiction, with well regarded titles like Fun Home or Kiki de Montparnasse or Persepolis. The difference is hard to explain partly because when you make that sort of distinction, clearly there are a lot of boundary cases… Is it about audience (e.g. teens vs adults), or aesthetic, or page format or critical response or some other criteria? Calvin & Hobbes deals wittily with matters of philosophy, but is widely read by children who engage with its (deceptive) simplicity, charming aesthetic and warm tone and deceptively simple story telling. By contrast, the new The Story of Sex: From Apes to Robots has a lively and pretty course – even for the subject matter – aesthetic (it’s authors are French and I would put the drawing mid-way along the AsterixCharlie Hebdo tastefulness continuum) and it is aimed at a wide audience, but it is co-written by an academic, has been well received by critics, and you’ll find it shelved in the graphic novel section. Comparing these works on any kinds of comic vs. graphic novel grounds won’t tell you anything very useful about style or quality, although it might reveal the personal preference of the reader or reviewer you are talking to…

So, Before I began this project I was pretty sure that what I read are graphic novels – yes, snobbery – but, when you actually talk to people who make these wonderful things, the term – especially for shorter works – is “comics” and that’s accepted as covering the whole continuum, with all the styles, genres, print formats, etc. that you might expect (yes, even graphic novels) included. So, taking my lead from those that write and draw them, I will be using “comic” here – and next time you are discussing, say, female self-realisation in Wonder Woman and the Nao of Brown, you can go ahead and call both of them comics too!

Definition of a comic from the OED online.

Right, back to the topic at hand…

One of the reasons that a COBWEB comic seemed like it might be a good idea is that I really enjoy reading comics, and I particularly love non-fiction comics as a form because they can be so powerful and immediate, bringing complex ideas to life in unexpected ways, but which also leaves you the space to think and reflect. Comics are primarily a visual form and that enables you to explain specialist technologies or sophisticated concepts, or take people on flights of fancy offering creative metaphors that allow you to explain but also re-explain and re-interpret an idea lightly and engagingly. Your audience still need to think and imagine but in a great comic the combination of text and visuals brings something special to the experience. Comics can be more playful, colourful and bright than a formal report, and also much less constrained by physical reality, budget and location than a video or an event. And whether in digital or print form comics feel really pleasingly tangible and polished; they are designed, story-boarded, they feel like a special and finished product. From the non-fiction comics I’d read I could see that comics would work well for talking about technology and research, so they could be a good fit for our project if we could be confident that our target audience and our type of research would be a good fit for the possibilities and restrictions of the form.

For the COBWEB project we wanted to reach out to researchers, developers, and future project partners which are likely to include software and digital companies, NGOs, SMEs, as well as non-professional researchers (community groups etc), and others interested in working with – and hopefully interested (in some cases) in contributing to our codebase – for our open source software. This is defined set of audiences but each audience (and individual) holds highly varied interests and expertise: COBWEB is a complex project, with lots of different components, which means our audiences might be new to all of the concepts we are presenting or they may, say, know a great deal about coding but not environmental projects, or all about the environment but not about using mobile technologies… But we do know these audiences – we already work with developers and researchers, we’ve been working with potential users and contributors throughout the project so we have some idea of interests, aesthetics, etc. We felt pretty confident that many of those we want to reach do read and engage with comics of various types, from web comics like xkcd to beautifully published books like The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. That overlap and interest helped us feel confident that a comic would be a good fit for our audience, and a really great fit for telling our story.

Finding a comic artist to work with

We now had the bare bones of the idea, and we had a solid idea of our target audience. But we weren’t totally sure about which aspects of our story to draw out, what parts of the COBWEB story we wanted to tell, although we knew it had to inspire, entertain, and be accessible. We also really didn’t know what we wanted our comic to look like. As I started to think about possible collaborators (we knew we needed others to work with/commission) I remembered that very many years ago I’d seen a flyer – in the form of a comic book – for Glasgow Comic Con in a hotel. I did some searching around and found BHP (Black Hearted Press) Comics, an independent comics publisher based in Glasgow that creates their own comic books, but had also recently completed a project with the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Art Gallery and Museum. Looking around their site I also found The Mighty Women of Science, another book where the subject and aesthetic suggested a good fit with COBWEB (and it was. Spoiler: Mighty Women author Clare Forrest illustrated Chapter 2 of our book). I had no idea what to expect in response but there wasn’t a way to find out if this idea was viable without getting some advice, so I fired off a quick email to BHP Comics…

Screenshot of the BHP website featuring Mighty Women of Science

Screenshot of the BHP website featuring Mighty Women of Science

I had a really swift reply from Sha Nazir from BHP. Sha was interested to talk more about the idea so we set up a meeting and, ahead of that, I trawled through my favourite comics to find some examples of the kind of idea I had in mind. On the day I brought in a few books that I thought did this sort of storytelling well, including: The Influencing Machine, Brooke Gladstone and Josh Neufeld’s overview of the (US) media ecology and culture; The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage – a fictionalised steam punk re-telling of the lives of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, with great technology descriptions and lots of (factual and referenced) footnotes; Filmish – the book of Edward Ross’ critiques and explorations of cinema and film making (in the mould of Scott McCloud’s classic Understanding Comics). I also brought in a copy of Taylor & Francis’ Cartoon Abstracts – scientific papers which have been turned into 1 page cartoons – which is one of the very few examples I have seen of scientific and technological research being adapted into comics.

That initial conversation with Sha was a long and honest chat about the kind of idea we had in mind. Sha had brought his own selection of books – copies of The Mighty Women of Science, Comic Invention, an issue of Rok of the Reds, and Plagued: The Miranda Chronicles – to give me a sense of what BHP work on, the kind of writers and illustrators they work with, the sorts of formats, sizes and print styles we might want to consider. We talked about timelines: ours were really tight. Sha and I met in August and we needed to have a digital copy available and all work invoiced by the end of October (the print copy could follow). The comics could then be used to extend our dissemination and sustainability work, helping us share what we’d accomplished and support keeping that work and code a going concern. That timeline we requested was ridiculous and I am eternally grateful that Sha even considered taking it on (he was optimistic in our meeting but very wisely went away to think about it before we finalised anything). However, to make that timeline work he was clear from the outset that someone (me) would need to be available to check in regularly, to feed into and look over the script, the storyboards, the draft versions – Sha and his colleagues at BHP would take on the work but we also really had to commit to it to. I was up for that although I had a three and a half week holiday to the US scheduled for September so, with the caveat that we’d have to work around time zones, it all looked doable and we started scheduling some check ins.

So, what else did we need to discuss to get this started? Well, I needed to actually describe and give some background to COBWEB. I told Sha about the project in our meeting – and followed up by sending him some of the key project technical documents and reports that summarised our work. Sha was entirely new to the project – like many of those we want the comic to reach – so asked lots of really useful questions that really did highlight the complexity of describing COBWEB. To give you a sense of that: COBWEB has been a 4-year, €8.5 million project with 13 partners in 5 countries; we’ve had 9 workpackages and many more deliverables, we’ve worked with over 1000 volunteers and 7 co-design projects as we developed our software – for which there are 6 separate GitHub libraries. There is a lot there. And there are important unique aspects to the work: the compliance with EU and international standards, including INSPIRE compliant metadata; our focus on UNESCO Biosphere areas; the access management controls in our software; the involvement of policy makers as project partners; the contribution to empowering of citizens in Europe. At the same time our comic didn’t need to be encyclopedia, it just needed to have enough focus on what was important to give a broad picture and to excite people!

On which note… We talked about the audience, who they were, and what messages they should take from the comic. We were very clear from the outset that we were using comics as an engaging medium, but that we expected our audience to have some fairly serious interest in the project, which meant that although nothing should be inappropriate for children, our target audiences were adults and mainly quite technically literate adults. We wanted to explain the work of the project and assumed not prior knowledge of COBWEB, but some (useful) complexity and detail was going to ok where it felt appropriate. And we felt we could assume that readers of the comic may follow up by reading one of the more traditional publications if they then had a specific technical or policy interest to follow up.

At that initial meeting we also talked a bit about artists and art work. With our (crazy) timeline Sha recommended we break the the comic into a small number of chapters and that, once a script was written, these would be illustrated by different artists meaning that we’d get a really lovely variance of styles across the comic (something you’ll see in a growing number of comics, including Kiki de Montparnasse where drawing styles change when “Kiki” works with different artists). Using several different artists was also practical, as it meant that those chapters could be illustrated in parallel by different people – shortening those restrictive publication times.

Initial art work for the COBWEB comic by Kirsty Hunter

Initial art work for the COBWEB comic by Kirsty Hunter

We also talked about formats. The weekly comic book style of Rok of the Reds was going to be cheap to print and it would be easy to hand out – it could almost fit in a pocket – but it didn’t look quite as polished as we wanted. But The Mighty Women of Science had a great format – substantial and beautifully finished thick/card cover and binding, with matt finish pages, in A4 format (useful since all of our display stands, envelopes, etc. are designed for A4 reports/promotional items). It looked like a book, a thin but high quality finish book and, better yet, it was a budget-friendly format for a small print run.

And, as the ideas took shape, Sha and I discussed cost, and an initial estimate of the work to do the digital comic, plus a price for a print run of 1000 A4 copies. A quick sketch of costs came out of that meeting, which allowed me to  talk to my COBWEB colleagues and to check that our budget could accommodate the project. I don’t think it is appropriate to share that price here but it was very reasonable for this much work and, particularly given the timelines we were working with, was enormously good value. Why tell you this? Well, if you are thinking of doing your own comic then I highly recommend talking to some comic artists or publishers before you (potentially) rule it out over costs, since (for us at least) those costs were very fair but were also dependent on things like number of pages and chapters, print formats, etc. so were also (somewhat) within our control.

So, we now had some solid ideas and a plan. We exchanged emails to work out the details, check costs (and check budgets), and get both informal and informal agreements to proceed (which we did quickly because, again, timelines were really tight). A standard contract was prepared and work began immediately at BHP, with me sending over information, background documents and diagrams etc. so that Sha and his colleague Kirsty Hunter could begin to get a script worked out – and could ask any questions as they arose. And, at this point I am going to embed my Prezi from my ECAF16 talk, which covers the production process stage by stage:

Throughout September Sha and Kirsty worked on the script, sending me drafts to comment on, tweak, correct, etc. We arranged several calls from a range of unusually exotic locations – a check in from Seattle, from Davis (California), and then – as I headed off to AoIR – from Berlin. We agreed focal areas early on, with the script starting as a skeleton in four sections:

  1. An introduction to COBWEB and the core concept of citizen science – ensuring all readers share some background knowledge but also making the comic a useful resource to those curious about crowd sourcing and citizen science in general.
  2. Highlights from the co-design work including several real world examples of people and projects who have shaped and been part of the COBWEB community. Much of this came from our co-design project reports, highlighting real challenges and feedback (good and bad) from our volunteer community.
  3. Our “under the bonnet” chapter, on the more chewy technical aspects of the project and including a very cleverly conceived double page spread on quality assurance processes.
  4. What happens next with COBWEB and our software now that the project is over and the open sourcing takes shape, but also where technology is going and how citizen science may fit in to e.g. smart cities.

Those sections were broken into pages and the script rapidly took shape. As the sections and pages were agreed, text for each page was drafted and tweaked. And storyboarding began in earnest…

, but also with the citizen science in a European context

Draft layout sketch for the COBWEB comic (by permission of Sha Nazir/Kirsty Hunter/BHP Comics).

By mid September I had started to receive initial visual ideas and sketches (a delightful treat in a Monday morning inbox!), and, in parallel, the wording and detail of the script was getting finalised. By the end of the month the script and initial drawings were ready enough to share with COBWEB colleagues for their checking and feedback – they did a brilliant job helping me ensure we were using the right types of terminology, not missing anything important, and also catching the less exciting but very important spelling issues, corrections etc. (having many eyes to check a script at several stages was very useful indeed and definitely recommended).

Once the wording was (pretty much) finalised and the storyboards ready, the comic went into the illustration process – seeing those storyboards turn from sketches to fully fledged characters (including a few fun references/”Easter eggs”), then those characters started to gain colour, backgrounds. Drafts were shared and commented on, and finally the final started to take shape. This part of the process followed a different sort of process: it required less input from me at first – a few checks of the pages and visuals – as the work went out to different illustrators for completion. However, once lettering was done there were a few crucial tasks to do: checking all of the text for content, spelling, etc. (which is surprisingly tricky when you’ve been seeing drafts for weeks, you have to adopt a whole different proof-reading level of engagement); building a glossary page for some of the technical terminology (in retrospect this is something I should have done right after that first meeting when the unknown words and acronyms were most obvious); and, because somehow we just hadn’t gotten to it yet, we actually had to think of a title…

A page from Crowd Power: the COBWEB Guide to Citizen Science, featuring real feedback from real co-design project volunteers.

A finished page from Crowd Power: the COBWEB guide to citizen science, featuring real comments from real co-design project volunteers.

What the heck do we call this thing?

In late October, several weeks after beginning work on the comic, we still didn’t have a title. Sha asked me to think about some ideas, and I sketched a few out but also started asking colleagues… We played with variants on the key aspects of citizen science, crowd sourcing, empowerment, etc… We wanted to get COBWEB mentioned, to give a sense of the content, but also to have a title that had a more catchy ring to it. After lots of chats and several lists of possibilities pitching back and forth, “Crowd Power: the COBWEB Guide to Citizen Science” emerged as a winner.

We then had to think about covers. Sha sent through several ideas but one of the most appealing – bringing together an image of a protest march with an image inspired by the Shepard Fairey “Hope” poster for Barack Obama – started to look less than ideal in a post-Brexit context, and with Trump newly elected president. Protests as a shorthand for people power are great, but at a time of genuine political complexity, polarisation, and a high likelihood of real protest movements, we decided that this was an image for the book and promotion, but not for the cover. Some other ideas looked good, but didn’t seem to bring forward the idea of real people, and environmental research as successfully. In the end we settled on an image that is, essentially, a cut scene from the comic, featuring a group of friends using COBWEB out in the wilds, as seen by our (nameless but brilliant) narrator:

Crowd Power: the COBWEB Guide to Citizen Science cover image

Another opportunity to look at our cover art. Eagle eyed cartoon fans may note a certain similarity between our curious walkers and the Scooby Doo gang…

One of the things I was asked early in the process had been “do you want the narrator or main characters to be human? Or can they be animals? Or giant floaty heads?”… I said that anything was fine, as long as it made sense – so a duck or a seal or some sort of animal that would appear in our actual co-design projects were fine, but not a penguin or dragon (or anything that wouldn’t make sense in that context). One of the things I loved about Sha, Kirsty and Clare’s illustrations was that they responded to that flexibility by building in diversity, quirkiness, and little in-jokes (indeed there are several “Easter eggs” in Crowd Power).You’ll notice from the cover that our narrator (throughout) is female. Sha and I had talked about women being well represented in the comic but I was also delighted, when the more finished version of the illustrations came through, to see a range of racial and ethnic diversity quietly represented in our book. The project was diverse in many ways, and we also want to be entirely welcoming to anyone who would like to be part of the COBWEB and FieldTrip Open community. The range of people in the comic subtly reflects that desire to include and engage and is, I think, one of the reasons that comics can be so powerful for messaging values, beliefs, and intentions as part of and alongside the core narrative.

With the title and cover art completed, and a further final proof read. Make that two. Make that three… And a few very last minute corrections… the COBWEB comic went off to the printers and the digital copy immediately went live on the COBWEB project website.  Now, to get the comic out to our audience…

Finding our audience

As soon as the digital copy of the Comic went live we tweeted and shared it with project partners and those interested in the project.

The feedback within the project team was excellent, with some of the team keen to use pages from the comic in their own presentations as an introduction or overview of their work. For the team I think the comic – and the documentary that went live shortly afterwards – provided some sense of stepping back and reflecting on what had been done. At the end of a four year project it can be much easier to know what wasn’t completed, or didn’t go to plan, or didn’t develop as you’d expect. Looking over the story of the project, what had been achieved, how much work had taken place is very rewarding and reminds you of all the excitement and accomplishments of that project.

Feedback from our wider contacts and social media communities was excited and interested. We have shared the comic openly on the website and explicitly state that it can be downloaded, circulated, kept, used elsewhere… We are keen that it is seen and read and used by whoever wants to do that. If I have one regret it is that in all of our conversations we didn’t agree to make the book available under a Creative Commons license – more by omission than because of any particular issue with doing that. Sha has been great about us using images of work in progress – you’ll see a series of sketches, etc. in that Prezi – and shares our keenness that the book is seen and accessible. We commissioned it to be free to access – whether download or print – but it would have been wise to agree licensing terms more directly to avoid any possible doubts.

Then, the week of the Edinburgh Comic Art Festival 13 boxes of comics appeared at the EDINA offices in Argyle House and they looked absolutely glorious! The print copies triggered a ripple of excitement through the office and also generated lots of interest at ECAF – which seemed like a great place to see how our comic fared with a mixed but interested audience.

As the year comes to a close we will be circulating copies to our COBWEB project partners but also that core target audience as we go out and about developing the FieldTrip Open community, sharing copies with developers, researchers, etc.

So, what do you think? 

If you would like a (print or digital) copy, and/or would like to talk to us about how we can support your citizen science project, please do get in touch. I would also love to hear your feedback on the comic and any suggestions you may have about communities that may like to work with us in turning FieldTrip Open into a really vibrant open source project in the future. Do leave a comment here or email me.

Some important acknowledgements

Enormous thanks to Sha Nazir and Kirsty Hunter, who created the fantastic Crowd Power comic with Clare Forrest, Jack Lothian and Kirk Kristofferson. Sha and Kirsty explicitly gave me their permission to share images of works in progress for this post and my ECAF talk this weekend, which I hugely appreciated. It has been an absolute delight to work with all at BHP Comics and I would recommend contacting them if you are considering embarking upon/commissioning a similar piece of work.

Further resources

Some useful links are provided here so that you can quickly access our materials, the comic, or any of the COBWEB project website or code:


[Extremely Belated] Live-Blog: Introducing Heriot-Watt Engage

Back in May I participated in the Heriot-Watt Engage Launch event (see this news item). These are my very belated notes from this day on communicating and engaging the public with research…

Introduction from Quentin Cooper

This is the official launch of Heriot Watt Engage. The Oxford English Dictionary has 19 discreet uses of engage, so what do we mean by that here? I would argue that it’s about being entangled, being engaged with the public. And engage like engaging, being scintillating. And perhaps also like Jean Luc Picard in Star Trek: the Next Generation, when he says “engage”. It’s about getting things started, taking action.

We’ll hear more formal ideas of how to engage later on, then some experiences of engaging, and some parallel sessions on different ways to engage. But we kick off with some more on Heriot-Watt, on Heriot-Watt Engage.

Professor Alan Millar – Why Engage?

I know we have lots of people passionate about public engagement in the audience today. But why Heriot-Watt Engage? Well engagement is a priority of our overall knowledge exchange/knowledge transfer agenda. I’m involved in the REF at the moment and “impact” is part of that agenda, and Knowledge Exchange, Knowledge Transfer and Public Engagement can all be part of that impact. That means there are financial reasons to engage but there are many other reasons. Firstly this university gets many millions of pounds from public sources and it’s important to explain what we do with that. Many academics really enjoy public engagement, get a lot out of doing more than just publishing articles. And public engagement helps us raise the profile of the organisation, getting word out to Edinburgh, to Scotland, and beyond to international audiences. It is good for student recruitment, for the profile of the organisation, etc. and I feel we have a moral obligation to inspire the next generation, that’s also an important reason to engage.

So we want to increase the amount and perhaps the quality of our public engagement. Heriot-Watt Engage is very much inspired by the work of Edinburgh Beltane, an Edinburgh network for public engagement. We now have the principals prize for public engagement. And we are part of the committee that selects the North Sea public engagement prize (more on prizes later). And we have two people who have taken on the public engagement mantle here so I shall hand over to them now.

Introducing Heriot-Watt Engage – Dr Laura Wicks and Katarzyna Przybycien

Katarzyna began by saying that she and Laura are sharing the public engagement coordinators role, and are based in Academic Enhancement. When we started in January we came with experience of public engagement. We had an idea that there was other work taking place across the university – we kept bumping into people – so we began an exploration of what is taking place. From Science Festival events, Saturday events for kids, the Deadinburgh zombie event, comedy shows, publishing for the public, social media. Heriot-Watt is so big so there is so much going on, a very inspiring picture.

But there were isolated pockets of activity so we wanted to make connections between those involved in public engagement and the activities they do, share the huge amount of knowledge being built up from those in students to professor to technical roles. We hope to match people, we will be building up a mailing list. And we have an advisory group with staff from each school and they help to steers our activities and we hope this will help us steer our activities. And we want to share opportunities, deadlines, prizes etc. We have the slogan of “Stimulate. Support. Promote.” but we also want to ensure we work at a policy level both locally and nationally, working with Beltane, seeing what is happening nationally. And that connects to the impact agenda. My personal background is in measuring imact so I will be delighted to support you with any activities in that area.

Over to Laura:

We already know there is lots of public engagement taking place. Even colleagues in the same department don’t know sometimes. We have staff in the physics department running a science club in his village – we can support that if we know about it. For the REF you need to write an impact statement, how you get your work out there, how you are ensuring your work has the most impact. We can help you, put you in touch with experts, and we are working with Beltane, with Edinburgh International Science Festival, and the Abu Dhabi Science Festival – we have a Dubai campus so that makes sense for us to be there – and the principal is keen to see us running events at the Malaysian centre.

It’s important to promote what to do, to put our work out there. Social media is a great way to engage with the public and there are some fantastic blogs, twitter users, etc. within the university. We have a website coming very soon for Heriot-Watt Engage – with funding opportunities, public engagement opportunities, and we hope the public will use it to find out more about the research going on. We will also be promoting this via Twitter.

Public engagement is important to universities, we see a future where public engagement is a key part of academic life. And we are going to end with a video with academics from Heriot-Watt talking about the public engagement they do and why they do that public engagement.

Cue videos:

iFit Quest/Visual virus – Judy Robinson

Click here to view the embedded video.

Science Signs – Sign language – Gary Quinn

Click here to view the embedded video.

Engineering and Schools – Bill Macpherson

Click here to view the embedded video.


Back to Quentin:

Heriot-Watt was set up in October 1821 as a school of arts, the first specialist school on mechanics.

So, in this session we have showcases of public engagement at Heriot-Watt.

Firstly William Macpherson, Lecturer in the School of Physics:

Bill Macpherson, School of Physics – Outreach for All

I wanted to look at “outreach for all”, really an excuse to use lots of pictures, but to hang this on something I wanted to think about – What? How? Where? Why?

A lot of what I do is very visual, very physical. Using liquid nitrogen in schools captures kids imagination, they may not remember the science but they can be inspired with them.

Keep it simple. You can do science with exotic tools like potatoes and straws. Perhaps the kids don’t remember the forces science but it may inspire them to find out more later on. But you can do more exotic things and as long as you explain them properly it remains accessible to all.

Keep it interactive really helps. Again – cue practical experiment – you can appear to break the law of physics using a balloon and a skewer – there is material science there but you want to make people excited and keep things memorable. Keeps things colourful too!

Where to do it? Well going upside your comfort zone helps. We do science events literally out on princes street where almost anyone can stop by. We’ve done events like the highland games – specifically not a science event – and that’s great for engaging kids but also for engaging parents too.

Who? Well young groups are inherently interested in doing stuff. It’s really fun. It has to be short and snappy but they can be a great audience. Teenagers are tougher but there are ways to break down barriers whether in schools or somewhere more natural to them, their environments, like the aviemore ski centre. Once you break the is-science-cool-or-not barrier there is lots of potential. Of course the under twos are probably too young but 2 to 102 is probably a good age range. It takes a whole range of people to make this stuff work but why do it? Lots of reasons but it’s fun!

Bernadette O’Rourke – Linguistics, Management of Linguistic and Cultural Diversity.

My interest is in language diversity, increased cultural diversity. In Scotland 100 languages are spoken, almost 300 in the EU. I work in social linguistics and anthropological linguistics. Less interested in word construction and more about listening in on buses, differences between genders, kids code-switching in conversation, etc.

As a discipline we have long been engaged with people, we need them to understand their use of language, and this has meant me looking at situations as diverse as painting with kids, up to meeting with MEPS talking about policies for languages in Europe. I also work with the public sector in areas around communicating cross culturally, for those with English as a second language or no knowledge of English at all.

Of course public engagement takes a lot of time. School engagement can be exhausting but it’s fun and I’d like to repeat it. Public engagement activities can be rather addictive, it’s helped me with my academic work, my publications and conferences etc. and those activities help me see that my research has real application and impact in the real world and that’s very rewarding. I just went through a European funding process and I realise that the public engagement work really set me up well for that – those applications don’t stay with your research question but with what benefits there will be to people on the European union. And you become part of a two way process: individuals come back to you, journalists come to you for comment or trickles, and having that dialogue broadens your perspective and gives you new questions to asked.

Janice Blanc – School of the Built Environment

I will take a slightly different slant, as someone who had the chance to get involved in other peoples public engagement. In my PhD I had the opportunity to be part of a project of urban flooding. We had a model that let us make it ran, see flood pathways, could change surfaces. Kids could interact with it. We took it to science festivals and schools so the audiences ranged from rat reticule school groups to much broader swathes of the public. We took it to the Cheltenham Science Festival and saw about 3500 people with hugely varying interests from vague interest in the fun aspect of the model through to councillors with specific questions. So one of the challenges was about making sure you talked to the specific audience that you had in front of you. That experience early in my PhD was brilliant for developing my communication of my research and it’s application in a wider content. I would really encourage phd students to get involved but also supervisors to ensure PhDs students have the time to do that. Without that experience I may not have thought to use public engagement in my own research.

That model we built is a big beastie, it takes lots of organisation, resourcing, people to lug that about and to engage effectively, I did some work with schools two months after an event at Grangemouth to see what they recalled. They remembered what they had done, many remembered the science behind that, and many had started to think about science as a career.

My own research has been lab-based. I don’t get out and see people much, but I wanted to get more involved in public engagement. So I took part in the British Science Association‘s “Strictly Engineering” event and that gave me an opportunity to get out and speak to the public about my work, it gave me ideas to think about, and I’ve had a chance to speak to local councillors and Scottish ministers about the importance of public engagement, which I never would have done without that experience of public engagement.

Lisa Macintyre – School of Textiles

I fell into public engagement by accident. I picked a silly topic post-PhD, a project called “does my bum look big in this” looking at different trouser designs on different ladies bodies. I had five honours students looking at this. This got to the attention of the school newsletter and from there somehow to a silly Christmas press story. On boxing day morning the phone was ringing and the sun newspaper wanted to run the story, then the daily express, then the Sunday time. A tip: dont menton bottoms if you dont want to be involvedinoublic engagement! There were suddenly all these national papers covering this. Oprah, CBS and NBC all called up. The reporter from NBC who covered Tiananmen Square had to come to Galashiels to cover it!

The story grew arms and legs… What I learned from it was… If you have something that might be big you need to make sure you have results first, the media wanted results but we were only oarr way through the project. The press did lead to an invite to the costume society – I was able to speak abut this and my real research on medical compression. And to events with schools on functional design of bike helmets and nappies and such.

The public matters, they pay for our research. We have to get out there, raise enthusiasm and understand why it matters so they know why money for research is prioritised. And you do get amazing questions from different audiences. And it is hugely enjoyable. Know your audience. Short is good.


Q) Is there one thing you wish you’d been told at the start?

A – WM) Prepare for the unexpected, that’s especially the case with kids who will ask all kinds of questions. Be transparent – say if you don’t know the answer – and be flexible and pitch it right to your audience. Sometimes those fundamental questions “what is light” can be a real challenge… But if you get it right it’s a real buzz!

A – BOR) Don’t centre the activity on yourself but on your audience. I took a lecturing type approach but you need the discussion to come from them. You have to give it a structure but it should come from them

a – JB) You have to have a hook, something visual and very quick to grab attention. Having something that grabs attention, that calls people over, is really important. Once you have attention you can explain. And once you can explain to an 8 year old your skills will be up to explaining your work to any audience

A – LM) Props are great, they can be a trigger for activity. I take a selections of weird things and that works great. Being really prepared and quite structured just wasn’t as effective, particularly if you don’t know exactly the age and interests of the kids coming along. You need to know your stuff and be prepared… If you have a super absorbent fibre you need water and towels say… But flexibility is important

Q) There are three women here to one man, audience is fairly fifty-fifty. Is public engagement more of a female thing?

A – WM) It’s great to see lots of women here coming From the male dominated field of engineering

Q) Especially for Lisa: had you done media training before that call on boxing day from the press?

A – LM) No, not really. I just got on with it. It never occurred to me to call colleagues.

Q from Kat) Any disasters after that?

A – LM)  Not really, we had friends for dinner and Cape Town Talk Radio rang up. I had trouble saying no. And did an interview which was fine. But then they opened up the lines… I had to give styling tips to middle aged South African ladies! I wouldn’t ever want to repeat the experience of incessantly talking about something without substance. I do work thoroughly and rigorously so did not enjoy being thrown into a circumstances where I had to wing it.

Quentin) This professor of acoustics at Salford came up with a formula for media interest. He said he’d do a talk on concert hall acoustics but threw in a reference to the echo of a ducks quack. That led to 150 interview requests from the media but he was able to start with silly stuff then go into the serious concert hall acoustics stuff, which worked for him.

Q) On linguistics: have you considered the idea of speaking to an audience in their own language – translating material into, say Arabic, so it is interpreted into the meanings of that language – like Dr Quinn’s work on sign language?

A – BOR) There has been a lot of work here about multilingual Implicatons. We have tried to do lots of public engagement events at Heriot-Watt and to run truly multiple lingual events, speakers in their native language but also translated in real time, to raise awareness of multilingual issues.

A – Kat) Language actually matters to all of your work – different audiences require different language in a way, so there are some words 8 year olds simply don’t understand…

Q) You (Lisa) said not to publicise research unless completed?

A – LM) In that case the outcome wasn’t really substantial. There was nothing much to report which was disappointing for the media.

Comment) You wanted to do something fun and you achieved that?

A – LM) it was a really interesting experience, but I would have preferred to have some research to share.

Comment from Alan) What’s been emphasised here is the idea of something simple to get across. So you have, say, the Raspberry Pi, which has taken off widely… Where do you pitch these things in terms of sophistication?

A – WM) I have a Raspberry Pi, they are good fun. Something like that needs a more specific targeted audience, you need to be interested and have some skills there. But you can have them set up already – as we did at the Barr Science Festival we had a series of Raspberry Pis hooked up to bananas…

Quention) There is a danger of suggesting there is a formula but there are a myriad of different ways to do these things.

Q) Back to Lisa’s comment about publicising research before results. I think for adult and media audiences there is scope to educate them that research does not always have expected or conclusive or positive results. Is there a positive aspect in terms of wider engagement with the wider research agenda and the process of research?

A – LM) You can take that angle on it, you can have those conversations. But the media don’t necessarily want a deeper understanding of research recesses. Or want to run that story.

Quentin) In your case the media seem to have projected onto your story.

A – JB) there may be a role in changing public expectations, to better understand the time it takes to get to an answer. There may be a role for it but I’m not sure how ready the public are or the media are.

Parallel Sessions

The next session consisted of attendees picking from a choice of three short parallel sessions. These ran twice to allow participants to explore several topics. The Parallel Sessions included my joint session with Sophie Good, Heriot Watt. My part of the presentation can be seen in this Prezi and the associated resource sheet can be found here.

How to engage – Chaired by Quentin Cooper

This was Quentins micro summary of the various parallel sessions:

  • Stalking, lurking – Social
  • Supporting reassuring – Schools
  • Collaboration, cocreation – Beltane

Professor Alan Miller, Royal Society Public Engagement Prizes

Several prizes, very prestigious awards. Started by the Beltane. Now that Beltane is not funded nationally the prizes have been funded and embedded in the RSE awards. Prize winners in the past include Aubrey Manning, Tom Devine, Caroline Wilkinson (University of Dundee working in forensics). Those are senior prize winners. The Innovators Prize has gone in the last few years has included those just finishing PhDs, postdocs, etc. Joanna Brooks from UoE and winner of I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here; Nicholas Stanley was doing innovative stuff at Dundee Science Festival, and most recently Dr Chris Speed who has done work on bringing social history and communities together digital. They are very much about real innovation in public engagement, really different projects from what others have done before. Done by nomination by fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and we have about 20 of those within Heriot-Watt.

That’s the prizes but I also wanted to mention TED lectures. They now have TEDx events in Edinburgh. We are doing a TEDx in heriot watt next month, we will do demos of research we do here. Danielli Factule is leading that.

Dr Laura Wicks, Principals Public Engagement Prize and Funding

It’s in its third years. One of our former prize winners spoke earlier – Bill Macpherson. This year’s prize has a Deadline of 14th June 2013. This year there are four categories: individual, early career, team, PhD student. The overall prize is £1500 for a public engagement event, plus £500 for each category. The information and forms are on the engage website. And there are some more videos from previous finalists and winners there. If short listed you too could appear there.

But there are more prizes out there… For example:

The Society for General Microbiology Outreach Prize; the British Psychological Society Public Engagement Award; the Biochemical Society Science Communication Prize; Famelab; IOP Kelvin Award (previous winners include Brian Cox). Lots of opportunities. Many of the academics who have sat on Public Engagement panels indicate that there isn’t always as much competition as expected for some funding schemes so it really is worth applying.

How to fund engagement:

  • Impact Acceleration Account – EPSRC @ HWU – worth considering even if your worth isn’t usually in this funding bodies territory
  • RCUK Pathways to Impact – include Public Engagement in research grants. There’s good funding here and there is opportunity to ask for extra PE cash here.
  • Talking Science Grants – a Scottish scheme for deprived or rural communities. They do only allow one application per university though so they are looking for joint applications
  • Society funding can range from £500-£100,000 depending on the project.

There are loads of sources of funding here, collaboration between departments and disciplines are particularly encouraged so come to us and we can help.

Katarzyna Przybycien, Specific Opportunities

I just wanted to highlight the range of science festivals and public events – we can advise you on developing PE activities for these.

  • Summer Science festival (1-7 July 2013)
  • British Science festival (7-12th sept 2013)
  • Bang Goes the Borders Science Festival – really open to innovation and very supportive and engaging. (21st sept 2013)
  • Midlothian Science Festival (5-20th oct 2013)
  • National Science and Engineering Week (spring 2014)
  • Dunbar Scifest (spring 2014)
  • Edinburgh International Science Festival (5-20th April 2014)

The challenge here can be tracking deadlines. Both Summer Science and the Edinburgh International Science Festival close to applications this summer (late july or early august) for their spring/summer 2014 iterations.

And locally… Cafe Scientifique is a monthly Monday informal opportunity at the Filmhouse to discuss science with broad adult audience.

And we also encourage you to engage with schools. But schools tends to have relationships with academics or projects. It’s not that easy to approach schools directly. Lots of processes to follow. But STEMNET will do much of this for you, keep you informed of opportunities etc. and we encourage those who do engage to sign to the STEMNET Ambassadors Programme, we encourage more people to sign up!

Also from Quentin: Pint of Science type events in pubs….

Dr Sarah Anderson, Beltane Network Opportunities

See the handout on function of Beltane and what you can expect from us. It’s not the thing on Calton Hill, we are a network set up in 2008, aiming to help you make your research available to more people. We are funded by the University of Edinburgh; Heriot-Watt; Queen Margaret’s University; Napier University. We can connect you to non-academic audiences and organisations, to other researchers. We run networking sessions – the next one here at Heriot-Watt is on 21st May on environmental policy, with talks, questions, and networking. The other big upcoming event is on 11th June at Summerhall, our Annual Gathering for networking. We also have a fellowship scheme – that buys out some of your time for public engagement work (you have to be a member of academic staff to apply), and we run various training activities. We like to tie training to big events, for example for TEDxUniversityofEdinburgh we coached the speakers.


Q) What’s the name of the doggie on the home screen of the presentation of

A) Angus

Q) Is there any thought on teaching science communication as a degree subject at heriot watt?

A – Alan miller) Not yet, but an idea. Cardiff has a degree…

A – Quentin) Imperial, Plymouth. Scotland has a great tradition of science. A great tradition of journalism. But a rubbish history of science journalism so that’s good news…

A) And the open university does a science communication msc.

A – SA) And there is a new Science Communications and Public Engagement MSc at Edinburgh University.

Q – Quentin) Sarah in your session you said the senior folk get it, the frontline folk get it but the middle folk don’t always get it… Is that just the nature of where the buck stops? Any solutions?

A – SA) It’s about recognising that work, raising the profile of engagement can help. External drivers may be a clincher – things like the REF.

A – Alan) The REF driver isn’t that strong. There are a few public engagement examples but significance and reach can be hard. It’s a bit of a dilemma. When we come out of REF process and analysis we’ll have a better idea about the realities.

Q – Quentin) We’ve talked about public engagement but are some forms of public engagement more equal than others? If you do something costing 1 million for one person. If you do something that costs 1p and reaches a million and everyone loves it and signs up for courses that’s great. But what about inbetween that.

A – Kat) often expensive stuff pays off over time. This area is still developing. Innovation is a good thing. Individuals and their audiences really make the engagement, make the success. Lots of discussion of ways to measure impact of public engagement… But tricky

A – Sarah) You have to build evaluation of public engagement in from the outset to be effective but that can be very different from metrics. And metrics should not just be about numbers – they are often not about that at all but about comments, opinions, anecdotal evidence.

A – Alan) Publicise what you are doing, get it on the Principal’s agenda, a message to get out that PE is important. There are ways to reward PE. There was a beltane panel looking a at rewards and recognition. We did identify how PE was recognised, e.g. is it recognised in promotions systems? (generally not). I resisted putting PE in to promotions criteria as I think it’s just a part of Knowledge Exchange. But rewards matters.

Comment – Rob) How important is PE for career development… They can use these examples in CVs, in applications, in interviews etc. stories that can be told. Do candidates stand out from the pack that way?

A – Alan) No one gets recruited for public engagement I would say, but it is another part of the pack of skills. For Scottish Crucible that is something we look for though. More and more in academia we look for people who think beyond being in the lab or library or beyond those only publishing articles.

Quentin) These activities potentially spin out in unexpected ways…

Laura) I did my PhD in New Zealand and PE was more built in there. But things like prizes are great for your CV and your career, they show your skills.

Summary and closing – Professor Alan Miller

Thank you to Quentin.

Today’s concept and brainwave to launch Heriot-Watt Engage in this way was Kat and Laura’s. They’ve been busy over the last four months already and we should thank them for that.