Close your eyes and picture a scientist. Better still, ask a child to draw one.
The likely outcomes were one of the topics discussed at the hugely engaging science communications conference SciCom, which drew a capacity crowd to Athlone in December.
Science journalist Quentin Cooper, who opened the conference, described the draw-a-scientist test, administered to groups of primary school students around the world since the 1980s. The scientists drawn by the students from about the age of seven upwards display a large number of shared features. They are typically male, bespectacled, either bald or with a shock of white hair, wearing a white coat, and holding a flask of something noxious (and often green).
The stereotype of the wild-haired scientist is most famously captured in the iconic photograph of Albert Einstein sticking his tongue out at the camera on his 72nd birthday. Cooper showed that photograph alongside one of Einstein in his annus mirabilis of 1905, when he published four papers that laid many of the foundations of modern physics. At the time he was a dapper young man. In other words, back then even Einstein didn't look like Einstein.
Some reasons to be concerned about misleading stereotypes about science came in the SciCom presentation by Prof Mark Ferguson, director general of Science Foundation Ireland and chief scientific adviser to the Government. He described the results of recent research commissioned by Science Foundation Ireland, which showed that students' main concern when choosing what to study at third level is whether they will "fit in", ranking it higher than other factors, such as career prospects. Image matters here.
Ferguson also presented further research findings about Irish attitudes to the Stem subjects: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. These showed that 83 per cent of Irish adults believe that science is important for addressing key challenges affecting Irish society, 88 per cent see the supply of Stem graduates as vital to the future of the economy, and 83 per cent believe that government investment in Stem is worthwhile.
At the same time, 71 per cent of Irish adults believe that science and technology are too specialised for them to understand.
There is a disjunction here. Irish people are aware of the importance of science, but feel disconnected from it. They see Stem graduates as a vital resource, but misleading stereotypes impede connections to career paths in Stem. Responding recently to similar findings in the UK, Imran Khan of the British Science Association, asked: "What would a public that was truly connected with science look like and how can we make that happen? How would that change science?" How, for that matter, would it change society?
There is sometimes a second part to the draw-a-scientist test: the primary school students get to meet scientists and then redo their drawings. Those drawings are very different, showing scientists more evenly split between the sexes, wearing normal clothes and undertaking a range of exciting activities. In one, the student drew a picture of herself.
Through this and other forms of science communication, school students and others come to see science as part of their life and part of their future, whether or not they pursue a career in the area. They learn not only about the advances made through science, but also about the people making the advances. Science becomes, as it should, normal.
We have some great examples in Ireland of individuals working science in to the fabric of national life and bursting stereotypes. They include the winning young scientists of Loreto Balbriggan, as well as Evelyn Cusack slipping science by stealth (another SciCom topic) in to the weather reports. Many of our most distinguished scientific researchers put considerable energy and imagination into communications and engagement.
There is a huge appetite for information on the latest medical advances, the facts about climate change and other areas of public concern that can be illuminated and addressed through science. In turn, science needs to understand and respond to public concern.
Through dialogue and communication, we can build engagement and capitalise on the strong national appetite and support for science.
- Orla Feely is vice-president for research, innovation and impact at University College Dublin