University of Bristol and the Zoological Society of London
Soapbox Science is a fresh, no-frills grass-roots approach to bringing science to people on the streets, especially those who wouldn’t otherwise have come across science in their daily lives. Scientists at the cutting-edge of their fields are put on soapboxes on busy urban streets to talk to the passers-by about their science. Above all they share with the public their thirst for science and their passion for being a scientist. The project aims are not limited to engaging the public with science but also to establish a sustainable, innovative public outreach platform for promoting women scientists and the science they do. It is difficult not to notice the paucity of women in science, especially at the top of the career ladder, and the lack of recognition for the work that women scientists do. By showcasing the research of female scientists, the project helps widen their public profile and boost their career opportunities.
Soapbox Science has five aims:
(1) to achieve wider participation in public engagement UK science;
(2) to promote dialogue between local people and UK scientists;
(3) to inspire the UK’s next generation of scientists, irrespective of gender or background;
(4) to promote the UK’s female scientists, and empower them with new skills and confidence; and
(5) to provide accessible role models for women in STEM, and establish Soapbox as a leading voice for women in science.
The Soapbox Science events were designed to be highly portable, reproducible, and flexible events. Twelve to sixteen scientists per event have been showcased annually, 2011-2014, with 3-5 speakers per hour in 3 sessions. Speakers stand on custom-made soapboxes, arranged in a semi-circle to facilitate the crowds’ movements, engender an intimate arena for scientific debate, and promote dialogue between public and scientists. The approach is a proven low-investment, high-gain strategy for achieving wider participation in science engagement activities.
The project aimed to engage across the whole spectrum of society, and particularly with people who would not otherwise seek out scientific events. This was achieved by bringing the scientists to high-footfall urban areas, in an accessible, fun and un-intimidating way. Unlike most other public engagement of science events, a ‘Soapbox’ audience has not necessarily planned to come and learn about science – rather, the unsuspecting audience happen across a group of scientists, with whom they can interact, as they stroll down busy streets.
Evaluation has helped to shape activities, for example, feedback encouraged to improve the online presence of the project so to this end, there is now a Twitter account (@SoapboxScience) with almost 2,500 followers and a project website www.soapboxscience.org which hosts all information about events, past and present, and also hosts blogs from speakers and other scientists. In 2014, despite minimal funding, the project has decentralized, with events in Bristol, Dublin and Swansea in addition to the ‘mother’ event in London. With the expansion, a ‘How to’ guide has been produced, empowering local communities in other cities to run their own Soapbox event, under the Soapbox Science umbrella. The project is co-organised by Dr Seirian Sumner and Dr Nathalie Pettorelli.