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UCL's FameLab training

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Who: This initiative was aimed at early-career researchers at UCL

What: The Beacon wanted to promote the culture of public engagement as a valued and recognised activity for staff at all levels and students

Why: The UCL Public Engagement Unit (PEU) looked to this initiative as a way to develop a self-supporting early career network with an interest in public engagement. The PEU also used FameLab as an opportunity to deliver communications training to early career researchers and find early career researchers at UCL who were interested in public engagement

Where: UCL

When: Spring 2009  

Project description

FameLab, the international science communication competition, began in the UK in 2005. Since then, through partnership with the British Council, the competition has spread around the world. In 2007 to 2009, FameLab competitions were run in nine countries in south-east Europe and, in the last two years, the winners have journeyed to the Cheltenham Science Festival to compete in the FameLab International Final.

This initiative was aimed at early-career researchers at UCL. Training was provided to ten UCL researchers who were interested in entering the competition. First, they attended a one-day communications training course, provided by stand-up comedy trainer Logan Murray, then shortly before the London regional heat of FameLab, they were given further training and support in an afternoon rehearsal session with comedian, Robin Ince.

Trainees went on to compete in the regional heats and one went through to the national final. Since FameLab, participants have been involved in many other public engagement activities, including UCL's Bright Club variety night.

Trainees have become members of a growing network of early-career researchers who participate in public engagement activities.

Lewis Dartnell, London FameLab finalist at the Cheltenham Science Festival 


The UCL Public Engagement Unit works to embed public engagement into university life, and to nurture a culture of researchers and academics engaging in a two-way exchange of thought, knowledge and expertise with people outside the university. To ensure sustainability of our approach, we work with existing organisations to train staff and students and find new opportunities for them to engage with people outside the institution. We also fund projects proposed by UCL staff and students that develop new approaches to engagement, whether that is by working with new audiences, by involving UCL subjects and people who don't usually engage with the public, or by finding new ways to engage in greater depth with people outside UCL.

We decided to use FameLab as a hook to find early-career researchers at UCL who were interested in public engagement, bring them together around communications training, and get them involved in other developing programmes.  

Results and outcomes

What worked well

Since FameLab and the training, the participants have been involved in numerous other public engagement activities, particularly in UCL's highly successful Bright Club variety night, also run by the Public Engagement Unit at UCL. This group's involvement in FameLab has given them confidence in talking about what they do, and several have gone on to run public engagement projects funded by the Unit and participate in external public engagement activities.

From this project, we have learnt that without activities to bring them together, networks do not necessarily sustain themselves. We have continued to work with early-career researchers to support this network. We are now setting up a committee of early career researchers to develop and run their own series of mini public lectures, as a companion to UCL's established Lunch Hour Lectures which showcase the work of more senior members of UCL. In getting together to create the programme, the researchers will have a reason to meet and discuss their public engagement goals. 

What didn't work well

Some people didn't win. This meant that FameLab itself was a negative experience for some participants, particularly those whose approach to communication didn't fit with FameLab's very limited presentational style. We learnt that it was important that we communicate that the skills developed and experience gained from participating was more important and more valuable than winning the competition.

There was some disparity between what we, as organisers, told participants and what the trainer told them. We learnt that it briefing the trainer adequately was crucial to ensure that the participants weren't confused. 

Resources required

  • Means of contacting early career researchers at your institution. We used existing newsletters (e.g. that of the postgraduate assocation, the press office's regular media and news email), all staff and all postgrad emails, as well as targeted emails to existing contacts including postgraduate tutors and individuals funded by Public Engagement Unit funding streams. Anyone contacted was encouraged to share the information with colleagues and friends at UCL

  • Comedy trainer (or similar in house communications provider)

  • Training venue

Top tips

The organisers offer the following tips for anyone contemplating putting on or becoming involved with similar activity

  • Aligning with short-term external opportunities like FameLab can attract researchers to longer term networks and activities
  • Maintain the enthusiasm you spark by creating new opportunities once the initial goal (in our case, FameLab) is over
  • Reflect on what's happened and capitalise on unintended consequences; they can often be bigger and better than your original plan
  • Brief your trainer – make the most of their expertise and make sure they know what you want them to deliver
  • Use all the contacts you can, to contact early career researchers in your institution
  • Make sure you're clear with participants about the goals of your training programme, and how they fit in with the goals of any competition that you fit your training around. 


Name: Hilary Jackson

Name of organisation: UCL public engagement unit