University of St Andrews
The 'Living Links to Human Evolution' Research Centre ('Living Links') is a world-class primate research centre of the University of St Andrews, explicitly designed for public engagement on a massive scale, through locating it in Edinburgh Zoo.
Living Links is designed to support studies by scientists at the Universities of St Andrews, Stirling, Edinburgh and Abertay, who together form the Scottish Primate Research Group (SPRG). Members of SPRG study primate behaviour at many field-sites in the wild, as well as in captivity.
Humans are primates, so monkeys and apes are our closest animal relatives. They are 'living links' to the ancestors from which we all evolved. Understanding the origins of the human mind is one of the main reasons for studying these animals.
An estimated 40% of the 6-700,000 zoo visitors choose to come through Living Links annually, where all research happens in full public view. Two-way engagement is encouraged by a rich suite of activities including talks and Q&A sessions on the Centre's viewing platforms; public lecture series; school class visits; adult classes and tours; and participation in science data collection. A Science Engagement Zone additionally offers an array of electronic and mechanical interactives, like puzzles used in behavioural experiments. Over 20 attractive display boards help visitors identify individuals, discriminate communication signals and explain scientific issues underlying Living Links research. At a huge mural of 'My Primate Family Tree' people stand to be photographed in their proper place among the apes and absorb the central evolutionary message, loading images to the Centre’s website gallery.
The primary audience is the estimated 40% of visitors to Edinburgh Zoo, calculated to total well over 1.5 million since the Centre opened in 2008. Visitors encompass a broader educational and socioeconomic range than most science centres and exhibitions, and span all ages and educational levels, so the Engagement portfolio is designed to cater for the widest possible spectrum of visitors. The Centre’s online material reaches a wider audience through its website (including blogs about science and other news stories), YouTube channel and Twitter.
There have been benefits all round for those involved with Living Links. The researchers have benefitted by learning how to communicate their work accessibly to an audience beyond academia. Professors, lecturers, postdocs, postgraduates and undergraduates conducting their research in Living Links have all benefitted by honing their communication skills in written form (PowerPoint slides describing each project, website blogs) and orally (conversations with visitors while conducting research from viewing platforms). These conversations have helped researchers understand how the public view their work, encouraged them to consider issues of wider public concern (e.g. animal welfare), and facilitated broader conceptual thinking about the significance of their research. Zoo education staff have benefitted from opportunities provided by a University-level, active research centre in the Zoo. Ongoing studies and communication materials provide ever-fresh foci for over 20,000 visiting youngsters annually, at primary, secondary and tertiary levels, as well as adult classes. Instead of seeing a regular zoo primate exhibit, visitors get an extraordinary experience in seeing live primate research. Researchers’ engagement with the public has additionally fed back into research projects. For example, demonstrating monkeys’ self-medicinal fur-rubbing to repel insect parasites by giving them cut onions to anoint themselves has led to a research project on contagion in this behaviour, generating two articles.