By Dr Suzanne Gage, Lecturer at the University of Liverpool .
Dr Suzanne Gage is a Lecturer at the University of Liverpool, where she investigates recreational drug use, and what impact these behaviours can have on mental health outcomes. Here she writes about her receiving the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s ‘early career award for public engagement with science’.
I write this post through a slight haze of jetlag and tiredness, having just returned from Boston, Massachusetts and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting. I’d never been to the conference before, but its reputation preceded it, and I was attending for a really exciting reason. During December, I received an email from AAAS one evening informing me that I was to receive their prestigious ‘early career award for public engagement with science’, and inviting me to attend the conference to receive it.
It was a huge honour. The award recognises excellence in public engagement among those at the beginning of their career. I have been doing public engagement activities in the UK since beginning my PhD in 2009, writing a science blog for the Guardian and talking at events around the country, including the Royal Institution. However, I think it was my more recent activities that won me the award. Over the course of 2016 I’ve created, recorded and published a new podcast – called Say Why to Drugs, it discusses the scientific evidence around recreational drugs, both legal and illegal. I present it with rapper Scroobius Pip, and his involvement has helped me open up a science podcast to a potentially new audience, who wouldn’t necessarily normally engage with science.
I’ve attended plenty of conferences before, but usually ones specific to the field that I work in – tobacco conferences, mental health meetings, or epidemiological research events, for example. I’d never been to a conference quite so broad as AAAS, and I was a little apprehensive that it would be too broad, and too big, thousands of attendees were registered. However, when I arrived I was really impressed with how the conference was organised. A brilliant app helped me plan my days, and there was always something interesting going on (often too many things!). The theme for AAAS this year was policy – which seemed particularly relevant given the potential changes that may occur after the EU referendum vote here in UK and Trump’s election in the USA.
I went to sessions on social media marketing for academics, the history of research in to the genome, and how that was influenced by the dropping of the atom bomb, and a fabulous keynote by Naomi Oreskes, writer of Merchants of Doubt, about the scientist as sentinel – a call to arms for us to stand up for the evidence we collect.
There was a ceremony for all the AAAS awards on the Friday night of the conference, and there I got to meet the other awardees, who were awe-inspiring to say the least. The science minister of South Africa, Naledi Pandor, was awarded for Science Diplomacy, recognising her efforts advocating for young scientists, in particular women, and integrating science with policymaking in the country. Kurt Gottfried received a standing ovation after his acceptance speech for winning the AAAS Scientific Freedom and Responsibility award, in part for his founding of the Union of Concerned Scientists in 1969 during the Vietnam War.
I was also lucky enough to attend the International Reception on the Saturday night of the conference. In the incredible location of the Skywalk Observatory on the 50th floor of the Prudential building, we were spoilt with stunning views of Boston while we enjoyed the spread laid on by Research Councils UK, who hosted the event. There was a strong message that scientific communities across the globe should be striving harder than ever for collaborations across borders, particularly in the political climate we find ourselves in, with walls and borders being erected rather than broken down. The sense of community at the meeting was strong, to the point where on the Sunday there was a large ‘Stand up for Science’ protest event just outside the conference centre. A strong statement that made headlines internationally, that the scientific community is a global affair, and one that feels somewhat under threat in the current climate.
I travelled home on Sunday evening feeling energized about science and science policy, and motivated to find positive ways to stand up for science. As such, I’m donating the prize money from my award to Medicines Sans Frontiers and Amnesty International.