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Why I am mildly perturbed by Lab in a Lorry

Good to see lots of comments after my blog “ Why I hate Lab in a Lorry & the Einstein Ballet“.

Perhaps I should start by making two further points.

1. My main criticism is with funders, not with those who actually conduct the projects. Lab in a Lorry might be conducted with enthusiasm and skill by highly motivated and knowledgeable people (including volunteers), but if the running costs of the project are astronomical then it remains a poor project. The problem resides not with those running the project on the ground, but those who commissioned it and who continue to fund it from on high. Similarly, I am not blaming sponsors, who are trying to support science with hard cash or resources. I am blaming those who spend that money and use those resources. As I have said before, I might be wrong, in which case I am keen to see the analysis, formal or informal.

2. There are good science engagement projects. Richard Wiseman’s videos cost virtually nothing, yet they are witty and thought-provoking. Take a look at Top Ten Quirky Science Tricks for Parties, which has over 5 million hits. Or listen to the Pod Delusion, which reaches 10,000 people every week. The audience includes many non-scientists, because of the podcast’s mix of content. It’s run on a shoestring budget and would probably benefit from some support. I helped start the Undergraduate Ambassadors Scheme, a credited undergraduate degree module that currently operates in over 100 departments around the UK and which sends over 1,000 undergraduates into schools each year. At the moment, as far as I know, it runs on about £5,000 per year. It does require lecturers to devote time to it, but they are involved because the module helps them achieve an important goal, namely graduates with transferable skills. I am also closely involved in the Enigma Project, which takes my Enigma to schools in order to explore maths and its links with history, technology and, of course, codes. It ran over 100 events last year, half of which were full day workshops, and it reached 12,000 students … and it operates at a profit, including the loan fee for the Enigma. I am also impressed with the various activities at the maths and computing departments at Queen Mary, University of London. Anything involving Matt Parker seems to be priceless, yet relatively cheap. Maths Inspirations is also worth a mention. It lacks anything innovative, flashy or stylish, but it delivers inspiring maths lectures to students in large numbers. It mimics the sixth form study day format, which is known to be profitable and appreciated by teachers, but it makes the format more affordable and transportable, so that the lectures range from Kent to Durham. It baffles me why learned institutions have not jumped on this idea and created Physics Inspirations or Chemistry Inspirations or Science Inspirations.

I am still hoping for a response from the people behind Lab in a Lorry or the Institute of Physics. I would be delighted to receive a robust defence of the project, which showed that is actually excellent value for money. I am often grumpy and critical, but I prefer being happy and impressed.

In the meantime, here is my best effort at addressing as many as possible of the existing comments on the blog in 30 minutes.
(Apologies in advance for typos, errors, omissions, etc. I am trying to answer every point quickly and briefly, rather than provide a long, structured response to one particular point.)

Rolandjackson (Chief Executive of the British Science Association)

You criticise my use of the word ‘hate’.

Happy to change it. I have put in a holding phrase. Let me know the most appropriate word or phrase and I will update it.

The word was partly put there to generate interest, and it was partly put there because it is not far from how I feel.

Physics education in the UK is in a terrible state (is the word ‘terrible’ ok? Probably not. Sorry) and it makes me sad and angry when I think money is being wasted when it could be spent on trying to fix the problem.

You raise the problem of metrics

I agree that it is hard to measure the impact of a project and even to assess its real cost. However, if the goal is clear (e.g., improve take up of A level by A and A* GCSE students or increase positive attitudes towards science among parents), then it should be possible to assess projects.

In particular, if £1 million (fair guess?) has been spent on Lab in a Lorry, then the organisers ought to be able to give some idea of the impact, particularly if it is being run year after year after year.

I have sat in meetings where we have discussed the assessment of Lab in a Lorry and other engagement projects, and my recollection is that the level of scrutiny is poor. There seems to be an understanding that nobody is allowed to say anything too critical, because after all people are doing their best.

If absolute measurement is hard, then organisations should at least be able to rank their projects in relative terms, so that top projects can be expanded and bottom projects abandoned or revamped.

One approach would be to have an independent panel assess science engagement projects. Experienced and successful science communicators have a good nose for what works and what does not. This is far from ideal, but I think it would filter out the worst projects sooner rather than later.

By the way, I don’t think I am arguing just that some projects are a bit below par, but rather that some projects are far below par, inasmuch as they are hugely expensive and not having nearly the proportionate impact.

You support innovation

So do I. My point is that I often see innovation for innovation’s sake. Let’s make it interactive. Let’s give the audience buttons to press. Let’s do it through mime. Let’s present it in Esperanto. Let’s turn it into a ballet.

You enjoyed the Einstein Ballet and say it should be judged in comparison with Swan Lake, not as a piece of science education

It was commissioned by the Institute of Physics. I don’t know how much was required in terms of IoP money or sponsorship, but I am arguing that the money could have been better spent. Perhaps I am wrong. Ultimately it is up to the members of the IoP to judge if their money is being well spent. Lots of people are bored by physics and lots of people are bored by ballet, so IMHO this project merely allowed people to be bored more efficiently.

(Apologies to ballet lovers. Ballet has no meaning for me, but I realise many others (more cultured than me) do appreciate it. Ballet has its place and I am not saying that we should cut funding to ballet or the arts. However, IMHO physicists should not be spending its money on ballet projects. BTW I also don’t recommend that the Ballet Rambert commits funding to the Isis muon and neutron source at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.)

Nigelbrown & David McGloin & Andy Lloyd

You seem to support Lab in a Lorry in the Highlands

Maybe Lab in a Lorry is cost-effective in that area of the UK. I certainly would not want the money to be spent elsewhere. I just think the money could be spent more effectively and efficiently, even in the Highlands.

David M Pyle

You support Time Truck in Cambridge

I am sure that it achieves great things, but could those great things be achieved in cheaper ways? Perhaps the project could then be run twice a year. How about trying to work out the full cost of the project?

Sarah Martin

You say “expensive and not cost-effective” are the same thing.

No. Sorry if it was not clear. I don’t mind if projects are expensive as long as they have a huge positive impact, which then makes the projects cost-effective.

You say “Comparing them on cost and attendance alone is simplistic”

I agree. WRT Lab in a Lorry I mentioned “any wider impact”. Impact is not just numbers of people, but the difference made per person. Wider impact could include, for example, positive local press that might influence parents to be more supportive of science. I agree with the approach suggested by @amyplatypus at Wellcome: “We also look at the type and depth of engagement, whether we reached people we wouldn’t otherwise…”

David McGloin & Suzie Sheehy

You point out the good things that result from Lab in a Lorry (eg hands on experience for pupils & science communication experience for undergraduates)

As with Time Truck, I am sure that it achieves great things, but could those great things be achieved in cheaper ways? Lab in a suitcase?

Andy Lloyd

You suggest Skeptics in the Pub is not real science engagement

Having spoken at maybe 20 pubs, I think one third of the audience is made up of non-scientists, eg. partners, friends, curious folk. But it would be interesting to do a survey. Perhaps all the pubs could pick a month (October?) and ask how many people in the audience have a degree in science or engineering or maths?

In any case, it does not really matter. Skeptics in the Pub does not take money from anyone, so it can do whatever it wants.

My concern is with projects funded by research councils or other public bodies. There is a limited (but not insignificant) pot of money for UK science engagement, and I am asking if it is being well spent.

Jensen Warwick

You say assessment is hard

Fair point and I talk a bit about this in response to Roland Jackson. However, the problem starts even before assessment. I sometimes wonder how some of these projects get funded in the first place.

Andrew Holding

You ask for help running Cambridge Skeptics in the Pub.

Someone help, please.

Originally posted on slsingh’s posterous