‘There are so many ways to share research’

We speak to Dr Alan Gow, winner of the British Psychological Society Public Engagement and Media Award.

A psychologist with a passion for spreading the word about research and the effects of ageing on the brain has been awarded the 2016 British Psychological Society Public Engagement and Media Award.

Dr Gow (Heriot-Watt University) said he was lucky to be in a subject area that is as appealing to most people as psychology: ‘People are broadly interested in understanding themselves and others. When researching some of the big questions around mental health or wellbeing we really do have an audience ready to hear what we have to share, and discuss those issues too,’ he added.

Among his many public and media engagement projects across the years one in particular stands out. Gow and colleague Sinead Rhodes developed the Research the Headlines blog (see tinyurl.com/jp2dp8v), which both posts on new research but also teaches readers to think critically and be aware of how research can become skewed in mainstream media, or even before it reaches that stage.

Later Rhodes and Gow secured funding from the British Academy to run the initiative Rewrite the Headlines. This series of workshops led by colleagues from the Young Academy of Scotland was held in universities for undergraduate students and in more than 90 primary schools across Scotland. The workshops took students and pupils through examples of media reports of research, each highlighting the need to read beyond the headline. This project is also to be extended for older adults thanks to further British Academy funding.

Gow has also held multiple talks speaking about his research area – the ageing brain and how thinking skills change over time, including at the annual BPS Psychology4Students event. In August 2015 he performed ‘The Great British Brain Off’ at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe as part of Edinburgh Beltane’s Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas, a show exploring the factors that might protect or harm the ageing brain.

More recently Gow and colleagues have launched the What Keeps You Sharp? survey, a nationwide survey of people’s beliefs and understanding about how thinking skills might change with age, and whether they think there are lifestyle factors that influence those changes. The survey, Gow says, will reveal what people have understood from science communication around thinking and ageing and what remains unclear, and may help scientists better communicate messages in the future.

Gow encouraged any researcher or academic with an interest in public engagement to get involved. He suggested speaking to public engagement departments within universities for advice on the kinds of events and opportunities that are out there. He said: ‘People shouldn’t feel they have to do it in one form or another, there are so many ways to share one’s own research or talk more broadly about research in general. If people are starting out for the first time in public engagement I’d suggest they get involved with something that’s already established at first, such as a Festival or Fringe event organised by their public engagement colleagues, so they have a safe space to try it out for the first time before becoming more independent.’

Gow said people will find they are pushing against an open door if they start to look into public engagement. He added: ‘Some colleagues, who may not be interested so much in public speaking, might be great on social media so that’s their thing, or some of my colleagues are excellent writers so blogging becomes theirs. It’s about finding the right platform for you, but I really think there’s something for everyone.’

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber