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TV Scientist Kicks off MRS 'Unconference'

March 24 2009

Research 2009, the MRS' flagship event in London, is billed by its organisers as the 'Glastonbury of the market research world'. But will it live long in the memory or sink deep in the mud? Scientist and presenter Prof Robert Winston set the ball rolling today, watched by DRNO News Editor Mel Crowther.

When the format for this year's Research 2009 conference was being debated eight months ago, the world was a different place, said this year's conference Chairs Simon Lidington, former MRS Chairman and Chief Exchanger at The Insight Exchange; and Nick Coates, Research Director of Promise Corporation. It's difficult to put the failure of the banking system and subsequent ailing economy aside, but this we were asked to do briefly, to consider the vision behind this year's Conference.

The organisers didn't want Research 2009 to be purely didactic or simply focused on business metrics. Nor did they want to give it an overarching theme into which all presentations had to be shoe horned. They also said they didn't want to move too far away from most researchers' experiences by encouraging papers that were too zany or unconventional.

So instead, the idea of an 'unconference' was born, with a diverse range of subjects presented under the umbrella concept of 'conference as festival'. The Glastonbury of the market research world, with separate stages for different performers and pints of cider aplenty in the bar later.

Well, like many festival-goers DRNO's two reporters will free themselves of all their preconceptions - without, however, the aid of mind-expanding substances - and we'll give you our honest opinion when it's done.

Today's action kicked off with an opening keynote interview in place of an address - a bit different for starters but then, we must have one or two people around who can interview. In this instance, Sadek Wynberg Millward Brown Chairman Rebecca Wynberg asked Professor Robert Winston about the science profession's failure to engage peoples' interest in, and understanding of, its purpose.

As the first Professor of Science and Society and Emeritus Professor of Fertility Studies at Imperial College, Professor Winston is best known in the public eye for his work in popularising science. However, he complains that the profession as a whole rarely conducts any serious assessment of how to engage people. Nor does it develop communication strategies to share success stories with the public at large.

He cited the example of the nuclear power industry's failure to communicate the positive green aspects of using nuclear energy, which he says has resulted in undergraduates' lack of interest in conducting research into this area.

Winston also illustrated that miscommunication about the MMR vaccine, has led to parents believing that the risk from their children suffering side effects from immunisation outweighs the side effects of the actual diseases the vaccine exists to prevent.

In addition, he talked of the pharmaceutical industry's 'woeful invisibility' when it comes to defending the need for science-related research; instead preferring to focus on packaging drugs for commercial gain.

The science profession is unsophisticated in its approach to involving society and gaining its support, says Winston. It is also not conducting research to find out what works in terms of this communication. To become more attractive, science needs to change from being perceived as elitist and secretive.

To support this vision, Winston is championing a new children's centre at Imperial College, where school kids can come to learn first-hand about the application of science. Their experiences gained at the centre will then be measured over time to find out whether they influenced their choice of career five or ten years down the line. In addition, the quality of teaching received will be assessed, as will the effects on undergraduates who participate in the scheme.

Professor Winston has long recognised the crucial importance of improving communication and public engagement with science and his position at Imperial Collect focuses on improving understanding and interaction between scientists and the public. 'Scientists need to be much more receptive to issues which are raised by the public and which concern them,' he says. 'This will also have the benefit of stimulating thinking about the impact of scientific work on society in general.'

Quite a good start. Thinking of keynotes over the years, is it easier to find someone entertaining and relate what they say to research, than to find someone who knows a lot about research and try to make them entertaining? We couldn't possibly comment.

MRS Conference reviews in full:

This page: TV Scientist Kicks off MRS 'Unconference' - Sir Robert Winston's keynote interview
Lies and Statistics - social research; getting the truth from respondents
Nerd-Free Zone? - in-game advertising; consumer engagement, YouTube vs TV
Research in a Recession - winners, losers and strategies
Glasses Half Full and Half Empty - social scene; threats and opportunities to the profession
Virtual Ethnography - multi-sourced consumer feedback from social media and elsewhere
On Human Behaviour - views from an anthropologist, a zoologist and an economist
MR as Storytelling; and Conference Conclusions - how was it for you?

All articles 2006-21 written and edited by Mel Crowther and/or Nick Thomas unless otherwise stated.

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