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A career between science and society: interview with Imran Khan

Opinion | Researchers
A career between science and society: interview with Imran Khan

Imran Khan’s life’s work has been at the intersection of science and the rest of society. According to him, science is one of those things that can improve society and change lives for people but only if it is put in perspective with the world of politics, media, civil society, among other things. Science needs to be connected.

Imran Khan, Head of Public Engagement at the Wellcome Trust, started as a budding scientist, with a bachelors’ degree in biology but rapidly realized he needed something more than research. “I think part of the reason I wanted to get into science communication was that I really am interested in all forms of research and I couldn’t quite bring myself to focus on one specific project,”  he said. He hence took a master’s degree in science communication which resulted in an impressive career in science engagement. 

With hindsight, Imran acknowledges that having a science background definitely helps in a science engagement and communication career but is far from necessary. “It didn’t bring anything special except the love of science.” However, it does help understand what scientists care about, what is important to scientific institutions and what kind of challenges scientists face when engaging with the rest of society. “But equally, I’ve worked with a lot of people that don’t have a science background and are perhaps more interested in different but as interesting topics - like how society, volunteering organizations or the media work,” explains Imran. Coming from science can also, in some ways, be a barrier. “Engaging the public only thinking like a scientist, might hinder your capacity to appreciate the angle a politician or a journalist need. I think you have to be able to see science from other people’s perspectives. Only thinking like a scientist can be challenging.”

“Personally I wouldn’t have gone into science engagement if I didn’t have a science background. It was my passion and my interest in science that got me started. Initially my plan was to become a science writer, and I did a bit of writing and freelancing for a while, but ended up working in politics.” However, Imran never strayed too far from science. He worked for a member of parliament in the UK, “and got to see first-hand how science is used in politics, in policy and how it is often misused and abused as well. That gave me a real passion to try and improve that relationship and make sure evidence is used in policy making.” 

From running an organization called the Campaign for Science and Engineering, which tries to promote the profile of science and engineering amongst the political and the media world, to heading the British Science Association, which promotes science as part of culture, Imran was driven by the idea that science is just too important to be left to scientists alone. For him, everyone needs to be able to appreciate science and have a role in science. “You don’t need to be a professional politician or musician or footballer to appreciate politics, music or sports. But somehow, with science, there is the assumption that unless you did a science degree, or worked as a scientist, science is not something you can engage with. I’d like to change that by working with policy makers, schools and festivals.” This spark resulted in Imran becoming the Head of engagement at the Wellcome Trust three years ago, where every day he tried to address the role of the public in the Wellcome trust’s journey to turn research into better health. 

But the path to working in science engagement and communication can also be quite tricky, according to the specialist. There are no defined career pathways to follow. “It is not like becoming a doctor or a lawyer, or being in a large organization, where you kind of always know what is your next step or opportunity. Science communication and public engagement are much more messy. One of the hurdles is trying to figure out, of all the ways to improve things, which one to focus on, and which one feels most important and most likely to have an impact given that there is no guide book.” But that messiness also helps brew opportunities to shape new ideas and the future, and do things differently. “I was really privileged to build organizations and work on creating new narratives on how the relationship between science and society can work.” The key is staying open, thinking outside the box and academia. “There are lots of different touch points between science and society. Only focusing on getting science in the news, as important as it might be, means staying closed to all the different ways society connects to science.” 

According to Imran, science engagement is increasingly being approached from the perspective of the public. There used to be the assumption that the goal was to tell people how amazing and important science is “but for a working parent with a full schedule, learning about antibiotic resistance or genetics isn’t going to be on the top of their list.” Science professionals need to understand what is important to the public and start from there; make engagement more people centered. “Science communication and engagement hasn’t become any less or more important over the years but people are being much more deliberate about engagement. It’s not about doing engagement just for engagement’s sake but because there is something to change or improve.”

However, one of the outstanding challenges that remains, is that researchers, and professionals, don’t really get rewarded for science engagement projects. They get recognized for publishing academic papers, getting funding or doing things that give them visibility in the academic community but they rarely get praised for their work engaging the public and improving things in society that stem from research. “I don’t think we celebrate that enough, and that is something we need to fix,” comments Imran.

“I think scholarly publishers have a role to play in that direction. I’d be interested in hearing from publishers about what they can do to raise a profile or celebrate work that doesn’t necessarily revolve around traditional academic papers. At the moment, I think people try and crowbar engagement work into the format of a traditional academic paper, but really they don’t run experiments. We need to find a different way to talk about engagement work.” The job of a researcher goes beyond just publishing papers, it is about playing a full role in society which includes engaging with the public and engaging with policy makers. That needs to be more recognized and celebrated.

This blog post is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY). The illustration is by Hindawi and is also CC-BY.

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