Kevin Fong and Anil Seth talk public engagement

In this wide-ranging discussion, scientists Kevin Fong and Anil Seth talk about how becoming an Engagement Fellow has changed their thinking and the direction of their careers.

Kevin Fong testing how a container of water behaves in microgravity.
Kevin Fong on a parabolic flight testing how water behaves in microgravity. This image is from a YouTube video shot for his 2015 Royal Institution Christmas lectures.

Kevin was one of our first Engagement Fellows in 2011 and Anil is one of our 2016 fellows.

The deadline for preliminary applications for the next round of Engagement Fellowships is 10 February.


Let's kick off with what excited you about medicine when you started out.


I started studying astrophysics at UCL. Towards the end I increasingly thought 'I’ve got to do something more practical and applicable in everyday life'. I was going to go on to do a postgrad in medical physics but realised that it was the medicine I was interested in.


You ended up combining both, didn't you? I first heard about you as the 'space doctor'.


Towards the end of my medical degree I started applying for internships and was very lucky to be offered a place at Johnson Space Center at NASA. For the whole of my junior medical training I spent half my time training to be a doctor and half shuttling back and forwards to America.

When I talk about it retrospectively it sounds as if it all had a lot of structure, but at every point it seems to have happened fairly organically.


So having gone from astrophysics into medicine, you then developed an interest in public engagement. How did that come about?


Because of working on and off with NASA, every time there was a news item about human space flight I'd get a call. And I'd usually say yes and do it because I was interested to see how news worked.

I fully didn't expect to get the Engagement Fellowship but the process of applying became a bit of a voyage of self-discovery.

I realised I was more likely to be able to deliver value by trying to help inspire a new generation of clinicians and scientists than I probably ever would be by trying to discover a new molecule or technique.

What was applying for the fellowship like for you?


It was very interesting. It made me reflect very carefully and extensively on what I wanted to do, rather than just 'OK, there’s some money I might be able to get'.

I did struggle to get my head around the tension between, on the one hand, the fellowship not being about a particular project but about developing you as a person – as a practitioner of science and public engagement – and, on the other, Wellcome needing to know what you want to do so they can make a judgement about whether to give you the money.

Looking at past fellows – with a few exceptions, of whom you were one – they were mainly people who had dedicated themselves to public engagement and studying public engagement beforehand. I am, and will continue to be, a scientist.

Being allowed to take the fellowship part time (now 40%) made it possible. What about you? Did you do it full time?


When I took the fellowship, there was no opportunity to take it part time.

Whether you do it part time or full time, it feels like a massive change, doesn't it? It's not a natural, incremental step in your career, it's a big uncharted route you’re taking a chance on.

You’ve got an established line of work, an established chair and this could be viewed by some people as a distraction. How do you feel about that?


That's the risk. There are advantages doing it part time because I can combine it with my scientific and academic role. That was my pitch: public engagement can be distinctive and in some ways better when done by someone who's actively doing the research too. That's what I want to explore.

I am hoping this part-time model will bring out the best of both worlds.


What is it that you hope this fellowship will allow you to do that you couldn't have done without it?


I was going to ask you that one first because you've got the benefit of experience. I don’t really know where it's going to go yet because I haven't started, but for me there's a practical and an idealistic view.

The practical motivation is simply that I have been enjoying the public engagement I’ve been doing already. Effective public engagement about things that matter probably has a deeper and broader impact than this or that paper, and so I value it very much.

Most of the public engagement I do at the moment is very reactive, responding to opportunities as they arise, so what I want to do in some way is to be more proactive and do things that are more ambitious.

And I want to better connect with audiences I don't usually engage with, which is a huge challenge.

I'm excited about the opportunities that arise by being part of Wellcome and through the connections I can make within it – including with people like you.

As for specific things I want to do, I've got some ideas brewing – let's see how they develop.


The thing about the fellowship is that you're meant to know the direction of travel but not the destination. This is both the best and most challenging thing about it.

It's a very unusual thing to do with your life this late in your career, to engage with this fairly fierce period of personal development, funded very generously, and work out how to make the most of that.


What did the fellowship do for you?


It changed the direction of travel of my career and, to a degree, my life. I was heading to be a teaching hospital consultant in anaesthesia in intensive care. On its own it would have been a fantastic career in a brilliant hospital.

The stuff I'd done in public engagement up to then had been enjoyable and I thought had some value for the people I was talking with. I didn't ever think it could be the focus of a career or even the greater part of a career. In fact it has made public engagement the focus of my career.

When you want to engage people with the excitement you have about life and science and a major funder like Wellcome says, 'it's OK, that’s a good thing to do, there's a need for that and we'll make it a fellowship programme', it takes a lot of the risk out.

It's not just a laughable thing you do in your spare time. It actually becomes a professional career.


What did you embark on during your fellowship?


Public engagement is not any single thing – it runs the full spectrum from niche, multi-media social platforms all the way up to old-fashioned, didactic broadcast forms and everything in between.

I came to realise there's a role for all of them, even the now slightly denigrated mass media forms. The fellowship allowed me to develop skills in those areas and how to use them.

It took me ages to work out that it's not like your usual research project grant where you have to do what you said you'd do and, at some level, it has to deliver or otherwise it's considered a failure.

I think built into the fellowship is that you will take risks and you will fail and that will be part of the learning process and that's different from any other funding I've ever held. So it wasn't so much the specifics, it's more that it's like being a child again and not being afraid to try things out.


Did you have any highly instructive failures?


I'm not sure I did, because I didn't take as many risks as I should have done.


What would be your advice to me, or your pre-fellowship self, about how to make best use of the fellowship?


LinkThe fellowship is an investment in you as an individual. At the end of it you're meant to be different, in a different part of your career, with different skills and capabilities, and a different view than you had at the start.

And to do that you have to genuinely explore. The fellowships are all about exploration – in the world of public engagement around you and your limitations within that. You've got to take risks and do it early, and then you have a better experience of the fellowship in general.

Have you thought about anything you consider to be risky that you'll do?


That's the challenge. One starting point for me, bearing in mind this is still early days, is to organise increasingly powerful 'experiences' for people.

For example, at the end of Wellcome Collection's 'States of Mind(opens in a new tab)' exhibition – for which I was the scientific adviser – we brought in a load of virtual reality gear to give people various unusual experiences that manipulated their experience of selfhood. This was ambitious and distinctive, but took a lot of time and money for what was a single event.

So how could we do other experiences for other audiences? Could we roll out virtual reality to patient groups or to schools? One inspiration for me is Sam Gugliani's annual 'Medicine Unboxed(opens in a new tab)', which is distinctive and exciting and risky. I greatly enjoyed speaking there in 2016.

One reason the fellowship is a great opportunity is because people want to hear about the subject of consciousness - I don’t have to persuade them it's interesting. But it's also challenging because you have to engage with what people already think about it and they have strongly held opinions.

In general I'm excited to work across different formats. I’ve already done quite a lot of public lecturing, radio, and print media. 'The Sky is Wider(opens in a new tab)', a radio play about consciousness I worked on with Linda Marshall-Griffith and Nadia Molinari, was chosen as a BBC Radio 4 'Pick of the Year' for 2016.

Working with playwright Nick Payne on his play 'Elegy' (Donmar Warehouse) opened me to the possibilities of drama and the creative arts for exploring different sides of consciousness science. One thing I haven't done yet – and hopefully the fellowship will help here – is TV and film.


Why is it important for you to take part in public engagement?


I admit it's partly selfish. I just really enjoy it. I feel very lucky that the arc of my career has happened to coincide with 'consciousness' gaining momentum and legitimacy among the mind and brain sciences. And that I've been able to contribute to some of that.

I like being able to give some fairly clear examples of how our conscious experiences shouldn't be taken for granted, how they can be only indirectly related to things in the world, and how intuitive assumptions that being a conscious self is unified and integrated are actually false. I find it very motivating to start discussions about that. You can use a lot of the standard tools we already have to ask deep and metaphysical meaningful questions about consciousness.

In public engagement, and in science generally, most of the focus is on human consciousness. In academic circles it's hard to talk about consciousness in non-human animals beyond primates and mammals, or machines.

Consciousness in an iPhone is much more speculative than consciousness in a bird, and these are areas where it's still very difficult to do any reasonable science experiments. Nonetheless, these are issues that should be talked about because their implications are enormous.


Is discussing non-human consciousness something that you're going to do in your fellowship?


I now think it is. I hadn't thought about it before [laughs]. But yes.


Last question. Now you’ve been involved in public engagement for a while, are you optimistic about public understanding of science and medicine?


It's no longer OK for scientists and clinicians to do their work and everyone to just trust them that they're doing great things. Breaking down boundaries between science and the wider public is important. The future depends on us having a cohort of people who are technologically and scientifically literate.

Universities are uneven in their understanding of what value public engagement has to them. The fellowship has made a difference because public engagement is so heavily wired into grant-giving in Wellcome now. But we're not there yet. You can't walk up a senior member of staff at a university and ask them to give you a job that looks like the Wellcome fellowship.

I'm hoping over time that universities will understand that public engagement is an important pursuit. But it is changing and for the good.

For me, it's about returning the value that I reaped when I was growing up. Giving the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures(opens in a new tab) could never have happened without the fellowship.

It's as big a contribution as I can make. I may not be prosecuting the science directly, but bringing people through who will continue to do that is just as important and I’m super-happy about that.


It seems to me that public engagement is better in the UK than in many other countries, where it's often equated with doing media interviews.


The Wellcome fellowship has helped that. People need to see public engagement as a way of contributing that is as important as the more formal career structures in science. That's happening faster in this country – although still not fast enough.


We shall both try to fix that. It's been a pleasure talking to you.


Yes, let's meet and have a beer and chat some more.

Kevin Fong(opens in a new tab) is a consultant anaesthetist and lecturer in physiology at University College London Hospital. He has degrees in medicine, engineering and astrophysics. Kevin chairs the UK Space Biomedical Advisory Committee and was one of the first Wellcome Engagement Fellows when the scheme launched in 2011. He has previously worked at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and has also presented medical documentaries for BBC2 and Channel 4.

Anil Seth(opens in a new tab) is Professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex (since 2012), co-director of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science and editor-in-chief of Neuroscience of Consciousness. He is one of the 2016 Wellcome Engagement Fellows, and will be the 2017 President of the British Science Association (Psychology Section).