Five Pillars of Public Engagement

By Lewis Hou, @fiddlebrain, @leithlabs

For up to £5000 for innovative public engagement projects about any aspect of physiology (available to both members and non-members), apply by 14 June. This grant has funded exciting projects, including the project Lewis tells us about below, Leith Labs.


Ocean Terminal is a shopping centre down in Leith, a proudly independent district of Edinburgh next to the coast of the Firth of Forth. Far from a purely commercial ecosystem of shops, cinema, and gym, there exists community spaces, social enterprises, pop-up art galleries, design exchanges, living museums and as of June 2016, a long-term science programme, Leith Labs.

Leith Labs is not the first use of science in malls, but is unique in that it is a long-term science residency involving both university researchers and professional science communicators, with regular, monthly, free events for both passing shoppers, families, and the adult communities who use the space.

On a given Saturday, there are simple drop-in activities exploring the Leith Lab’s theme (be it the science of the North Pole for Christmas, or fireworks for Bonfire Night) or explaining local research with scientists from the four universities in Edinburgh. We also have Science Buskers, both professional from Eureka Edinburgh and trained from the university, who perform short shows drawing in crowds around our hacked Leith Lab unit that was very kindly donated by the shopping centre. Finally, we also have informal discussions over tea and biscuits with researchers and community members at the Living Memory Association, a living reminiscent centre.

Leith Lab’s strengths as a project are based on principles that are vital for any science communication or education project that wants to meaningfully engage with communities.

Reaching out to new audiences:

Too often in science communication, we are not critical enough about who we are reaching with our events, and whether we are reaching beyond the “already converted” to science. Only 2% of the UK population have attended a science festival in the last year (Wellcome Trust Monitor, 2015) & up to 20% do not engage in science at all. If we want to reach the other community members, we can’t expect them to come to us. We, as science communicators, need to reach out to these communities in spaces where people go, be it libraries, arts/music festivals, pubs, cafes or shopping centres. This is an important principle guiding Leith labs, and our evaluation data is primarily looking at who is coming to our events, and filling our postcards.



Reaching out to new audiences is not enough if this is just a one-off. Whilst there is definitely a place in science communication for high-quality events that happen once, or even annually, such as science festivals, the lack of regular, long-term engagement opportunities can be a real barrier to audiences and attitude change generally.

Our current plan is to ensure Leith Labs runs in the long-term, at least once a month. The hope is that with more collaboration from research groups, we can eventually hold events even more regularly. There have been many occasions where conversations start with “I’ve seen you guys a few times before…”, indicating it was only after a few times that they came and engaged with the activities. We already have a few returning families who come to Ocean Terminal especially for the activities and arrive even before we’ve set up!  We’re definitely interested in trying to evaluate how long it takes for people to come and visit.


For this project, we want it to be as community-led as possible. Over time, we want the questions collated from the post-cards to actually determine the themes of Leith Labs. If we get lots of questions based on space for example, there is obviously community interest in this, and this gives us an opportunity to reach out to the universities’ astrophysicists to help us provide content. We have been keen to reach out and collaborate with the community groups and projects that are already in Ocean Terminal, and this allows us to ensure that our talks are of interest.

Our close relationship with the Living Memory Association has been very important. Beyond providing a venue and support for the tea, science, and biscuits talks, we’ve had some success engaging their older audiences in some of the talks. This is still developing, and not quite there yet, but based on one community that use this space, Care for Carers, we’ve had several very successful talks discussing dementia and the role of music and language (including a session involving singing together).


From the outset, Leith Labs is trying to be as collaborative as possible, integrating with many different projects with overlapping goals. The planned programme built up towards being a major part of the university-led “Explorathon” project (EU Researchers Night) on the 30th of September and then continued as part of the Fun Palaces programme on the 1st of October (a nice tie to the origins of the project). Collaborating with Beltane, this provided mutual benefit, allowing the university to provide training for researchers and a venue out in the community (and new audiences).

On a similar note, we already have plans to integrate Leith Labs with other projects across the year (Edinburgh International Science Festival, Voluntary Arts Festival, Audacious Women Festival and Leith Festivals), and form partnerships with more university departments and life-long organisations such as Ragged University and People Know How. This is an important part of our sustainability plan for Leith Labs. We are all trying to do similar things when it comes to community engagement (science, further education, arts). The more we collaborate, pool resources and knowledge, and build relationships, the more we can achieve.


Evaluating of audience numbers and monitoring background: This can be very difficult and lots of different methods have been tried. Ideally, a project would have someone dedicated to evaluation. This of course depends on having a big enough team to dedicate someone to this task. During the Explorathon weekend, we were actually able to provide evaluation training beforehand for the volunteers.

Small audiences: For our tea, science, and biscuit discussions, it can sometimes be hard to get audiences even when community members usually use that space. Sometimes even too scientific a title can be intimidating, so we tried to have more broad titles, and to link each science talk with a more general discussion about art or society. However, our deepest engagement tends to happen with smaller audiences, so don’t neglect quality for quantity.

Thank You: A massive thank you to The Physiological Society for funding the project through their public engagement fund. Additional financial and in-kind support came from Edinburgh Beltane and Explorathon. A big thank you to Ocean Terminal for their support of the project and for providing both unit and space, including Alison Bancroft. We couldn’t do it without our partners and communities at Living Memory Association, People Know How, Eureka Edinburgh, guest partners including Haemophilia Scotland, ASCUS, all the science communicators (especially Ross and Craig) and all the researchers from the University of Edinburgh, Napier University, Heriot Watt and Queen Margaret University.

If you have any questions or comments, get in touch with Lewis at, and learn more about his projects at, or

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