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Public engagement, science communication and this year’s 3MT

An interview with Janet Metcalfe, Head of Vitae, the UK-based program dedicated to enhancing the skills and careers of researchers

Janet MetcalfeThis year, Taylor & Francis are supporting Vitae’s Three Minute Thesis competition (3MT®), a UK-wide event that celebrates the dynamic and exciting work conducted by doctoral researchers.  As the world’s largest national 3MT® competition, it challenges participants to explain their research in just three minutes in a way that can be understood by a non-specialist audience, culminating in a live final in September. We interviewed Dr. Janet Metcalfe, Chair and Head of Vitae, on the organization and why the 3MT® competition is such a vital part of their annual event program.

Can you tell us about Vitae, its aims, and place within the UK research community?
Vitae is very much aimed at the professional development of researchers: we want researchers to flourish and support them to be the best researcher they can be. Vitae has a strong international reputation and we’ve been running researcher development programs since 1968, counting over 150 UK higher education institutions (HEIs) as our members. Alongside our work in the UK, we also have a strong profile in Europe, Australia, Japan, Africa and South America.

Describe your role within the organization and what a ‘typical’ day looks like. 
A great deal of my role revolves around developing Vitae’s strategy on supporting researchers. I work with policy makers and research funders, particularly the research councils and funding bodies, as well as with other network organizations with an interest in researchers.

My typical day is out of the office – so I sit on the Marie Curie Advisory Group for instance and am often in Brussels to work with the European Commission, as well as presenting at conferences and events. In fact, it’s typical not to have five minutes to myself! There are so many opportunities that one of the challenges is prioritizing, to ensure our resources are as impactful as possible.

Vitae have hosted the 3MT® competition since 2014. Tell us about it, and why Vitae originally got involved.
We had the realization that many universities in the UK were running individual 3MT® competitions but weren’t receiving a great deal of profile from them. We wanted our member HEIs to come together to raise the profile of public engagement in research. This year, 55 institutions have registered (an increase on last year), with most research-intensive universities in the UK taking part.

Presenting a thesis in three minutes is quite some challenge. Tell us about some of your favorite presentations.
What I find interesting is the very different approaches people take and how challenging it is to anticipate how an audience will react to a presentation. This is two to three years of research that participants are distilling into three minutes – getting that passion across to an audience who won’t understand the technicalities is a challenge. The quality of the finalists is stunning, and the competition blows the stereotype of scientists not being able to communicate out of the water.

And have you learnt any tips from the participants…  
That there are challenges in professional development activities – how do you find an approach and make sure content is appropriate? Coming through the education system now are researchers who are much more online focused and social media savvy. The whole way we communicate is changing fundamentally. As professionals how do we stay at the forefront so we can best support researchers?

Why role do you think public engagement does (and should) play in a researcher’s work?
Public engagement is becoming more and more critical. There’s a strong drive through the European Commission on open research, open data and open access. How do you open up what you’re doing as a researcher to make the maximum impact, so others can make use of your findings? Public engagement is a broad and fundamental part of doing research today.

What would you say to anyone considering entering 3MT® this year (or has already done so)?          
Have fun, enjoy it, it’s a wild ride!

And if you could tell our readers one thing about 3MT® what would it be?
That I’m always astonished by the breadth of research including in the competition, and the commitment by early career researchers to make a difference.

Dr Janet Metcalfe is Chair and Head of Vitae, committed to enhancing the quality and output of the UK research base through supporting the training and development of world-class researchers. She is responsible for the strategic direction of Vitae and leads on the implementation of the UK Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers.