On Friday 29th September I took part in a Research Bake Off competition as part of Oxford’s Curiosity Carnival. This was a city-wide event showcasing research from Oxford and Oxford Brookes Universities, and the MRC Harwell Institute.
Along with 15 other bakers, I presented my cake and talked to visitors in the research tent about the ideas it embodied. We talked about our research for about two hours, after which prizes were awarded, and then we cut up our cakes and they were eaten by a hungry public. Talking about my research was fairly easy. Trying to represent it in cake form, given my modest baking and decorating skills, was 'challenging'. GBBO-contestant-in-waiting, I am not.
I learnt some important things about baking – the value of a crumb coat, how to represent a solar PV panel in iced biscuit, and that, sadly, not all caster sugars are the same. But, I also learnt a few things about public engagement with research:
- Not all research topics are equally cake-o-genic
For me, current research themes include energy-related decision-making in small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and European level energy policy analysis. These do not a good cake make – or at least not one I could think of. Instead I presented research on low carbon renovation of housing - houses being relatively easy to represent in cake form. Also, I could quickly explain that research, whereas finding the public interest in much more specialised research was tricky given the very short time to engage each visitor, and the competing attraction of all the other entrants’ cakes.
- Cakes don’t communicate, people do
Although the idea was to communicate research through cake – and I perhaps took this instruction a bit too literally and iced words onto my cake – of course it was us researchers who did the communicating, the cakes were just props. If I’d realised this sooner, I would have spent a bit more time thinking about key messages I wanted to pass on, and less time on whether it was possible to recreate triple-glazed windows in biscuit form (it wasn’t).
- But cakes and biscuits can help
Generally - being more adventurous in the way we communicate our research can deliver good and, if you’re lucky, tasty results. Through a Twitter conversation, I found out that there exists a great video using wafer biscuits which explains home insulation and U-values. An Agile-Ox activity in Oxford Low Carbon week featured an energy-related ‘guess the shape of the cake’ activity which resonated with people, a surprising number of whom worked out that it was the UK electricity demand profile over 24 hours.
- You can’t compete with charismatic endangered animals
I made the error of stationing my cake next to the one that, very deservedly, won the public vote. The presenter was brilliant, the cake was brilliant and the research was about conservation of the endangered slow loris. So inspirational was the subject, that one boy, after hearing the research described, came back with his face painted as a slow loris. I may have persuaded people to investigate more options for renovating their home, or helped them understand why it’s an important issue in research and in the real world, but nobody came back decorated as an eco-home.
- It really is the taking part that counts
Yes, this is in part code for ‘I didn’t win’. But it was a good natured and entertaining way to present research to the public. The subjects on offer ranged from the history of lace making to the use of electron microscopes – and listening to how the other researchers explained their topics was a real inspiration. I got to talk about the research I care about, meet some great researchers and members of the public, and ended the day sharing and eating cake. I’m already thinking about my cake design for next year, and whether I can possibly include pandas in my energy research communication.
"The subjects on offer ranged from the history of lace making to the use of electron microscopes – and listening to how the other researchers explained their topics was a real inspiration"