During a Science Soapbox event, several researchers give short talks about their work relating to a variety of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) topics. The key characteristics are brevity and accessibility: speakers literally stand on a Soapbox right in front of their audience, and are given only minutes to present. This can be followed by an equally short moderated Q&A session after each speaker and further discussion over refreshments. Members of the public are also encouraged to take up the spot on the Soapbox and give their opinion on previous talks, or speak about a subject of their choice. This event description is modelled on Malta’s “THINK Soapbox”, where speakers are chosen based on contributing an article to the latest issue of the university’s research magazine.
A Science Soapbox has several goals. Firstly, it tries to engage the target audience about different scientific subjects as a form of lifelong learning. Beyond that, Science Soapbox empowers them to interact with research directly and take centre stage in the research process by contributing their own opinion or speaking about a subject of their choice. Finally, such events may contribute to a more scientifically literate society and improve attendees’ critical thinking.
For the researchers, the Soapbox experience allows them to improve their communication skills and gain immediate feedback about their research due to the close interaction with the audience. Overall, a two-way process is necessary: rather than simply educating citizens, Science Soapbox attempts to open up a much needed dialogue that gives different publics an active role in science communication.
General Structure: Single Event
The event organiser should select and meet presenters beforehand to introduce the event format while giving tips on how to engage and communicate with the audience.
Beyond that, Science Soapbox events are self-contained, involving talks, follow up questions, and an invitation to the audience to speak themselves. They do not have a complex format, refer to Section 4.2 for the detailed structure of a single event.
Main Event Duration: A few hours
Project Duration: Indefinitely Repeated
A Science Soapbox event can take up a few hours in the afternoon or evening, involving short talks and informal conversations. The event should be repeated monthly for an indefinite time period to allow for exploration of different research and building up larger audiences.
2.1 Staff & Volunteers
Volunteer Requirements: Core organising team only
No team of volunteers is needed to run a Science Soapbox event, but a few people to help out with attracting an audience and moderating the discussion on the day can be useful. However, a single person could organise this given that they recruit the scientists to deliver talks.
2.2 Venue Hire
Venue: Indoors / Outdoors
Capacity: 21 – 100 people
There are two approaches for this event: it could be hosted indoors in an informal venue such as a bar, if agreed to by the establishment. However, you could also put up the Soapbox in a public space such as a park as long as there is enough space for people to gather around. Both versions contribute to attracting a varied audience, since guests in the bar or bypassers in the park might be drawn in as they notice the speakers.
Make sure to advertise this widely enough to reach a core target audience, thus generating enough interest for passing members of the public to join. The capacity requirements can scale up once the event becomes established and more popular, but an audience size of 21–100 people is realistic.
2.3 Partner Institutions
Partner Institutions: Not required
This event can be run independently and does not need a partner institution. Having access to local researchers through university contacts is useful however, as are contacts to other institutions that do work of interest to the research community as themes may be chosen very broadly.
It is also possible to connect this event with a special theme. As mentioned before, Malta’s “THINK Soapbox” celebrates the launch of a new research magazine issue by inviting authors to speak about their research, and the magazine is handed out to attendees at the event. Any synergies should be exploited to widen the potential audience.
Yearly / Project Budget: 0 – 500€ / 501 – 1000€
This budget is based on an estimate of 10 events per year, about one Science Soapbox every month. For Malta’s THINK Soapbox, we are running a maximum of 4 events per year in a bar, to coincide with the magazine launch, and use about 600€ for marketing only.
3.1 Target Audience
Target Audience: Youths (18–25) / Younger Adults (26–45) / Older Adults (46–64) / Pensioners (65+)
The Science Soapbox is aimed at interested adults from a variety of backgrounds. Therefore, you should encourage speakers to use layman’s terms and give a brief overview of what they do, making sure not to use jargon and encouraging a discussion that everyone feels comfortable participating in.
A marketing strategy should be in place for every event. To keep the Soapbox inexpensive, an effort should be made to attract some core audience, but allow this to grow by attracting bypassers that might not have known about the event at all.
For the core audience, encouraging the organising team and the speakers to use word of mouth will be a good start. Use contacts at any partner institutions such as the university to broaden this further. If desired, the marketing can be expanded with an offline and online strategy. For the former, posters could be places around the university or the chosen venue. These should be well designed and in line with the brand your audience will be attracted to.
As part of your online strategy, social media pages can help to generate interest, while developing a website for the event will require extra funding and is not critical at first. In theory, emails of attendees may be collected to encourage return visitors, but the informal nature of this event means this might not be desired as the emphasis is on haphazard audience assembly.
3.3 Dialogic Strategy
The most important goal of a Science Soapbox is audience participation – making attendees feel comfortable to ask questions or even give a short response or talk of their own on the Soapbox. It is crucial that researchers speak about the general outline of their work rather than lots of detail, and any pointers about science communication basics will be useful.
As the organiser, you will need to introduce new speakers and topics regularly, while also moderating questions and reminding the audience that they can go on the Soapbox themselves outside of the arranged order of speakers. Make sure to prepare questions yourselves and have a general order of speakers in mind, as the audience might take some time to warm up to the format and start interacting with the researchers. Make sure to enforce time limits strictly, ensuring that researchers don’t go into too much detail or that a member of the audience doesn’t take over completely. It is important to keep a short dialogue about different topics, but move on as well to reflect the breadth of speakers and ideas from the audience.
4.1 Project Timeline
|Months in advance
li style=”font-weight: 400;”>Contact lineup of researchers to confirm their availability
|Weeks in advance
|On the day
4.2 Single Event Structure
|0 – 30 mins
4.3 Personnel roles
There are no particular materials required, aside from the Soapbox and any basic facilities provided through the venue (e.g. chairs, tables).
4.5 Other Logistics
This event should be very straightforward, with no other logistics to consider.
The idea of a science soapbox has first been used in the UK, where “Soapbox Science” was set up in 2011 by Dr Seirian Sumner and Dr Nathalie Pettorelli. An interview with the latter highlights that this event is meant to change perceptions of what a scientists looks like, as well as addressing the gender inequality in the STEM fields.
Inspired by the Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, London, the event format is intended to break down barriers between science and the public. The explicit goal is to enable anyone to find out about the latest research and join the conversation
In a similar vein to other event formats like this, enabling a discussion that can be held on equal terms rather than the audience being lectured to marks a key shift from top-down science education efforts, and the literature often notes the validity of using such a dialogic approach.
Gevin, V.. Turning point: Nathalie Pettorelli. Nature. 526, 465 (2015).
- Petherick, KJ et al. Soapbox Science: Promoting women in STEM. School science review 99(366), 91–95 (2017).
- Jackson, R., Barbagallo, F. & Haste, H. Strengths of Public Dialogue on Science‐related Issues. Crit. Rev. Int. Soc. Polit. Philos. 8, 349–358 (2005).
A Science Soapbox is a very informal event, and it will be useful for the organiser to stay around afterwards and keep conversation going to find out what motivates attendees.
If a more formal evaluation strategy is desired, several quantitative and qualitative approaches can be used. However, the best tool might be a very short questionnaire that could be filled out by volunteers asking a few questions to capture basic information (age, occupation, gender). Areas of interest for the event organiser might include:
To gather more information about potential changes in perception of the research being discussed or science more generally, it could also be useful to distribute questionnaires before and after the event. If there is negative feedback on any issues, steps need to be taken to improve the events. This can involve better training of speakers or additional opportunities to ask questions and interact.
The UK boasts a prominent “Soapbox Science” event, which has added emphasis on the promotion of women in science and their research, with more information found on their website.