Kathy Sykes

The winner of the 2006 Royal Society Kohn Award for Excellence in Engaging the Public with Science was Kathy Sykes. Kathy was presented with the award by Lord Rees of Ludlow, President of the Royal Society, at the BA Festival of Science, Norwich, on 7 September 2006.

Many people will know Kathy Sykes from her appearances on popular TV science programmes including Rough Science' and Ever Wondered'. She is perhaps less generally well known for her important work encouraging scientists and people from outside the scientific community to talk and interact with one another in various ways so that they can better understand, and learn from, one another's viewpoints. This is incredibly important since science, with all its exciting possibilities and potential challenges, does not happen in a vacuum. Many scientific advances have profound implications for society at large.

Kathy was awarded the Kohn Award for her deep commitment to promoting a truly two-way conversation on scientific issues and helping to set the national agenda in this area. She is passionate about science and how non-scientists can help plan its future. Crucially she has helped set high standards on public dialogue and acts as a role model for others.
Kathy says about herself: 'I work hard to try and help scientists and policymakers engage with, and listen to, the public because I really believe it's crucial if we are to make wiser choices about how we use science for society and the environment.'

Kathy holds the Collier Chair in Public Engagement in Science and Engineering at the University of Bristol and is regarded as a leading figure in Britain promoting public engagement in science. She has a PhD in physics with an interest in biodegradable plastics however she works well beyond these parameters particularly where the science has a social impact. Having thought deeply about the responsibility of scientists to grasp ethical issues, Kathy believes there needs to be much broader public engagement. Director of the innovative Cheltenham Science Festival since its inception, her unique expertise and outstanding communication skills have led her to become a respected member of key bodies, including the Council for Science and Technology. Her media involvement started with Tomorrow’s World, and she regularly contributes to Rough Science, which has a superb reputation in engaging people of all ages with science. She has recently presented a series called ‘Alternative Medicine – The Evidence’ on BBC2. Most recently, she co-hosted 'The Genius of Britain' with Stephen Hawking and Maggie Aderine Pocok and also presented a series for BBC2 on alternative therapies. Because of her outgoing personality, ability as a presenter and passion for teaching Kathy is highly valued by senior staff in the BBC’s Science Factual Department. Above all, she is an ideal role model for all young scientists.

What was Kathy’s inspiration?
Sitting on my mum’s bed, asking her what the world was made of – and at age 6 her telling me about atoms. I thought they were an amazing idea. Then my A level Physics teacher - who explained that physics wasn’t about truths - learning facts and figures - but about ideas and models of the world you needed to ‘hold quite lightly’ in order to make space for better models when current ones were shown not to work. The idea of ‘holding things lightly’ was very appealing. It also showed me that there was space for creativity in Physics (which sadly hadn’t been apparent yet); to come up with new models to challenge existing ones.

Advice to women getting involved in SET:
If you find the thing you want to do or study, be proactive - find out what’s needed, tell people you want to work for them, and go for it. Don’t let feeling you’re ‘not good enough’ ever stop you. As well as holding delights in themselves - these subjects are fantastic passports to lots of interesting things to do with your life…some of which can help make things here on the planet a bit better - if you choose well.

Proudest achievement?
Helping to create a new hands-on science centre - that’s attracted millions of people. My proudest moment was founding Famelab, which finds, nurtures and trains fresh faces in Science. It has become an international success and reaches thousands of people.

Advice to prospective STEM employers?
Make it easy for people to work across disciplines and with different kinds of people. Nurture a culture of valuing all kinds of people and ideas and accept that people need to feel safe enough to take risks (and so fail sometimes) to have a truly creative environment.

WES Awards