Interview with Lewis Dartnell, Professor of Science Communication

WIAS director Christian Fuchs interviews Lewis Dartnell, Professor of Science Communication, University of Westminster, to hear his take on the advantages and disadvantages of conducting interdisciplinary research, open access publishing, the repercussions of Brexit, and the contemporary academic landscape.

Professor Lewis Dartnell joined the University of Westminster as Professor of Science Communication in 2016. He was previously a UK Space Agency Research Fellow, based at the Space Research Centre (University of Leicester) and then Centre for Astrophysics and Planetary Science (University of Kent). His research is focussed on astrobiology and how bacterial life and signs of its existence might survive the cosmic radiation on the surface of Mars as well as a more general interest in microorganisms from hostile environments. He has a passion for public engagement in science and has written three popular science books, of which the most recent (The Knowledge: How to Rebuild our World from Scratch, Penguin and Random House; 2014) won a number of accolades including The Times New Thinking Book of the Year 2014. He has appeared regularly on the radio and TV including science documentaries (e.g. BBC Horizon) as well as doing live performances (e.g. TED mainstage presentation) and delivering events at science, literary and music festivals. He also lectures internationally. His research is an excellent fit with the Department of Life Sciences, which enriches the courses taught there. He has worked in collaboration with the British Science Association, Association of Science Educators, the Arts Catalyst, and Guerrilla Science, and brings a network of contacts to Westminster to help develop public engagement for staff and students here. His expertise in science communication contributes to the development of external facing activities at New Cavendish Street in collaboration with activities drawn from other Faculties.

CF: What are your main research interests?

LD: My research focuses on the possibility of microbial life surviving near the surface of Mars, and how best to find it. I use computer simulations of how the energetic radiation from outer space is absorbed by the Martian atmosphere and rock, as well as lab experiments on bacteria I’ve isolated from extreme terrestrial environments like the Antarctic Dry Valleys and the Atacama desert in Chile. A lot of my work concentrates on the signs of life, past and present, that we would hope to detect on Mars with our upcoming robotic probes – so-called ‘biosignatures’. What are the most reliable signs of life we can search for, and how are they degraded by the Martian environment and the bombardment of cosmic radiation.

CF: Your research transcends the boundaries between space research, the life sciences, and science communication. Terms such as interdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity, cross-disciplinarity, transdisciplinarity, mode 2-research, etc. are used for boundary-transcending research. What is your understanding of this kind of research? And what are possible advantages and disadvantages of doing interdisciplinary research? Can you also speak about your own experiences in this respect?

LD: The research field of astrobiology is intrinsically and deeply interdisciplinary. I came from a biology background, and astrobiology combines this with biochemistry, geology, geochemistry, planetary science, astronomy and physics, and the robotics and engineering of sending probes across the solar system and space-based telescopes. Astrobiology sits as the Venn diagram overlap in the middle of many different kinds of science, and this breadth and diversity is exactly what makes the field so exciting.  It’s also currently exceedingly fast-paced. This interdisciplinarity means that astrobiology calls upon many different areas of research. The research teams I work in are usually composed of researchers from very different backgrounds and at conferences there’s a huge range of studies being presented. This keeps the field fresh and exciting to work within. It also keeps you on your toes, making sure you’re up-to-date with advances in different areas. And the different research methodologies and subject-specific terminology or jargon being used means that you’re often out of your comfort zone. This makes it thrilling, but often challenging. I think that with any interdisciplinary research area there is the risk of becoming a Jack of all trades but master of none. It’s important that you maintain your focus and area of expertise within the wider spread of astrobiology. And keep your collaborations active and productive.

CF: In contemporary academia, there is lots of talk about open access publishing, open data and open science/research. What is the role of these developments in your field of study? And how do you assess them?

LD: OA publishing is becoming more and more prevalent, and this is a hugely important trend. It shifts the cost of scientific publishing from accessing the papers to submitting the manuscript, but it is much more equitable for researchers around the world. And of course, journalists and the general public can also then read the primary literature. Science research is often funded by the general public through their taxes, and so I think it is important for them to thus also have access to the fruits of this research.

CF: The EU Referendum and the “Brexit” may be one of the most wide-ranging developments European politics has seen in many decades. And at the moment probably the most talked about topic in British academia is the question what impacts Britain’s “Brexit” may have on universities, academia, research and teaching. How do you assess the situation and what possible impacts do you see?

LD: Astrobiology and space exploration in general is of course not only deeply interdisciplinary, but also deeply international. I work with scientists all over Europe and the world. The particular mission that I am working towards, the ExoMars rover, is with the European Space Agency. The outcome of Brexit is likely to restrict the movement of European scientists into the UK, and UK scientists around Europe. It’s also unclear how Brexit will effect the UK’s involvement in ESA, and other cross-European research consortia. These are of course all dire outcomes.

ExoMars rover. Image credit: ESA

Portrait of Prof Dartnell: Shortlist/Paul Stuart


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