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Science in the Pub - Research Paper


Robyn Stutchbury, Australian Science Communicators


Science in the Pub is an initiative of the NSW branch of the Australian Science Communicators (ASC), a national association of over 400 journalists, editors, scientists, engineers, educators, and communicators interested in the communication of science and technology. A government grant enabled three sessions of Science in the Pub to be presented during National Science Week in May 1998.

The aim of Science in the Pub is to bring scientific pursuits into the very heart of popular culture by having scientists meet members of the wider community in the informal setting of the pub: an icon of Australian culture. The benefits include:

  • relaxed and informal venue for scientists to hone their communication skills
  • an opportunity to focus debate on issues in science and direct it through the informed opinions of scientists
  • the possibility of promoting science as an exciting and enjoyable process in an atmosphere of fun, without devaluing scientific integrity.

It is not a new idea. A paper entitled Science in the Pub: Artisan botanists in early nineteenth century Lancashire suggests that the pub might have been the venue for ‘artisan’ scientists to present their science to the community. Further, Boozology sessions were presented in English pubs earlier this year during National Science Week (UK).

The success of Australia’s version of Science in the Pub has been attributed to factors that include:

  • the individual talents and experience of organising group members
  • the venue and its location
  • the carefully chosen presenters
  • the topics
  • an apparent desire for informed discussion and debate on scientific matters within the community.

The organising group is now reviewing these successes and questioning the value of Science in the Pub. Audience profile and learning have been evaluated by a short questionnaire distributed during each session. The surveys have indicated that we are reaching few members of the direct community; instead, the majority of participants are graduates or postgraduates in science living within five kilometres of the pub.

The review is also being used to decide on the future of Science in the Pub. There are a number of options available. The working group believes it is important to maintain the intimacy of the relatively small audience in a venue that lends itself so well. This would mean that Science in the Pub would have to be staged in a number of suitable venues. However, like all voluntary endeavours, there is a limit to how much time organisers and presenters are prepared to devote.

Just what options should be chosen to best meet the professional aims of Science in the Pub is the subject of this paper.


Science in the Pub is an initiative of the New South Wales branch of the Australian Science Communicators (ASC)–a national association of over 400 journalists, editors, scientists, engineers, educators, and communicators interested in the communication of science and technology. The ASC strongly believes that the way Australians understand, communicate and use science and technology significantly affects their economic, social and environmental well-being.

As part of its charter to bring an awareness of science to the community, Science in the Pub addresses the aims of the Australian Science Communicators as shown in Table 1.

Aims of the ASC Role of Science in the Pub
To foster professional communication of science and technology, especially through high standards in the crafts of journalism and other forms of communication Presents professional scientists with the opportunity to hone their communication skills in an informal and relaxed ambience
To promote national awareness and understanding of science and technology National awareness starts with small group awareness and this it achieves
To encourage discussion and debate of ethical, political, economic, and social issues related to science and technology

This is its major role and it has been effectively addressing all of these issues during the various sessions

To provide opportunities for meetings between science and technology communications professionals. Although a minor role, each session brings together presenters who might otherwise not meet or share ideas

Table 1: The role played by Science in the Pub in meeting the aims of the Australian Science Communicators

Science in the Pub presents the opportunity to involve the wider community in some serious science in an atmosphere of fun. It is intended to appeal to those who like to argue about issues in science over an ale or two.

Science in the Pub has been registered as a business to safeguard its potential as a commercial package.

The Pub

The venue is a pub, The Duke of Edinburgh, in Pyrmont close to the Central Business District of Sydney. The immediate community is undergoing rapid change and gentrification from mixed working class residential with heavy industry to high density residential with service industries. A few of the pub’s patrons are from the remaining small pockets of working class residents.

In the immediate vicinity is the Casino, Star City; Darling Harbour and its many attractions; the Fish Markets; the ABC Ultimo Centre; UTS; TAFE’s Institute of Technology, and service industries such as graphic designers, architectural firms and advertising agencies.


A successful application for funding to the Science and Technology Awareness Program (STAP) of the Department of Industry, Science and Tourism (DIST) attracted a $3000 grant. The success of the application was probably due to its novel approach; the reputation of the ASC NSW, and the brief but succinct style of writing. The following illustrates the expression used to support the innovative, unique and refreshing approach of the proposal:

The pub is the quintessential Australian venue for sorting out the problems of the world. (Science in the Pub is) an opportunity to take science and technology issues out of their ghetto and slap bang into the middle of the mainstream.

The $3000 grant was sufficient only launch the project and stage the National Science Week sessions. Additional money has been raised by various means, although Science in the Pub is not expensive to stage. The Duke of Edinburgh hotel donated $200 and ‘pub raffles’ during each session help to meet presenters’ and printing expenses. Prizes are items that relate to the topic for the night. Some of these verge on the ridiculous–jelly frogs and mechanical croaking frogs for the Frog session. Others are valuable mementos–highly professional photographs of newly discovered astronomical features for the various cosmology sessions.

The public is also asked for donations in return for which they receive as a ‘valuable keepsake’: a pub coaster signed by the presenters.

Non-financial support

Support from the ABC Radio covers the services of a sound engineer for each session and the production of broadcast quality tapes, which are planned to go to air later in 1998. Other negotiations with the ABC include having parts of future sessions televised.

The support of the owners of the pub, apart from their donation, has also been substantial. They have assisted in every way to arrange seating and tables to make the most of the limited space. The success of the project depends heavily on the venue with its ‘regular Aussie pub’ appeal.

One of the breweries reduces the cost of certain lines of beer for each session.

Finally the countless hours of unpaid work and the dedication of the organising group has contributed greatly to the success of Science in the Pub.

Organising group

The small enthusiastic organising group comprises seven members of the ASC NSW (Table 2) who take on tasks that relate to their particular skills and talents, such as:

  • compering the sessions
  • identifying suitable issues
  • finding high profile scientists with communication skills as presenters
  • helping with fundraising, such as raffles on the night
  • general management
  • evaluating sessions.
The arbiter-cum-compere, Paul Willis is particularly talented at perfectly timed quips and repartee, which give him the capacity to defuse tense situations and lighten the more ponderous presentations.

The presenters are carefully chosen from a pool of talented communicators known to members of the organising committee or suggested by other presenters and members of the audience. Topics are chosen from topical issues identified and listed by group members and from the results of audience surveys.

Member Role Background
Michael Burton Scientific issues and presenters; presenter Astrophysicist, UNSW; science communicator
Wilson da Silva Adviser and ideas person; alternative compere Science journalist currently with the ABC’s Quantum
Susannah Eliott Adviser Lecturer in Science Communication, UTS
Daniella Goldberg
Scientific issues and presenters; fund raising
Science journalist, free lance.
Jenny Jones Scientific issues and presenters; co-ordinator of questions from the floor Science educator, University of Sydney
Alison Leigh Adviser and presenter
Executive producer, ex-ABC TV Science programs
Helen Sim Scientific issues and presenters; session evaluation Communications manager, CSIRO Australian Telescope National Facility
Robyn Stutchbury Project manager and session evaluation Science educator and writer
Paul Willis Compere and selection of issues and presenters; Contact person for presenters. Palaeontologist, science writer and ABC trainee reporter

Table 2: Members of the organising group for Science in the Pub.

Other Science in the Pub

Science in the Pub is not a new idea. In her paper, Science in the Pub: Artisan botanists in early nineteenth-century Lancashire, Anne Secord (1994) describes how scientific knowledge flowed through the working classes by way of the local pub. She disputes the popular middle class ideology of moral benefits gained through knowledge being handed down to members of the working class through the various Whig initiatives of the time. Instead, she turns to some well documented history of the working class artisan botanists of Lancashire. She describes how people of the working class often worked ‘close to nature’ and so were in the position to observe and collect natural history specimens. As interest in natural science increased during the early 19th century, collectors shared their knowledge with patrons of the local pub. So in the very heart of popular culture a considerable bank of scientifically valid information eventually developed. It seemed that artisan science was very much part of everyday life.

Another initiative to put science into the pub has been that of chemist, Dr Frank Burnet from The University of the West of England who has performed simple ‘booze’ related experiments for the drinkers in the pub. His initiative, Boozology was staged for the 1998 National Science Week (UK) and reported here in the media.


There have been six sessions at the Duke of Edinburgh since the beginning of 1998 (Table 3) with a further five planned for the rest of the year. The first two were used to test the publicity, format and venue before the staging of the three National Science Week sessions in May. The sixth session, held in June, was the start of a more permanent arrangement to have Science in the Pub staged on the last Wednesday of the month for ten months of the year.


Instead of providing an abstract, presenters are asked to write a summary of their topic in verse. Some remarkable ‘poetry’ has emerged and we propose to publish it as ‘The Science in the Pub Book of Bad Verse’ when there are sufficient contributions. There is also to be a prize awarded at the end of 1998 for the ‘best’ poem.

Informal learning in the pub

St Lawrence (1992) suggested that certain criteria should be met if a situation is to become a memorable learning experience. For a start there must be the involvement which encourages participants to become connected both emotionally and physically to the event. For a Science in the Pub session interaction and lively discussions ensure a high degree of involvement usually delivered with varying levels of emotion.

Her other criteria are also met. Science in the Pub can be thought of as novel because of its relaxed setting and its light, but serious, presentation of science. Through debate and discussion, patrons draw on both the creative and analytical sides of their brains. At all times emotions seem to run high either from the hilarity or from the indignity of a situation. With more questions coming from the floor than can be answered during any one session, patrons obviously perceive the presentations as personally relevant.

Finally, Science in the Pub usually addresses what St Lawrence considers to be the three main learning modalities: visual, auditory and movement (kinaesthetic). Presenters have used a series of novel approaches in place of the more conventional, formal-lecture style of audio-visual material. Some of these include a mock strip tease to reveal a T-shirt carrying a pertinent message; a balloon to illustrate a catastrophic event and an aesthetically pleasing poster of an astronomical feature which served to illustrate an argument. (The poster eventually became the prize for the ‘pub raffle’.) Although some might think that movement might involve little more than patrons fronting up to the bar or swilling their ale, the kinaesthetics connected to emotional responses during interaction and participation in question time contribute to the learning experience.

Learning is not confined to the audience; the presenters also have the opportunity to learn more about communicating to a lay audience. Feedback so far suggests that in every session the presenters have pitched their topic at the ‘right level’. If we are to have a more scientifically aware public and a government more sympathetic to funding scientific research, then scientists need to be highly skilled at communicating their ideas.

Session Date Title Presenter
1 25 February, 1998 Bones of Contention– Interpreting Australia's Past Dr Paul Taçon, anthropologist, the Australian Museum.
2 25 March, 1998 God and the Big Bang Dr Charles H Lineweaver, astrophysicist, UNSW;Mr John Cleary, ABC religious broadcaster.
3 4 May, 1998 Dark Matter–the stuff that holds the Universe together Dr Joss Bland-Hawthorn, astronomer, Anglo-Australian Observatory;Dr Mark Walker, astrophysicist, The University of Sydney.
4 6 May, 1998 Road Blocks in the Path of Cancer Research

Dr Carolyn Mountford, Executive Director, Institute for Magnetic Resonance Research, University of Sydney;Ms Jan Forbes, Clinical Coordinator, Faculty of Nursing, University of Technology Sydney.

5 7 May, 1998 Frogs are dying–who cares? Professor Michael Tyler, zoologist, University of Adelaide;Dr Arthur White, Director, Biosphere Environmental Consultants.
6 24 June, 1998 Science and the Media– friend or foe?

Dr Richard Fullagar, archaeologist, the Australian Museum;Dr Michael Burton, astrophysicist, UNSW;Ms Bernie Hobbs, ABC radio journalist;Ms Alison Leigh, ABC television producer.

7 29 July, 1998 Feeling for the Future: information technology and computer science.

Mr Saul Griffith, metallurgical engineer working on Smart Materials & nanotechnology;Mr Alfred Conlon, University of Technology Sydney.

Table 3: Science in the Pub presenters and topics for the first seven sessions and proposed sessions


Does Science in the Pub offer memorable learning experiences to the pub patrons? To answer this and other questions, evaluation forms (Appendix 1) were distributed during each of five of the six sessions.

Each form is numbered so that the size of the audience can be determined together with the percentage of forms returned.

We sought to establish from patrons:

  • heir demographic profile
  • how they became aware of Science in the Pub
  • how they rated the session and venue
  • whether or not they learned something new
  • other issues they would like discussed
  • presenters they could recommend
Patrons have the option to provide their names and contact details. When given, email addresses are used to publicise Science in the Pub sessions.

Survey results

The percentage return of evaluation forms has been very high. The many reminders of the importance of feedback and the forms being collected promptly are probably responsible for this. An estimated 350 overall attended the five surveyed sessions (sessions 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6). From the 350 patrons, 240 (69%) completed evaluation forms were returned. Session 3 Dark Matter: the stuff that holds the Universe together, the first of the National Science Week sessions, was not evaluated due to an oversight.

During National Science Week the evaluation form was modified to include items on whether there was the opportunity for new learning and the maximum levels of achievement in science. The details of some other items were increased as well. Consequently the results of some items relate only to the data collected during sessions 4, 5 and 6.

Some of the survey results have been omitted from this study. These include the topics and presenters recommended by patrons, and ‘other comments’. These will be included in a report being prepared for the Australian Science Communicators and the organising group itself.


From the first session we decided not to over publicise because of the limited size of the pub. Each member of the working group advertised by word of mouth, brochure (Appendix 2) and email around their place of work and their circle of friends and colleagues. How patrons heard about Science in the Pub is shown in Table 4. The majority chose the item ‘other’ with some indicating that this was by word of mouth or email, usually from friends. There appeared to be some confusion with electronic sources with many thinking that email was different from the internet.

Information source #
The pub itself 2
Fliers 17
National Science Week publicity 8
Australian Science Communicators 17
Media reports 13
Internet listings 23
Websites 10
Other 159
No response 3
Total (from sample of 235)*  

*many responded to more than one source

Table 4: Source of publicity for Science in the Pub. Some of those who responded ‘other’ indicated that they had heard through friends or colleagues and this was quite often by email.

Choice of venue

There has been a strongly positive response to the venue, with comments ranging from ‘excellent’ to ‘good apart from the smoke’. Of the few negative responses, most comments involved smokiness, noise, poor parking facilities or limited space in the pub.

Patron profile

Distribution of patrons over all sessions was determined using postcode data (Figure 1). This could be used only to give an indication of distribution because the postcodes for patrons attending more than one session were not excluded.

Only one of the patrons was from the immediate area, although many residents of Ultimo and Pyrmont are regulars at the pub. Another surprise was that less than 50% were from within a 5km radius of the pub. Some even came from outside the 15km radius.

Figure 1: Distribution of patrons based on postcode data from a sample of 215.

The age range of patrons (Figure 2) caused no surprises. The 26-35 year-olds formed the largest group in all but the first session when almost 50% (20 people) were from the over 46 year-olds, which was the second largest group overall. The number attending sessions from this group dropped in number until the last two sessions when it remained at around 25%.

Figure 2: Distribution of age groups for the five surveyed sessions and for all sessions.

Distribution based on sex (Figure 3) of patrons was remarkably balanced with 49% females and 51% males overall. There was a not unexpected higher percentage of females for the session on breast cancer research: Road Blocks in the Path of Cancer Research and a surprising 41% of females for the Frogs are dying session. Does this suggest that more females are amphibophobes?

Figure 3: Distribution of the sexes over the five sessions surveyed and for all sessions.

Levels of science education. The majority of patrons have been shown to be graduates or postgraduates in science and related fields (Figure 4). To some extent this has been a disappointment; we had hoped to attract a lay audience. On the positive side, the scientific audience has ensured lively and well informed discussions. Around 20% had not done science beyond the Higher School Certificate and just over 1% had not done science after the Year 10 School Certificate.

Level of maximum science attainment

Figure 4: Maximum level of patrons’ attainment in science. ‘Other’ includes some postgraduates and graduates in fields other than science.

We are obviously failing to reach the non-scientific public and the local community. There will have to be a greater effort to advertise directly within the local community through community centres and groups.

New learning

When asked whether they had learnt anything new from the sessions, 99 patrons or 72% replied that they had. Of the 99, 68 specified just what they had learnt while 18 responded either vaguely or very generally. For example, in the case of the Frogs are dying session, specific responses included ‘cerulean (pigment in frogs) is used in medicine’ and ‘factors related to decline of frog populations’; general responses mostly had no more than just ‘frogs’.

Figure 5: Responses of a sample of 136 to the question on new learning with the second pie showing a break-down of the 99 ‘new learners’ into those who specified what they had learnt against those who generalised and those who didn’t respond at all.

The future of Science in the Pub

We of the organising group believe that we have hit on a novel way to promote scientific learning and awareness. The unexpected magnitude of its success has caused a few problems. How can we increase the audience without losing the intimacy of the pub? How can we increase the non-scientific audience? What learning strategies do we need to consider for a lay audience? Would it be possible to run more than one session per month? Is the pool of high quality presenters inexhaustible? Can we clone our compere? With most of our audience rarely attending more than one session, will there be a saturation point? Would it be possible to operate from more than one venue?

We are attempting to address some of these problems. Increasing the audience would have to be done by either finding a larger pub or holding sessions in a number of venues. Like any voluntary endeavour, there is a limit to the time people can make available around other commitments. Further, there is only a limited pool of suitable scientists who are skilled communicators and who are prepared to present a session at no charge. Increasing the number of venues or sessions would stretch both the volunteer working group and presenters to breaking point.

One avenue of investigation is to develop Science in the Pub into a commercial package which could be ‘hired’ by groups willing to seek sponsorship to cover expenses and fees. A group on the Gold Coast has already done this very successfully and others are planning similar ventures.

The ABC Radio’s Science Unit is planning to broadcast Science in the Pub on a regular basis and ABC TV may be televising selected material later in the year. These might prove to be satisfactory ways of increasing our audience.

We are also considering running workshops at cost on how to stage Science in the Pub sessions.


Science in the Pub offers a novel approach to creating a memorable learning experience in the informal and relaxed setting of the Aussie pub. There will have to be a greater effort to reach the non-scientific public together with a review of learning strategies more relevant to their needs. Whether or not to commercialise Science in the Pub remains unanswered, although our preliminary trial seems to indicate that commercialisation is feasible.


Science in the Pub™, © 2000. Stutchbury, R, Burton, M.