The general public, the new lab rat?

Recently rescued from financial crisis, our Science Gallery now hosts an exhibit that, whilst entertaining and informative, also collects data from the audience for use in research by the Institute of Neuroscience.

Recently rescued from financial crisis, our Science Gallery now hosts an exhibit that, whilst entertaining and informative, also collects data from the audience for use in research by the Institute of Neuroscience.

The Science Gallery, Trinity’s financially controversial sexed-up science venue, is currently running its Pay Attention: Lab in the Gallery exhibit. Actual scientific research is being carried out in front of and on the public. It has been drawing a constant stream of fascinated visitors. But is it a waste of money? Or is it just a cheap way of doing research?

The Lab in the Gallery concept was the brainchild of Michael John Gorman, the director of Science Gallery. He approached various laboratories in Trinity, asking them if they could carry out research in the gallery space. He found his answer in Ian Robertson, now the curator of this exhibit, and his research team, who could feasibly work in the space available. Robertson, as well as two members of his team – Sabina Brennan and Redmond O’Connell – was kind enough to offer insiders’ perspectives on the exhibit, which they have been planning since May.

Youth appeal is central to Science Gallery’s ethos and branding, and talking to the curatorial team, it becomes clear that the Gallery’s mission statement is clearly understood. But Brennan, O’Connell and Robertson were all equally enthusiastic about the possibilities of engaging undergraduates and members of the public alike. In fact, even for an extreme skeptic of Science Gallery, it’s hard not to be taken in by the buzz around the current exhibition. People are genuinely fascinated, and it’s easy to understand why. Unlike the largely passive Lightwave and Pills exhibits, visitors to Lab in the Gallery are engaged by mediators from the moment they step inside the space, and are invited to play Mindball while they wait for their stint at their chosen research booth. Brennan highlights the biggest difference: “Lab in the Gallery allows the audience to interact, engage and converse with the scientists so they have more control over their learning experience.”

Even as an extreme skeptic of Science Gallery, it’s hard not to be taken in by the buzz around the current exhibition

Lab’s unique selling point is that it is actual research being conducted publicly. O’Connell believes that, given taxpayers’ contribution to research, they have a right to observe. He goes as far as to suggest that “all labs should be able to justify their research to a public audience.” But is this audience more of a liability than expected? Especially when considering the effect of observation on participants’ reactions? O’Connell claims the booths have been designed so as to minimise distraction, and adds that the experiment designs have factored in their location in the Gallery. He also maintains that “most attention-requiring tasks are already carried out with normal distraction levels, so one could argue that a controlled lab setting is actually less representative of everyday life than Lab in the Gallery.” In the wake of John Banville’s comments, the use of animals in research has come under scrutiny by the public.

Robertson, Brennan and O’Connell are all involved in the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, which uses rats in neurophysiology experiments. When asked if research schemes such as Pay Attention’s would pave the way for less use of animal models, O’Connell was adamant that the two were very separate areas of research. Brennan admitted that she did not enjoy the thought of killing animals for research purposes, but realised the necessity of it. She suggested that wasting/throwing out uneaten meat is a far greater crime. “If John Banville has ever thrown out a steak, then that animal has suffered for nothing. At least the animals used in Trinity have contributed to scientific research, and with less suffering involved.” Robertson believes that Banville is misguided, and that if he truly objected to animal testing, “ethically Banville should refuse any medical treatment, or go back to medieval medicine, because it’s impossible to do medical research without using animals.”

The Science Gallery has suffered financial woes since its launch, and needed a big bailout from the Wellcome Trust this summer. O’Connell says this exhibition has been run quite frugally, and that it may not have even used its entire budget as all the equipment belongs to Robertson’s lab.

The remaining question is: if Lab in the Gallery is successful, will we see more research being conducted in public? Robertson is cautious “This exhibition is a world first, and is a learning experience, but has been extremely successful so far … There are limits to the types of research that can be done publicly. But I hope that it will be the first of several such endeavors.”

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Editors





Niamh Lynch
news@trinitynews.ie
Kelly McGlynn
features@trinitynews.ie
Michael Foley
comment@trinitynews.ie
Katarzyna Siewierska
scitech@trinitynews.ie
Clare McCarthy
sport@trinitynews.ie

Illustration

Aisling Crabbe
Natalia Duda
Sarah Morel
Mike Dolan
John Tierney
Naoise Dolan
Sarah Larragy
Mubbashir Ali Sultan
Nadia Bertaud
Daniel Tatlow

Photography

Kevin O'Rourke
Ines Niarchos
Huda Awan