On Outreach: something's got to give

Jun 06 2012 Published by under Academia, Uncategorized

I keep seeing posts which go on and on, we don't understand science, there's not enough scientific outreach, and this is all the scientists' fault. This is the message I get, over and over. It is the scientists' fault. If we really cared about outreach we should be doing it, it is our job, our duty, and why aren't we all spending our free time doing outreach. As someone who spends, well, all of my free time writing about science, I am usually very sympathetic to this view.

But I'm getting tired. I'm getting tired of hearing about how scientists should feel horribly guilty for not doing outreach and it is our fault.

And if only we would take the time and if only we would stop being such scientists and if only we would communicate and generally be better people, the world would understand evolution and we'd all only use one paper towel and try to stop global warming. It all gives me really bad cynical-face.


(Source)

(Keep in mind, though, that you really should use only one paper towel! It's much easier than you think!)

But there are things that get left out. First, we don't get paid for this. And second...blogging is not always going to be the answer.



The problem

Here's a list of things I am responsible for at work every day that come before outreach (Not in priority order. I'm a postdoc, so this doesn't apply to everyone):

1. Research on my project
2. Research on my PI's project
3. My own grants
4. My PI's grants
5. Publishing findings
6. Wrangling undergrads
7. Wrangling grad students
8. Collaborative projects
9. Writing more grants
10. Analyzing data
11. Getting more data
12. Etc

Under "etc" add things like: looking ahead to the next step (cause post-docs don't last forever), helping people with other papers, teaching, grading, reading up on the literature in the field, in collaborative fields, and keeping an eye on the lit related to undergrad projects, keeping the lab running in general, and fighting a rising sense of quiet desperation.

I am pretty efficient, and usually work about 10 hours a day and take home papers to "read" at night (sometimes the papers get read, but often only when my sense of quiet desperation prevents sleep). I usually also work at least one weekend day. I am by no means the busiest postdoc I know.

Now add on to that, say, a family, hobbies, a significant other, a hamster, and a desire to do things like eat.

And now you want me to do OUTREACH?!

And now you will BLAME ME for NOT doing outreach?!

You saw that list. Did you see outreach on it? Nope, and there's a good reason. We don't get paid, recognized, or otherwise get num nums for outreach. And until we do, hearing that the lack of outreach is ALL OUR FAULT is only going to make us feeling guilty and sad. And I don't think it's going to make more scientists blog, either.

I'm not saying we shouldn't do outreach (obviously I'm rather a fan), and I'm not saying that it's not a problem that scientists don't do more outreach (because it is). What I am saying is that, given the list above, and the fact that it only gets worse when you're the boss of a lab...well I am not surprised that the proud calls to arms from blogging grad students and postdocs are met with crickets. I'm surprised they're not met with more disdain.

Outreach is not what we're paid for. Outreach is not what we're awarded things for. When we ARE awarded for outreach in science...it's certainly not for writing. Usually it's for things like going in to schools and talking to bright eyed children about science. And even the awards for outreach with children are not what you'd call life changing. These are small awards, nice plaques to put on your wall, like the ones you get for things like "mentorship".

And in the scientific world of getting grants, of publish or perish, well, that doesn't fly. If you seem overly interested in outreach (or even in college teaching in some fields), you are not just odd. Your priorities are out of whack. No one ever got a faculty position based on outreach. I have seen colleagues get dinged in promotion meetings for too much time spent doing outreach. The unspoken implication is clear: if you're doing outreach, you must not be doing science.

Something needs to change

So I was pleased to see a post from the Mother Geek the other day, acknowledging these issues, and noting something important: it's not that scientists refuse to leave the ivory tower. It's that many of us feel we CAN'T. We are afraid of our outreach efforts being seen as bad priorities.

Some have said that academia itself needs to change, needs to value outreach more. I certainly think this is part of the solution. Awards for outreach could be much more meaningful. Right now most of them go toward the idea of recruiting new baby scientists. We need more awards focused on good education.

But even this is not going to be enough. I think it's time to focus our energies on more than those in academia. This is easier than you might think. After all, large numbers of science PhDs don't end up in academia. Instead they end up at medical writers, working for museums, in consulting, or in a myriad of other fields. And they could also...end up in science communication. The advent of the internet has opened up career opportunities in social media, and scientists can find themselves included. Jeanne Garb also raised this point, if university PR offices hired scientists to help spread the word, people for whom outreach would be their JOB, science communication would get a much-needed boost. People with science degrees would be able to communicate science, and effectively talk with the scientists who are actually doing the work (and who might be more willing to talk to someone who once did what they are doing). Those who are in science themselves could focus on getting the science done.

But an attitude change is still needed. Scientists in academia need to stop looking down on those who communicate. They need to appreciate those who CAN, and encourage them to seek out jobs in science communication. Scientists need to understand it takes all kinds to make a world full of science: the grant getting kinds, the data getting kinds, the teaching kinds, the communicating kinds.

And there's one more thing that I think we need to keep in mind. I think Danielle Lee made this point when she gave her FABULOUS talk at Experimental Biology...

It takes all kinds to make science communication

It takes more than all kinds to make a world full of science, it takes all kinds to do effective science communication. By which I mean "blogging =/= outreach". I mean, it DOES, but you can't just blog and say that's it, we're done. Even if every scientist on the planet started a blog tomorrow, I'm not at all sure that science communication would get any better. Yes, people read us, but you lovely readers are a SMALL part of the population (yes, this means you are totally awesome! To me, anyway). Not everyone reads science blogs, and not everyone is going to. Many people just aren't interested in reading about science blogging on the internet.

And more than reach...science blogging is HARD. Blogging about your own research or someone else's takes time, it takes work, and it takes talent. We will not all become Ed Yong overnight, and I don't think we all should. Yes, those who want to write about science on the internet ABSOLUTELY SHOULD. But I don't think every scientist should start a blog. I don't think that's where many people's talents lie. There's more to outreach than writing. Some people are good with kids, some are good with public speaking, some draw hilarious cartoons, some give good lab tours, and some simply make an awesome guest for bringing your parent to school day. ALL of these are forms of outreach, and all of them are legitimate. I often feel that the focus on "every scientist should blog" tends to ignore a lot of these other forms of outreach, many of which are already taking place. All of these are good, they all reach different audiences (and an important part of communication is reaching different audiences) and they all get the word out. Blogging is great (obviously), but there's also more to it.

I think roles for professional science communicators could come in here, too. Focusing on Science Festivals, on children's education, or in science policy.

Academic science communication needs an overhaul, there's no doubt about that. But scolding scientists for their lack of effort is not going to help us achieve our goals. I think we need a new area for scientists to move into, a new place for science communication. Make it valued. Make it a visible "alternative" career. Make it worthwhile, and the situation may improve.

But in the meantime...

A change in the way academia views outreach is going to take a while, and it may take even longer for science communication to become a really respected "alternative" career. In the meantime, many scientists DO do outreach. They go into schools, they give talks at bars, they talk to their friends and family. Some of them send me and other science bloggers articles (THANK YOU!! And you know, never hesitate to send me an article!) to cover, or speak out proudly in support of their work. There IS science outreach out there, and a lot of it is GREAT.

Yes, there should be more. But I think for science outreach to really make the mainstream, academia will have to change. The views on outreach will have to change. But I think, in the end, we're going to need more than the phrase "every scientist should blog". We need blogs, yes, but we also need classroom visits, lectures, and most of all, an attitude change.

57 responses so far

  • Alice Gorman says:

    A very thoughtful post. Before I became an academic, I understood the popular metaphor of the Ivory Tower to be about disconnection and lack of understanding of the real world. Now that I am one, I have a completely different view: academia cuts us off from the public because we are so beleagered there is little mental energy left to engage with the community. And, as you say, there are absolutely no incentives to do this within our wold. But - many of us do it all the same, because we love it and think it is important.

  • Aur_ora says:

    I subscribe to everything you say here – and think you said it brilliantly.

    As someone who made the move from science to science communication early in their career, I'd just also like to add that science communication/outreach, like science (and any other career, ideally), should be a labour of love. I've seen a few examples of people moving into science communication because they're disillusioned with life as scientists (and with things like that list in your post), and they believe science communication is important. But... believing something is important is different from being good at it (or enjoying doing it): I believe medical care is important, but I'd make a horrible doctor!

    Perhaps making communication/outreach a legitimate career choice would (should?) also elevate it above a simple default option for those wanting to move away from 'active' science?

    • Oo you wrote this while I was writing my reply, but I was thinking something along the same lines! I feel that science communication is tremendously important, but that people who are not born to communicate shouldn't be prevented from progressing in research because they can't talk to school kids. Personally I would love a job in science communication, but they seem few and far between!

    • Yes, I think an attitude shift in how communication/outreach positions are viewed in the scientific community would make a big difference. More broadly, I think the scientific community as a whole would do well to broaden their views of what is a legitimate scientific career -- it's not just a tenured professorship or bust. If communicators/outreach people weren't considered failed scientists (and yes, I am speaking broadly and there are plenty of exceptions to this) by many academics, I think the communicators would have a much easier time doing their jobs, which can alleviate some of the pressure on academics to do outreach.

      On the other hand, there needs to be jobs for these communicators/outreach people, and universities would do well to nuture and retain those people too.

  • I really enjoyed this thoughtful post. I like outreach a little bit too much (or so says my PI) so I sympathise with the we-can't-all-do-as-much-as-we'd-like feeling. Having said that, I haven't seen too much of the 'it's all scientists' fault' mentality. If anything, I'm a proponent of it, because I know so many people who are spectacularly anti-outreach, and I feel like I have to compensate! As you say, I think we need an establishment wide attitude change if outreach is to become more the norm.

  • Well said. As a relative newcomer to public engagement, I feel your pain! Your list of jobs that come before outreach is all too familiar...

    I don't think anyone could plausibly argue that blogging is the (only) answer. There are many avenues available for successful public engagement, and it's important that they are all represented. Homogeneity isn't a good thing and each scientist needs to find their own niche.

    In the process of getting involved more in outreach, I've had two of my own realisations.

    1) Markers of demonstrable impact due to outreach can count (big) in the UK REF, so are potentially highly valuable to academia. Scientists doing outreach in the UK should take care to install measures of impact where possible (e.g. attitude change, public understanding etc.). Then their departments - and they themselves - can benefit from the hard work.

    2) I like the idea of scientists teaming up with professionals/academics in science communication/journalism and working out betters ways to communicate. So not just communicating their science but studying the machine itself and making it work better.

  • See Arr Oh says:

    Keep on keeping on! It's a long slog, but communicators like yourself make science more fun for everyone.

  • lab rat says:

    As someone who actually works full time as a science-communicator, I was rather insulted at the idea that my job could be easily done on a part time basis by busy science researchers.

    SciCom is a career and it exists for a reason!

    • Scicurious says:

      YES! I think it'd be great if more people went into scicomm as an "alternative" career.* I think it's cool to see active research scientists doing outreach so people can really see that scientists are people, but I think that really getting the word out on a consistent basis is something we need people for full time. Like you. :)

      *I say "alternative" because with 80% of us not going to get a TT job...well it's not exactly alternative.

  • hapsci says:

    What gets my back up is that scientists are told they should spend (mostly their own time) doing science outreach as it is 'their responsibility' and is 'good'. However, as you say it is not integrated properly into a scientists role and often it becomes something that is done outside of a working day by people that want to do it. Now, I think communication of project should be properly built in to any project that is funded by tax payers, or charitable organisations.. but what about those that are funded by industry, why should they bother?

    I also strongly disagree with the view of many people that ALL scientists should be forced in to connecting with the public. They all should have the opportunity to connect and those that do (and do it properly and well) should be recognised properly for it. They also shouldn't be penalised for it, or in some cases have to hide the fact that they do it from their supervisors and lab colleagues!

    Only by properly recognising communicators and allowing them to develop will we get better science communication and outreach. It does take careful planning, thought and a lot of time - people need to be supported and given the resources to do it.

    Token efforts are of no use to anyone.

    some U.K universities have now signed a 'public engagement manifesto' that you can see here - http://www.publicengagement.ac.uk/why-does-it-matter/manifesto

    I posted in reaction to the public engagement manifesto http://sciencehastheanswer.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/recognising-public-engagement.html

    and a bit about 'why should people get involved' http://sciencehastheanswer.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/why-get-involved-in-public-engagement.html

    It's complicated, and takes a combination of people to get it right.. communicators, scientists, museums, local councils, universities, media outlets, journalists and bloggers..

  • Stefany Sit says:

    I am currently a PhD student studying geophysics and have become increasingly interested in science communication and public outreach. I agree with Chris that scientists need to start studying the topic of science communication and I believe that it should even start at the undergraduate level. Effective communication is a difficult skill and I think the public's speculation of climate change, evolution, etc. tells us we need to be doing something different.

  • Katie PhD says:

    Hi Sci,

    I feel like there are a few points I need to make, since you linked to a post of mine with the text "It's the scientists fault". The goal of my piece was not to infer that, merely to realize that we have to accept a portion of the blame for the way science is perceived and the sorry state of science literacy in this country (and others). Of course it's not all the scientists fault. And of course "blogging is not the answer", again, that was not my main point.

    The thing is...it's kind of chicken and egg, right? No University is going to pay someone to do sci comms for them unless they know its going to have an effect on the University, primarily by bringing in income. So the FIRST STEP (not the only step) is to show people that we care enough to communicate our science in some way or other. If it's a blog, cool. Maybe it's a few tweets here or there. Maybe it's starting up a science cafe. Personally, I started blogging with an ulterior motive; to figure out if I could handle or succeed in a career in sci comms (cc Lab Rat; kudos you, jobs in sci comms are hard to come by. I apologize if you felt insulted by anything I said. When you said "the idea that my job could be easily done on a part time basis by busy science researchers." my stomach churned because you are absolutely right! It can't be) and because I realized no one was going to pay me to do something I had no proof that I could do. But I soon realized that blogging and the social media are powerful tools of influence, if used in the right way. SImilarly, who's going to pay someone to do PR for the biology department if they haven't proved its helpful?

    So, if we want academia to change, and the perception of science to change, who else is going to do it but us? Who else is going to take time out of their busy day (scientists are not the only busy people on the planet) to make a difference? I honestly don't know.

    Or perhaps I am entirely off base, and we should just stick with the status quo...

    • Scicurious says:

      Hi Katie! I didn't mean to be insulting or anything! I liked your post, and I love what you do for science communication. In fact I TOTALLY agreed with all your points on what we should try and how things should change. I in fact meant to link to your post further down again to highlight some of your solutions, I'll edit that in.

      And yes, it is very chicken and egg. We need unis to agree to hire science communicators, but who will prove they are effective first? I think to some extent we are already getting there, with people doing outreach in their free time and seeing the effects of it, but we have to convince the unis to PAY for other people to do it as well. I hope that more scientists will also go into careers for science outreach (like the AAAS science and technology policy fellowships). But I also think that we need to make it clear that these careers are not LESS THAN. We need to bring about more of an attitude adjustment and get away from the status quo of seeing outreach at "those who can't do". First off, we all know that's ridiculous, and secondly, I think it will become more and more important as we have to fight harder and harder for funding.

      So I guess what I'm trying to convey is that I think we need more reward for outreach, to convince more people to get involved, and we need to push for more jobs in outreach. But this requires more than just scientists, it requires the admin and current communicators and others.

      • Katie PhD says:

        Looks like we are on the same page :)

        Absolutely reward for outreach is important. For now it seems that reward is career advancement outside of the tenure track route. Some outreach programs, such as project ARISE here in RI, do offer grad students monetary compensation for teaching lab classes in high schools and offering teachers lesson plan assistance. I am not entirely sure if the same is true for post-doc outreach.

        And you make a great point. The idea that a career in communications (or anything outside of research) is often considered less than by those within academia is unfortunately rife. Although it's only a personal anecdote, and we all know that n=1 is meaningless, I have started to see this attitude change by "coming out" as a blogger and twitterer in the department. What was originally disdain has morphed into curiosity at worst and encouragement at best. Baby steps!

  • Suzie says:

    A thoughtful post, so here's my two cents.

    I've always done outreach alongside research, I started doing outreach when I was an undergrad and have never stopped, although I've had to reduce the time spent doing it as my career has progressed. The wonderful thing is that so far it has demonstrably helped my career in science, rather than hindered it. As an undergraduate (in Australia) and postgraduate (in the UK) I got to know the senior faculty really well through doing outreach -- and you can never underestimate the importance of someone knowing your name. Years later I get emails out of the blue recommending that I apply for prestigious fellowships because people *remember* who I am and what I work on -- outreach is a profile raising activity, why does no-one ever mention that?

    Having a reputation for being able to communicate well means I am often invited to give talks about my research - hell, I've been asked to give talks about other people's research just because they knew I'd give a good talk! As an early-career researcher this is a massive advantage.

    Outreach is something that I expect to do alongside my research and other duties as a scientist. It is something I make time for. But it's something that needs the right academic environment. I've never once been told I couldn't do an outreach event.

    So trust me, the system *is* changing, there are top UK academic institutions where outreach is highly valued and while faculty positions are obviously still based on research, I think many places are now starting to see a good track record of outreach as a bit of an X-factor -- something that not many scientists have. I certainly wouldn't imagine that my experience in outreach will be a hindrance in my career, and if someone thinks it is I'm certainly not going to take their job!

    Outreach which is done *well* and has a demonstrated impact will be rewarded in the upcoming REF as someone else pointed out. But I would do it even if it wasn't - the personal and career-related benefits are more than worth it.

  • DNLee says:

    I'm standing up cheering loudly for this post...and the linked posts, too. Thank you for sharing them.

    The truth is, there is rumbling in science academia right now. Early career scientists like us - you, me, and those you referenced - are members of a movement who are increasingly tired of fighting with our academic predecessors.

    We're tired of the status quo that can feel unfair, unwelcoming and unappreciative of younger/creative/innovative/inventive talent. Science academia is wanting/expecting each of us to be perfectly adept a doing EVERYTHING perfectly...well everything but having a personal life. And being good Generation X/Y-ers that we are, we're not buying that crap.

    It's exhausting and unfair and isn't getting us/society anywhere. People are still getting left out and excluded from science and new opportunities. It's not scientists fault. We know that; but it is the culture of science's fault and I sense a culture shift on the horizon. And interestingly, I think NSF/NIH is to blame - with their NSF GK-12 program, broader impact requirements, higher pay for fellowships, and open access requirements...

    Yep, the old guard is sensing a change in power and pushing back - telling folks who want to do or those who are are good at science outreach/teaching that they are wasting time or attention hogs......

    Winter's coming.... (LOL)

  • I agree wholeheartedly with this post. I think outreach is sometimes rewarded (I recall sitting on a hiring committee, and a candidate's outreach work stood out very positively to almost all of the committee members), but it's certainly not institutionally recompensed. So academics don't have time/resources to do it, which leads to more hand-wringing by the university and the public, which leads to more pressure on academics but no resources...

    I'm hoping that the relatively recent explosion of science blogs shows that there is an appetite for good science communication amongst the public, and universities would do well to prioritize sci coms (ie, with dedicated staff who're paid well and have access to relevant resources). If nothing else, it puts their university in a good light and gives them some free press.

  • KateClancy says:

    Thanks for writing this and getting such a great conversation started Sci! I have so many thoughts swirling around as a result of your post and this comment thread that I think I may need to write a post on it myself...

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    Back in the Lower Cretaceous, I was a tenured university faculty member, doing teaching, research, and service, as good little professors are said to do. A good bit of my teaching was general education biology, biology for music majors, so to speak. I introduced myself to each new class with a short slide show about my research. This is outreach within academia, and I could construct an argument that teaching a general education course well was more important than teaching my ichthyology course well. Fact is, of course, both must be taught well. When evaluating productivity at the department level, the university was much more impressed by service course student credit hour numbers than they were by major course student credit hours numbers.

    I've probably spoken at more aquarium society meetings than any thing else. I've done a couple of TV appearances, had several PR releases in local newspapers, and made a couple of parent/student banquet presentations.

    Anyway, I read the blogs, and am glad I retired in 1997.

  • I think everything you said is tremendously important, and it's such a shame that academia still frowns on outreach after decades have passed since the immensely successful Carl Sagan who was nevertheless looked down upon back then.

    However, I also think that we mustn't overestimate the good that science outreach can actually achieve. When you look around, there is already quite a lot of outreach, so how much is needed before the public starts coming around? I don't think more outreach is really the answer to the problem. The reason why the public is so illiterate is not because of a lack of science communication, but because the education system fails students in the classroom, because politics is overrun with the wilfully ignorant, and because people believe that they have to reject science in order to keep their faith.

    If we want a real culture change, we don't just need scientists - we need people in positions of power who understand the importance of science, and we need to either win the war against religion, or get the zealots in charge of churches to stop preaching against science.

    • "The reason why the public is so illiterate is not because of a lack of science communication, but because the education system fails students in the classroom, because politics is overrun with the wilfully ignorant, and because people believe that they have to reject science in order to keep their faith."

      YES. (Though there's lots of people of faith who're fully on board with science.) Example A: Canada's federal Minister of Science and Technology doesn't believe in evolution (or, at the very least, has the hedgiest of understandings of it).

  • [...] recently identified exactly where the whole “all scientists need to get off their butts and do outreach” meme [...]

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  • Ellis says:

    This is a great post. I switched fields and went back to school to become a science writer. I've seen friends and colleagues get PhDs and know that life is not for me. I love science, I love learning about science, and I love writing. I don't love doing research. I think your idea about having official job posts for science communicators is great, and if implemented would take a lot of pressure off scientists. Those who want to communicate with the public still can; all I'd ask from the rest is to be willing to share their research with writers who've been trained to understand it and who can do the job of communicating it effectively.

  • I also think you've made great points on both the value of science outreach and the difficulties involved in doing it. I approach this from a different angle -- I'm *not* a scientist yet, but I'm working on it! My approach thus far is to celebrate my amateur status and make no move to hide it, instead focusing on the process of learning and trying to give useful hints to others like me. I don't exactly have readership, so it's hard to gauge how well that approach works, but I have gotten some good feedback on it from one or two sources.

    Lately I've found myself wondering how to get more deeply involved, both in the learning department and in getting more involved in the greater scientific community. This has led me to wonder what the best way is to engage with the greater community as a learner? Reading blogs (and writing them) and interacting there is one facet. Trawling MeetUp for local gatherings is another. Volunteering is something I'm just starting to look into, but opportunities look pretty limited so far.

    As folks with an interest in science outreach, what do you recommend to those of us more on the side of being reached out to than doing the reaching? What are the ways that people can go beyond consuming the outreach and really participate?

    I'm certainly not expecting a screed, but some hints would be greatly appreciated. :)

  • Clifford Clark says:

    There is another real problem with outreach that stops many of us (scientists) from doing more. (I am a research scientist myself.) You may be familiar with David Suzuki, Canada's most famous and most respected purveyor of science. He began as an academic working on fruit fly genetics at the University of British Columbia, but for a long time has been a broadcaster with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) whose mandate and passion has been to bring high quality science to the Canadian public in an accessible and entertaining fashion. At an international meeting in Vancouver, B.C. he spoke to us about his experiences. At one point he discussed some of the challenges of trying to get science across to the public. He said that he quite frequently had people come up to him and tell him something quite scientifically wrong or nonsensical and said they had seen or heard it on his show. He would respectfully but somewhat wryly ask if they were sure; more often than not they would say something like, "Or was that on Dallas?" The point is, there is a significant portion of the population that does not have the educational background or the critical thinking tools to really understand scientific concepts or incorporate them into their world view. Or perhaps there is just such a lack of interest that no real effort is made. To Dr. Suzuki's credit, he has continued his crusade to educate the public about science to this day, apparently unfazed by the challenges therein. For those of us who are more completely absorbed in doing our day jobs, however, it is difficult to find the energy and resilience to continue. I do continue to post a lot of science articles from Scientific American, Discover, and Science Daily to my Facebook friends, often with comments. Many are extremely well written posts from professional science writers. Perhaps this is an appropriate model for some of us tired old buggers?

  • This is a great post. I run a blog based on my research (http://www.caterpillar-eyespots.blogspot.ca) but I sometimes struggle to keep regular and good quality posts for very similar reasons to the ones you indicated as priorities over outreach. I really like blogging about my research, but research has to come first. I also agree with your point regarding other means of outreach (blogging is not for everyone). Increasingly, I am looking towards possible careers in science outreach as possible job options, if/when it is not possible to continue within academia. I am attending a conference in Ottawa this July (Evolution 2012) and there is a workshop on "Communicating Science to Society" (http://www.confersense.ca/Evolution2012/workshops.htm). The list of speakers is reasonable impressive. Hopefully we can discuss some of the issues you raised here.

  • [...] Scicurious and Kate Clancy recently shared some interesting thoughts about science outreach. Sci was pointing out that scientists have a lot on their plates, and being held accountable for not reaching out to the public doesn’t make sense when all the incentives in science (getting a job, keeping a job) either ignore science outreach or actively discourage it. Kate riffed off of KatiePhD’s comment that science outreach is a chicken and the egg problem. It won’t get rewarded until it gets done (and people can see it’s value), and it won’t get done until it is rewarded (and people find it valuable). Kate shared some of the reasons why, as an early career scientist, she finds her blogging and outreach efforts helpful. [...]

  • [...] This post from the researcher and blogger Scicurious sounds a similar note: If you seem overly interested in outreach (or even in college teaching in some fields), you are not just odd. Your priorities are out of whack. No one ever got a faculty position based on outreach. I have seen colleagues get dinged in promotion meetings for too much time spent doing outreach. The unspoken implication is clear: If you’re doing outreach, you must not be doing science. [...]

  • [...] One of the best blog articles I recently read deals with the problems scientists face when they are interested in public outreach. Scicurious perfectly summarizes our situation. [...]

  • [...] ambitions, I have a few cents I’d like to toss into the ring. The flurry got kicked off by Scicurious’s and Kate Clancy’s excellent posts, but there’s lots going on on Twitter too. Miriam [...]

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  • [...] On Outreach: something’s got to give by scicurious [...]

  • [...] On Outreach: something’s got to give by scicurious [...]

  • [...] Scolds FDA Over Ag Antibiotic Use Invest Money to Unclog the Traffic Jam of Postdocs On Outreach: something’s got to give Introducing career streams into academic research How Our Genetic Maps Are Being Sold to the [...]

  • Paul Krombholz says:

    Let's look at the other side---the anti-science people. How do they do it? Do they tell their anti-science buddies, "You ought to be doing more outreach."? Hardly! Instead, they throw money, very large amounts of money, to get their outreach (propaganda) out. They pay professional propagandists lavishly to start up organizations of the uneducated and to whip up sentiment. This includes support of media networks like Fox News. It includes scores of propaganda think tanks and phony publishers who publish phony journals and produce phony books for the public. They fund groups like ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) that craft anti-science bills and anti-education bills and then lavishly reward state legislators to pass them. They spend hundreds of millions to get their propaganda out. It is a big money operation.

    How are ernest graduate students and overworked and underpaid professors going to effectively oppose this kind of massive onslaught? Forget individual outreach efforts! We need big private money help and/or big government help and lots of it!

  • Bob says:

    Clearly it should be senior faculty doing the outreach... not overworked postdocs or junior faculty running the pre-tenure ratrace. They are the ones in the best position to have a "big picture" grasp of how a piece of work relates to other fields and society, as well as the ability to offer insights from a historical perspective (think "the day the universe changed", but with real science in it).

  • Lauren Meyer says:

    This whole post is beautiful. I so agree with every word. I was even inspired to write my second-ever blog post about it :)

    http://mattertomorrow.blogspot.com/2012/06/where-have-i-been-or-science-outreachs.html

  • [...] can be done? A number of ideas are out there. Scicurious has a great post on the subject, including some discussion about the long-term need for academia to formally embrace [...]

  • Sugel says:

    With U.S. science and math test scores lagging behind those of other countries, science communication is a hot topic. Since the mid-1990s, for example, any researcher receiving a National Science Foundation grant must explain how their research will affect the public, including plans for outreach and teaching .

  • Dario Ringach says:

    Yes, it is our fault.

    "Outreach is not what we're paid for."

    Asking money from congress is not what scientists are paid for either... but I see a much more energetic response from the scientific community when it comes to write to congress saying that we need more funds for research.

    If you can find time to fit this within your list... then you can find time to write one blog a year about your research.

    The point is simple. It is the scientist job (and duty) to communicate the importance of the scientific work and why is that we should do it. If the public does not hear from you, if the public does not understand science, it simply will not support it.

    Here is a recommendation -- instead of asking for an annual progress report, funding agencies should require PIs to write web posting to, in lay terms, what is that they are doing, why and to describe their latest findings.

    • scicurious says:

      ...this is a really good point. I guess I just kind of assume at this point that getting funding money IS what scientists are paid for. :)

      I think for me the best example I've seen of this problem is this: I was talking to a colleague about sending a paper to a journal. I mentioned open access. He thought for a moment, and then said "but isn't there a submission charge?". When he heard their was...his response was "well i'm not PAYING FOR THAT!!!"

      It never occurred to him that he DOES pay for that. He pays for it in overheard which goes to the libraries which pay the high fees of the journals. He pays when he can't get access to his own published work. But it never occurred to him, the only cost he could see was the one up front.

      I think outreach is in a similar situation. People don't SEE the costs of not doing it. What they see is the costs, the upfront pay, and they don't see that when they don't do that, they pay for it in other ways, in lack of trust for their profession, in budget cuts, and in the ignorance of the population.

    • John Bruno says:

      Actually Dario, "Asking money from congress" is precisely what academic scientists are paid for. Bringing in grant dollars, is for most research institutions, the number 1 job of a research scientist. The entire incentive system is geared towards rewarding success in getting $ from uncle sam and there is zero reward for outreach.

      It is in fact not the job nor duty of a TT research scientist to communicate @ science with the public.

      I do a ton of outreach. Daily. And I wish it were different but it isn't.

      And I feel exactly like scicurious.

  • [...] week, when I wrote a post about science outreach and some of the issues facing the academic community, I wasn't expecting quite so much of an explosion. I was hoping for some good discussion, and boy [...]

  • [...] ambitions, I have a few cents I’d like to toss into the ring. The flurry got kicked off by Scicurious’s and Kate Clancy’s excellent posts, and Cedar Riener weighed in on it shortly afterward, but [...]

  • [...] pressure to publish, find funding and shoulder more responsibilities within academic circles, I can’t say I totally blame them. But just like those in academia have (mostly) accepted and embraced other technologies, I’m [...]

  • [...] good work, and how to bring their work to a new audience in an entertaining fashion.  Inspired by this article, it became clear that I have to do more than just talk and consult.  Enter the news that Google+ [...]

  • [...] tongue in cheek dribbles I’m writing. But, I am trying to get a point across. As presented by scicurious, professors and grad students have a lot on their plate. It is about time we engage [...]

  • [...] they just need to, you know, submit two grants per cycle instead of one, and well aware that they do not get anything professionally out of giving a TED talk. Scientists get no direct benefits from sci comm, making the long-term [...]

  • […] tongue in cheek dribbles I’m writing. But, I am trying to get a point across. As presented by scicurious, professors and grad students have a lot on their plate. It is about time we engage […]

  • […] recently identified exactly where the whole “all scientists need to get off their butts and do outreach” meme […]

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