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.
(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.
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
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.
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.