Science Communication: A sort-of-kind-of Carnival, and some more thoughts of mine

Jun 13 2012 Published by under Academia, Activism

Last 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 did I get it, in the form of comments and blog posts and tweets (heck, SONYC even did a panel, though I think that was coincidental). So I decided to put together a collection of some of the posts, in the hopes of establishing a little bit of a flow and context for my own thoughts. I started this as a kind of carnival, but it ended up being more about how my thought process was working in this. But it's still chock full of links! If I've missed anyone, please chime in in the comments in and let me know and I'd be glad to add you in!


The recently outreach conversations have come together from several separate streams. First, there's the excellent Soapbox Science series over at Nature (for a roundup of their posts, go here) which has been collecting a series of guest posts talking about the sad state of science outreach, and the pros and cons of pursuing it. It's a great series and well worth clicking through the list.

Secondly, there was the science communication session held at Experimental Biology, where scientists and media representatives joined together to talk about speaking out in science. One of the main issues that came from this session was the idea, spoken from the scientific point of view, that too much outreach (especially blogging), is bad self-promotion.

And finally, there have been recent calls on opinion pages for scientists to get online. That it is our job and our duty to do science communication, and failures of science communication are actually all our fault for our elitism and ivory-towerness.

It was this last that finally inspired my post. I, along with other academic bloggers, are starting to get a little tired of always being to blame, and always being on the hook for science outreach. Don't get me wrong, science communication online is incredibly important. I think those who want to do it should do so, and there have been great posts with resources for how to get started.

But while we can and should reach out where we can, it's not the only answer, and we're not always to blame. First of all, science outreach is not something we get paid or promoted for. It is quite literally not in our job description, and while it's nice icing, it better not be your cake. Scientists are hired and fired based on their ability to get grants, to get money for the their university, and to have a big lab that has many grad students and postdocs. Blogging is not anywhere on there. There are exceptions, of course. Some scientists are beginning to be able to use blogging to help their own careers, and outreach and online media are embraced by many smaller liberal arts colleges. It can't further your career directly, but you can gain skills and a network. But in the meantime, many big research institutions still consider too much outreach to be a problem of priorities. I know many people who want to do outreach or teaching, and have been actively discouraged from doing so. I hope that this is changing, but I think that calls to blog will go over most establishment scientists' heads.

Secondly, to state that only scientists getting on the internet is going to help our outreach problem? It discounts the excellent efforts of the many professional science communicators out there. As more people realize that science communication is important, more scientists and science writers find themselves becoming science communicators. Professional ones. I think that's a great thing and something that shouldn't be glossed over by efforts to pry scientists out of the ivory tower.

Finally, it should be noted that there's more than one kind of outreach. Outreach even to other scientists outside your own field can have benefits. That's outreach, too! Outreach in person at schools, doing fun science experiments on the sidewalk, all of these are outreach, even if you're not keeping an online lab notebook or tweeting your p<0.05. Scientists can actively engage in the media by cultivating good relationships with trustworthy journalists or by keeping a good webpage.

In conclusion? I think science outreach has a long way to go. I think we currently do what we can in our free time (and it's great!!), but we will need more. And so we need to encourage science communicators. We need to promote them in academia, not discount them for their efforts or look skeptically at how it might affect their research. We need to promote professional science communicators and create more jobs for them. We need to reach out to all kinds of audiences, whether that be children, adults, other scientists, or just the person you see walking their dog in the morning. And we need to keep in mind that science outreach is a multi-faceted endeavor, and that we need to encourage all sides (even those who prefer not to do science outreach), to make science communication and outreach better.

But in the meantime, I LOVE the idea proposed by Matt Shipman: finding out what we, as scientists, NEED to make outreach an option. There's some great ideas already forming in the comments. I personally think that the first thing we need is recognition for outreach. Give us, say, a fellowship or two, awards that come with money (travel awards, for example), or other awards that look good on a CV. There are a few of these around, but many people don't even apply for them because they...don't really mean anything.

And that's the second step: we need to make them mean something. We need the PIs who read our CVs to count teaching and outreach as being important. This may be hard to bring about, most PIs want people in their labs who are good at research, they want to hire new faculty who get the grants. But we need to make this stuff count and it won't count until the higher-ups take it serious. Interestingly, I find what makes people see things as serious is comes with money attached. PIs would LOVE to know there are fellowships that have part time outreach components, say, that pay for a post-doc. Offer a little money and everyone will listen.

Edited to add: I posted a comment in response to a comment on my first post, and I think it sums up a lot of the problems we face when we deal with outreach:

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.

So maybe the best way to promote to both reward people, and show people how much we PAY for not doing it. I'm not sure how we can do that, though. 🙁

15 responses so far

  • Sam says:

    By a (somewhat) strange coincidence, I started a blog recently called Forest Azuaron that focuses on educating fiction writers about science. The better science we have in our books, movies, and TV shows, the better the average person will understand science.

  • Thanks for this, Sci. It is great to have these links provided in a contextually relevant fashion. And yes, you are right - SoNYC was coincidental! We had this thing planned for several months ahead of time, but we did coordinate this meeting with the #reachingoutsci Soapbox Science series, which included posts from myself, Katie Pratt, and others (you've linked to them, thanks!!!).

    However, coincidental or not, we all seem to be thinking the same thoughts and I am glad that the metaphorical shit hit the fan seemingly all at the same time. I'd like to keep this momentum going and start thinking about ways to improve this situation, AND THEN IMPLEMENT THEM! (or at least try them out!). During the SoNYC meeting on June 7th, my co-panelist Ethan Perlstein described this time as a precambrian explosion of sorts - there will be a lot of ideas put forward, and, inevitably, some will fail. But we won't know until we try. So now that we've outlined WHAT is wrong, let's start foaming at the mouth and get ideas out there.

    Maybe this means that we all promise one hour of taking to the sidewalks, or ten minutes of Facetiming/Skyping with a classroom. Or maybe this means something more official. If we can get scientists and science enthusiasts to commit to what they are comfortable with, we can take this discussion offline.

    So how can we mobilize these sciencey folks to get out there, especially with no tangible incentive?


  • clarification: I realize it might not have been clear - SoNYC and the #reachingoutsci posts were, in fact, coordinated (thanks to the brilliant Lou Woodley). What was coincidental was the fact that other similar conversations were happening, including yours and others.

  • clarification: I realize it might not have been clear - SoNYC and the #reachingoutsci posts were, in fact, coordinated (thanks to the brilliant Lou Woodley). What was coincidental (?) was the fact that other similar conversations were happening, including yours and others.

  • Zuska says:

    When universities/departments start requiring (& rewarding) outreach for tenure, PI's will suddenly discover its virtues & become experts at it & train their postdocs to carry it out for them.

  • My co-blogger on Symbiartic, Kalliopi Monoyios has posted a response.

  • Zuska says:

    In other words, what is needed is institutional transformation. The efforts of individuals here & there are laudable but won't change the structure everyone operates within. The leaders need to get on board & require it.

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  • ben tippett says:

    Oh, blogging.
    you know what media is super-well suited to science outreach? radio! and since radio is too much of a pain in the butt, we should move towards SCIENCE PODCASTING instead.

    it's an intimate format,
    it allows the scientist to communicate their enthusiasm on their own terms,
    it allows people interested in learning more science to enjoy it when they are walking their dogs, or driving their cars, or washing the dishes!

    for a good demonstration of all the ways scientists can bring science down off the mountain, consider the brachiolope media network . It's popular science where they've cut out the middlman!

    since no one is going to click that link, I'll give you the rundown.
    Science... sort of is a popular science show as much as it is a science culture show. a bunch of scientists sit down and chat about and explain science in the news, in an engaging and conversational way.

    The Weekly Weinersmith is a show where the two hosts sit down with a different scientist each week to talk for an hourish about their research and interests. It's in-depth and fascinating! It gives you a sense of what scientists are actually working on.

    The Titanium Physicists Podcast is a show focussing less on cutting edge physics (no string theory), and more well established graduate level physics. each show, the explanations are aimed towards a non-physicist guest, who then asks questions and demands clarification. topics are truly mindblowing, including: how sound waves in the early universe seeded the distribution of galaxies we see today, how the solar magneto causes sunspots, and how superfluids do their thing.

    the moral of the story is that podcasts can use conversation rather than just lecture style explanations to teach and popularize science. It'll definitely catch on!

  • Isis the Scientist says:

    Ohhhhh have I got a piece for you.....

  • ilovebraaains says:

    I am still in grad school, but I always thought that you needed to show some type of science outreach/communication etc. experience when you applied for grants (maybe in applicant bio section or broader impacts?). Is this true?

    • scicurious says:

      Well yes, for NSF grants you do. Many people get away with just nominal "I'll bring in some kids once a year" kinds of things, and that is deemed plenty. And many departments actually skew their outreach specifically toward getting more students to come to their department for grad school, which may or may not be a good thing, but tends toward a very limited kind of outreach.

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