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 if…it 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 outreach…is 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. 🙁