Communicating science to the public: some researchers love it, some less so, and most find it difficult to make the time. And, yet, a packed session at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science highlighted the reasons why it is ever more important, while participants shared strategies to make it happen. Although a major overhaul of the evaluation system in academics is surely needed, there are feasible ways for individual scientists to bring their research out into the world.
This article also exists in French ("Sortir la science de sa tour d'ivoire"), translated by Timothée Froelich.
(Flickr / D.H. Parks)
This past weekend in Boston, at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a session on scientific outreach drew a crowd that spilled out of the room and into the hall. Called “Strategies for Engaging Outside the Ivory Tower and How To Find the Time To Do It” (#aaasbeit), the panel discussed ways in which scientists can better connect with the public, how their and their institutions’ attitudes need to change and, importantly, how they can find the time to make outreach an integral part of their scholarship.
The Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, for one, is keenly aware of the importance of interaction between science and society; it is fundamental to their mission to find breakthrough solutions that will let us meet the needs of humanity, while preserving the well being of Earth’s systems. To achieve this, the Institute knows that collaboration at all levels, from the local to the global, is necessary. Its Leopold Leadership Program, presented at AAAS by Leah Gerber, provides training to create effective leaders and to turn knowledge into action. Stanford researcher Liz Hadly explained that the Leopold program “teaches that leadership includes listening, not dictating, leadership in many different ways.” One method does not trump all others; Leopold researchers need to know how to adapt when interacting with different populations. As panel member and University of Notre Dame scientist Jessica Hellman expressed it, “being the expert used to be what was more valued. We need to value being more participatory.”
One tool for leading through interaction that was discussed in the session and is used by Leopold fellows is Storymaps. These are interactive maps that allow you to recount a project, in its geographical context. What’s happening, where, when and who’s doing it can all be told by these maps. The Leopold fellows use them to interact with their local community and with each other. As Katja Bargum, biologist and press officer at the University of Helsinki, tweeted from the “Beyond the Ivory Tower” session, “Outreach enhances scientists' understanding of the public, not only public understanding of science.”
Academia needs (lots of) new metrics
A major point of resistance on the part of scientists to increasing their outreach is the sense that it’s not recognized. Ecologist Karen Lips tweeted a partial explanation: “outreach is #interdisciplinary by nature, and academia struggles with giving full credit for this.” There is little incentive, then, for researchers to take time away from their “real” work. Communicating one’s science to the public, satisfying as it might be, amounts to volunteer work.
It seems clear that, if outreach efforts are to be valued, the measure—even the definition—of scholarship will have to evolve. Senior PLOS Biology editor and freelance writer Liza Gross observed that this transformation is “parallel to #openaccess mvmt. Reward systems must change, starting at grant/tenure level.” Numerous participants retweeted their support for the notion that outreach should be considered a fundamental part of scholarship, and that training for this should be provided. In response to science writer B. Rose Huber’s question on how public information officers can help scientists find time for outreach, Karen James wrote that they should lobby department and university heads to include outreach in their hiring and tenure decisions. The audience was also enthusiastic to learn about an award given in Germany that “recognizes scientists and academics who have communicated their research findings to the public with exceptional success.”
Clearing the time hurdle
Recognition and support will help to change the culture of science and society from separate entities, to something that flows back and forth between the two. But, as Andy Freeberg tweeted, “Scientist outreach training improved comms skill & effectiveness, but not time or efficiency.” The time hurdle remains a high one. Attendees of the AAAS session learned that even Leopold Leadership fellows, who are in full support of reaching out to the public, may have trouble squeezing in more than one hour per month.
One of the most telling statistics that came out of the discussion showed that, contrary to what most scientists believe, taking the time to do outreach does not reduce productivity; it either doesn’t hurt or can even increase it. Jonathan Pritchard, however, pointed out in the Twitter conversation that “This article seems to show that successful scientists also do outreach, not that doing outreach brings success.” Does this reflect, then, an innate quality of certain scientists, blessed with superhuman time management skills, who are able to do it all? Or, is it analogous to ocean scientist Dawn Wright's high school experience: “I got the best grades when I was on the basketball team, because I was motivated to be more productive.”
It’s likely a bit of both. Either way, the argument for finding ways to interact with and listen to the public remains strong. As Lou Woodley reminded us on Twitter, “Finding out what people need means you can go back and be a leader within your own institution.”
Find out more:
Storify of "AAAS: The Beauty and Benefits of Escaping the Ivory Tower", by @IceAgeEcologist, Jack Williams
"AAAS-Inspired Science Communication Commandments", compiled by @SnarkyScientist
Bridging the Gap Between Scientists and Policy Makers: Whither Geospatial?
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