Don't let scientists off the hook quite so fast

July 16, 2009

While wallowing in the murkily polluted wading pool* that is the blogospheric discussion of Unscientific America, I noticed that Uncertain Chad and Aunt Janet have returned to the more fundamental, and therefore more interesting, question. It touches on the larger topic of OpenAccess Science, the Congressional mandate for deposition of NIH-funded manuscripts in PubMed Central and yes, Obama’s inagural call to restore science to its rightful place.

First up, Janet Stemwedel opined:

Let us pause for the already overburdened scientists in the audience to take a deep breath.
In addition to the research, the grant writing, the manuscript drafting, the student training, the classroom teaching, the paper and grant refereeing, and the always rewarding committee work, academic scientists should be working hard to communicate with the public, to generate their own science news for public distribution, to advise filmmakers, and to get politically active.

Throwing these additional communication, outreach, and lobbying tasks on every scientist’s shoulders seems a little nuts (unless we can give them each eight more hours per day to accomplish these additional tasks).

Next, Chad Orzel suggested:

When I say that we as scientists need to do something, I am saying that the scientific community needs to do these things. The best way to do that is almost certainly to free up those scientists with an aptitude and an inclination to speak to a broad public to do that. Some people will be good at this, and they should be encouraged to run with that. Other scientists will not be good at outreach, or won’t be interested in doing outreach, and they can hunker down in their labs and offices and leave the media stuff to others.

Not so fast, my friends, not so fast. I think it is an error to shift outreach onto communications professionals (with scientific background) or to perpetuate excuse-making on the part of the most active research scientists.
Now admittedly, in a sense they are both correct…and indeed they both identify the need to alter academic crediting so as to motivate outreach behavior. Yes, it is important to get the career contingencies in place so that certain desired behaviors are not heavily punished. Sure, top-down solutions help and are eventually required- institutional promotions committees would, ultimately, HAVE to recognize outreach as a legitimate activity or this isn’t going anywhere. However….this is a massive cop-out.
The community of science is made up of the scientists themselves. So when Chad attempts to refer to some “other” people in the community of science…I just don’t get it. Mostly because we scientists don’t like communications professionals screwing up the communication of our science. Well, if we don’t like it we have to shoulder some of the burden ourselves instead of whinging about how lame the journalists are. So I would prefer to work more towards facilitating outreach from regular old workaday scientists than I would towards creating new communication job types.
It helps my optimism to find a circular from the AAAS in my email box which includes a relevant note from AAAS CEO Alan Leshner.

Dear AAAS Member,
As we advance international scientific cooperation, science policy and funding, and science education and careers, we also strive to advance the professional value of your AAAS membership.
To enhance our communication with you, and your communication with your fellow members, we have been building our presence on various online social media networks.
AAAS hosts groups and fan pages on Facebook that are freely accessible to both members and others who share an interest in science. AAAS staff members moderate lively discussions and answer a range of questions. Within the AAAS group, you’ll find fan pages for many of our individual programs, such as the journal Science, Science Careers, ScienceNOW, EurekAlert!, and ENTRY POINT!.
LinkedIn, a professional network, creates a virtual rolodex for AAAS members around the globe, and provides a forum for discussion and job postings. A separate group connects current and former AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows.
Twitter facilitates quick updates, or text-based tweets for breaking news from Science and ScienceNOW, and live reports from events hosted by Science Careers.
Both AAAS and Science have channels on YouTube for the posting of selected association and research-related videos.
I invite you to find out more about these groups and to join your colleagues online. See the connections list below for direct links to the various groups.
An important aspect of the AAAS mission is to enhance communication and engagement among scientists, engineers, and the public. Thank you, as a member of AAAS, for your support of this effort.
Alan I. Leshner, CEO, AAAS

Exactly. The AAAS isn’t letting scientists off the hook by proposing a bunch of new outreach fellows or whatnot. Valuable as they are, there is even more to be gained by getting a larger fraction of the greater scientific pool to chip in. I should note that I am just starting to see or hear of similar mutterings from academic societies and even the PR departments of local Universities. It is far from a groundswell but it could be the possibility of a groundswell. So let us not start with the excuse-making and hook-letting-off quite so quickly. Those of us who are involved in some small way with outreach should rather be helping others to see how easy it can be.
Getting back to my usual hobbyhorse of careerism, I have a few thoughts. You knew I would. One of the keys is to try to ensure that while you are doing some sort of scientific outreach and putting more than casual effort into it, that you try as hard as you can to fit it into a more traditional crediting system so that you can receive credit for your efforts.
In a traditional professorial job, the opportunities are varied to fit it into your teaching mission and to “count” outreach within this mission. Bringing local educators into your lab might qualify. You might be at a University which has programs (and has hired faculty** with split responsibility) designed to do outreach- try to hook up with those efforts as you do your thing.
You can even pull this off within the traditional NIH granting process! The R25 Activity code is:

For support to develop and/or implement a program as it relates to a category in one or more of the areas of education, information, training, technical assistance, coordination, or evaluation.

So head on over to RePORTER and put “1R25%” into the Project Number search field. I just found 94 hits on such a search for the current funding year. See what sorts of projects are being funded in your area. Perhaps go to the NIH OER page and search for funding opportunities that use the R25 mechanism (I found 20 current ones). As a related note at least one of the Center mechanisms (P60 I think) has a requirement for an outreach component.
The point of this is that even within the NIH-funded system, there are ways to get funded for doing scientific outreach and/or education. In my line of employment, funding is a big part of the legitimacy of activities. Not the primary part by any means but it is….salient. So anything that you do that is within the scope of NIH-endorsed-and-funded projects gets you on the path to academic credit.
It is your responsibility to show that whatever you are doing is worthwhile but…that is always the case, nothing new there. Again, you may need to get creative to support your argument that what you are doing is worthwhile. Citations, right? Cite Obama’s inaugural address comment and the Congressional mandate as often as you can. Cite these pronouncements from AAAS or your academic societies. Opinion or Editorial bits in Science and Nature. Need the veneer of a publication to put on your CV (and who does not)? Write overviews of what you have been doing and submit them to your society journals as Short Review, Opinion, Commentary or what not.
I do agree with Chad’s fundamental point that this is not about each and every scientist being an outreach wackaloon putting in serious effort. It is about making outreach valuable (perhaps even a Tribe of Science type responsibility) and encouraging individual scientists to find their own comfort level somewhere in advance of their current behavior. The AAAS call focuses on online tools and it is certainly the case that such tools make it easy to engage in a minimal level of outreach. All we need is the minimal boot needed to get people over the activation energy hump required to sign up for Twitter, Facebook, learn how to update and expand their faculty website or start a blog.
It would help if people like Chad and Janet would stop providing excuses…
*It’s summer, I have kids. Those pools are seriously nasty at the end of the day. Seriously.
**I know of Asst Profs hired explicitly to split responsibility between traditional research and community education/outreach.

No Responses Yet to “Don't let scientists off the hook quite so fast”

  1. Alex Says:

    To some extent NSF tries to nudge people into these directions via “broader impacts.” In practice one can often shoehorn some aspect of the person’s on-campus activities into broader impact (e.g. “The PI has undergrads in the lab…”, “The PI teaches at a diverse campus and this diverse body of students will benefit from the research via….”, “The PI will disseminate some of these results in a class for non-majors…” or whatever) and for some programs the broader impact statement writes itself (“This CCLI will improve student learning…” “This REU will involve undergrads in research” “This PREM will involve under-represented students…”). Still, it provides a bit of leg up to people who are doing more than just their normal campus job.
    Also, Chad advocated for departments to actively reward people who focus significant activity on outreach even at the expense of research. One can agree or disagree with this stance (a basic science department in a med school probably by necessity must focus on basic science classes for med students and research training for PhD students) but he didn’t just say “Oh, let somebody else do it.” He said that institutions should actually change to make room for people who do it.


  2. whimple Says:

    Chad advocated for departments to actively reward people who focus significant activity on outreach even at the expense of research.
    Since what matters is that research = $, as long as outreach = $ there should be no problem. 1/2 🙂


  3. TomJoe Says:

    It seems to me that one relatively easy thing to consider is that an “interpretative summary” be appended to all articles. These summaries are written with the idea that someone not scientifically knowledgeable will read it, and that they will be able to understand it.
    If these summaries are accessible on PubMed, Scopus, and the like … that would be one form of outreach that would be very easy to implement, no?


  4. Paul Browne Says:

    Coming just after your post on the Hayre fellowship this is probably a good time to mention that in addition to setting up your own blog and writing for faculty/society publications/websites and doing interviews for the local and national press you could consider writing for science advocacy groups and websites that provide scientific information to the general public. Most science advocacy groups have very few full time staff and will be very glad of your input, even if it is only the occasional piece.
    It will always be difficult to persuade scientists to put time and effort into an aspect of their career that is not explicitly recognized as worth rewarding (in terms of salary and career progression) by the scientific community and science funders, something that is especially true of outreach that not directly connected with publicising the results of a scientists own research or their teaching duties. That is why by formalising outreach with fellowships such as the Hayre fellowship are a great way to encourage scientists to put time and effort into reaching out beyond the campus gates, I reckon that they provide a good example for the larger scientific societies to adopt.


  5. Lab Lemming Says:

    Is there something a little bit sleazy about the AAAS associating some of their outreach activities with their glamour rag? For those of us who feel that a major flaw in science outreach is the establishment in the popular literature of flashy tenuous hypotheses over solid gruntwork, twittering Science papers is more of a problem than a solution.
    Speaking of which:


  6. Denis Alexander Says:

    And of those 20 grants, only 4 might be related to public education… The rest are for training. 😦


  7. neurolover Says:

    “It seems to me that one relatively easy thing to consider is that an “interpretative summary” be appended to all articles. These summaries are written with the idea that someone not scientifically knowledgeable will read it, and that they will be able to understand it.”
    PLoS Biology asks for this, no? I think it’s a good idea, and worth doing. It might be a waste of time, practically, for some articles, which will only ever be read by specialists. But, I suspect that it’s good to do even in that circumstance when it doesn’t really serve an outreach effort, if only for one’s own edification. In that case, though, a lot of them might end up being boilerplate (like the boiler plate for health significance in NIH grants that aren’t really related to direct health consequences).


  8. TomJoe Says:

    neurolover @7: Yes, PLoS Biology does have an “Author Summary” which they define thusly:

    Distinct from the scientific abstract, the author summary is included in the article to make findings accessible to an audience of both scientists and non-scientists. Ideally aimed to a level of understanding of an undergraduate student, the significance of the work should be presented simply, objectively, and without exaggeration.

    I think encouraging all journals/publishers to adopt a similar practice (and making these sections available on PubMed, Scopus, Google Scholar, etc etc) would be one form out outreach.


  9. DSKS Says:

    “It might be a waste of time, practically, for some articles, which will only ever be read by specialists.”
    A pertinent point. It’s a fun intellectual exercise to try and meet Dr. Felix Hoenikker’s demands for a bona fide scientist, but sometimes it’s hellish challenging.
    Which is why I v. much like this idea as a solution to the problem:
    “Write overviews of what you have been doing and submit them to your society journals as Short Review, Opinion, Commentary or what not.”
    Although, the difficulty then is reaching your target audience.
    I still wouldn’t discount Wikipedia on this note. It has v. strong Google power and its internal link system is highly effective as a learning tool. That said, it hasn’t really met the demand for layman-friendly scientific material with many of the articles still suffering from being too technical or plagued with inaccuracies. Plus an author can’t take any credit for contributing to its content, removing a key incentive to do so.
    At the very least, taking a few lessons from the Wikipedia model wouldn’t be such a bad idea when thinking about the communication strategy for the future.


  10. qaz Says:

    An interesting note re Wikipedia as a means of outreach.
    I was at a workshop a couple of weeks ago and someone (name redacted for privacy purposes) was presenting a complex workshop session on mathematical modeling. A whole bunch of students had wikipedia open and when the presenter mentioned a mathematical issue, several of them would surf over to the relevant wiki page and skim it while he was talking. So, it’s not just the laity that would be helped by making wikipedia more scientifically accurate and complete.


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