Increased communication and outreach efforts require changes in the structure and culture of academic science, says Nicole Forrester.
In the wake of the US presidential election in November 2017, the scientific community has recognized that it has fallen short in communicating the value of science and research. As a result, scientists are now calling for increased public outreach and communication efforts. While this awareness is important, the path forward is not entirely clear.
Because the majority of research is funded by taxpayers, some scientists support research that directly addresses public need. Defining the importance of research by the benefits provided to taxpayers, however, is dangerous, as it has the potential to limit scientific exploration and progress. Instead, others argue that we need to focus on who scientists are, how the scientific process works, and how science benefits individuals and society.
Discussions on how to advance science communication and outreach primarily focus on approaches for scientists to connect with people that do not understand or value research. This issue is especially pressing because many science skeptics now have the power to shape important policy decisions regarding the future of research.
To prove the value and importance of science to policymakers and the public, we must also address the underlying challenges that science communication faces. A fundamental question warrants consideration: does the structure and culture of the scientific community effectively support communication and outreach efforts?
Challenges: the structure of scientific research
Job requirements of academic scientists
The primary focus of a career in academic science is research, which is highly demanding in terms of time, resources, and effort. In addition, academic scientists often have teaching and administrative responsibilities, resulting in a heavy burden leaving limited time for other activities. As a result, many academic scientists feel they cannot prioritize communication and outreach over other aspects of their jobs.
“Historically the focus has been on research,” says Becky Gonda, an outreach coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh, “but I think that there has been a shift and people are seeing that it is really important in educating not just students, but the public about science.” Now that this shift has taken place — at least among a subset of scientists — it is essential to reconsider the job requirements of academic scientists to improve the amount and quality of communication we do.
Training of academic scientists
The current path of academic science often does well at preparing graduate students and postdocs for jobs in academia, but it neglects training for non-academic science careers. Despite the limited number of academic research positions available, young scientists often lack opportunities to explore alternative paths. In addition, the skills required for non-academic jobs, such as communication, networking, and curricula development are commonly overlooked in graduate training.
Science communication and outreach efforts are often not valued
Outreach and communication successes are rarely acknowledged and valued to the same extent as research accomplishments. “The way science and the tenure processes are structured penalize you for investing in outreach because to do it well takes time, which cuts down on the number of papers you publish,” says Anna Johnson, a National Science Foundation (NSF) postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pittsburgh. Outreach and communication are seldom evaluated in tenure decisions. Although NSF has helped reward outreach through the “Broader Impacts” component of grant proposals, this approach is (so far) relatively uncommon among funding agencies.
Context: the culture of scientific research
In addition to the challenges stemming from the structure of academic science, the culture of the scientific community also complicates outreach and communication efforts. “I meet with faculty members across the university all the time who are interested in outreach, but feel like they have to keep it a secret in their departments,” says Alison Slinskey-Legg, director of outreach programs at the University of Pittsburgh. “The vibe is that it’s nice if you want to do it, but it’s really taking time away from what you’re here to do.”
This vibe is echoed in the narratives of academic scientists, such as those in “Lab Girl” and on Twitter, “if you are a [graduate student] and aren’t living and breathing your research, do something else,” says Andrew Kern, an assistant professor at Rutgers University, New Jersey. Although some academic scientists support and encourage lab members to invest in outreach and communication, the scientific community does not uniformly value these efforts or view them as part of a successful research career.
Clarity: the path forward
Science communication needs to be seen as an integral part of the process
“Communication is not a separate task that adds to the burden of a scientist — it’s a core part of the research process,” says David Rubenson, previously the associate director for administration and strategic planning at the Stanford University Cancer Institute, California. Whether presenting research to other scientists or the public, effective communication requires scientists to identify key results of their research while contextualizing their findings in a broader framework.
Science communication is a responsibility and a privilege
Taxpayers fund a significant portion of scientific research, which allows researchers to pursue novel and innovative questions. “We’re so fortunate to be able to do the science that we want and in the way that we can,” says Slinskey-Legg. “We’re part of a community where we share information and support each other’s academic pursuits. We have the same responsibility to our community.” Scientists not only have a responsibility to communicate with taxpayers about their work, but outreach also provides opportunities to engage with a broader community and share exciting and valuable aspects of the scientific process.
Support dedicated science communication and outreach jobs
While encouraging academic scientists to invest in communication and outreach is important, these activities may overload already heavy burdens. Supporting positions dedicated to communication and outreach can provide academic scientists with opportunities to invest in outreach while maintaining focus on their research.
Departmental outreach programs provide frameworks for researchers to tap into without having to develop programs on their own. This ultimately allows researchers to participate in outreach on a broader scale with less time investment while achieving greater impact overall. These programs also provide training and opportunities for early career scientists to gain communication skills and outreach experience.
Reward effective communication and outreach efforts
Funding agencies and universities may consider new methods for evaluating and rewarding scientific contributions to the public. NSF and other funding agencies, such as the Gates Foundation, encourage open access of information and methods to track outreach impacts. Academic institutions can consider science communication and outreach contributions in job and tenure decisions.
If we are now committed to greater investment in science communication and outreach, then reshaping the structure and culture of the scientific community may clarify the path forward. In the midst of concerns about the future of science under the Trump administration, scientists are now driven to advocate for their roles and the importance of research. This is far from an impossible task, but to achieve this may require a new approach and the next generation of science outreach.
Nicole Forrester is a PhD student studying plant evolutionary ecology at the University of Pittsburgh.