Soapbox Science

Science Communication at a Tipping Point


Liz Neeley is the Assistant Director of Science Outreach for COMPASS. She helps develop and lead communication trainings for scientists across the country, and specializes in traditional and social media. She is the founder of ScienceOnlineSeattle and affiliate staff at the University of Washington, where she teaches science communication for graduate students. Her interest in these topics springs from her graduate work on the evolution of visual systems and color patterns in tropical reef fish, and subsequent experiences with coral reef communities in Fiji and Papua New Guinea and working on international trade policy for deep sea corals. Find her on twitter @LizNeeley or on Google+

On April 30, COMPASS published a paper at PLOS Biology that shared our experiences in science communication over the past decade. We organized a blog carnival to broaden the conversation about motivations, challenges, and lessons learned. This post is a reflection on public and private responses to the ideas we presented, and an attempt to answer, “Where do we go from here?”

I will never forget watching Jon Foley emphatically interrupt a discussion among young faculty with, “Your job is NOT to get tenure! Your job is to change the world.” I tweeted that quip not so long ago, to which @Dreadnought1906 replied, “Yeah, I tried that; they kicked me out of the academy. Junior academics don’t have the power to change the system.”

Yet things are changing. From jobs and funding to publications and politics, this thing we call Science is bigger, messier, and more public than ever before. How do we respond? Over beers, in our blogs, after seminars, uneasy and excited conversations churn. A steady drumbeat pulses: Outreach Training NeededEscape from the Ivory TowerStand Up For Science; (But do try to do so without being such a scientist?).

Science communication is at a tipping point. When workshops receive 700 applications for 50 spots and conference sessions routinely overflow, we know we’re approaching critical mass.  For decades, we’ve making the case for broader engagement. Whether it’s framed as a moral imperative, a financial obligation, or a pragmatic undertaking, the question is settled. “Should we?” Yes. The hard question remains “How?”

We support each other. We challenge each other. We tackle hard questions together.

In contrast to what @Dreadnought1906 said, I believe individuals do have the power to change systems. They can change their own practices, catalyze bigger conversations, and take leadership roles. But these things are not easy to do in isolation: a network of support is essential.

For example, think about how seriously engaging in science communication remains a challenge for so many scientists. The much-cited Ecklund et al. and the Royal Societies surveys match what we at COMPASS hear from our colleagues: researchers keenly feel a lack of skills, institutional incentives, and time.

Some of these can be addressed directly. To bolster communication skills, settle in for some reading. Attend a workshop hosted by your professional society. Give your grad students your blessing to take a course. It’s true that the resources are still patchy, and not particularly well-catalogued*, but from brief how-to’s to prestigious fellowships, the list grows longer each day. Take advantage of them and encourage your colleagues and students to do the same.

In contrast to such near-term personal actions, solving the problem of time and career management is going to require reconfiguring our systems. As Craig McClain lays out, the ‘traditional formula for success’ includes publishing (quantity + impact), winning grants, often teaching and/or mentoring, as well as committee work. Each type of work fulfills established criteria for advancement. For science engagement to become a priority, that formula has to incorporate new terms. Plenty of people are calling for that, but fewer are highlighting the progress being made in updates to tenure and promotion guidelines. Pioneering work at Michigan State provides inspiration, while up-and-comers like UNC Chapel Hill and the University of Washington College of the Environment give us a sense of things to come. Other groups, like the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment aren’t involved in tenure at all, but encourage engagement through fellowships, small grants, and other support. Change is slow, but it’s transpiring in many places in many different ways.**

We need strong networks to share these kinds of good news and examples, in both the professional and the personal realms. Sharing our experiences – exuberant successes and the bitter disappointments alike – challenges us with what is currently possible and motivates us to do more. This was the impetus for the blog carnival in conjunction with our PLOS paper, and a core motivation for current and upcoming COMPASS projects. It’s also why the #reachingoutsci conversation is so successful. As long as we lack official recognition and rewards for science engagement, we must support each other.

To be clear, I am not arguing for unconditional cheerleading. Part of truly supporting each other is pushing each other, as Simon Donner does when he argues that we may be dismissing valid criticism and forgetting that excellent outreach requires excellent science first. In that spirit, here are three additional problems I challenge us to address:

1) Thinking of celebrity as a solution. Of course charisma and visibility are valuable, but they are not a substitute for collective action. Let’s celebrate our Neil de Grasse Tysons, but stop dreaming that somehow a new era will dawn with the coming of the next Carl Sagan;

2) Conflating science communication (explaining results) with science advocacy (championing our values). Science cannot tell a society what it ‘must’ do. As a community we need to understand what is problematic with normative science, and get comfortable calling ourselves advocates when we are acting as such; and

3) Failing to make use of the best available science! The misguided ‘deficit model’ approach to science communication is unfortunately resilient. Many involved in outreach are unaware that providing more data can polarize audiences or how debunking can inadvertently reinforce myths. A large body of knowledge is languishing in disciplinary journals that practitioners simply aren’t seeing.

My point here is that from conceptualization to execution, we must aspire to the same level of clarity and rigor in our outreach as in our science. In other words,

we need to mature from a community of interest into a community of practice.

Again, I think we start with personal action, build up a supportive community, and catalyze culture change from there. You might begin with the EvidenceWiki hosted by the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education, this useful bibliography by Alice Bell, or this Mendeley library I’m using to pull together primary literature. Join the #scioSciComm twitter conversation and monthly G+ virtual journal clubs or start one of your own. Mark your calendars for the National Academy of Science Sackler Colloquium on the science of science communication this September. Build collaborations with the social scientists to make your work as evidence-based in all dimensions as you can. As Dietram Scheufele has said, “As a field, we are examining a moving target – maybe a car – while sitting inside that car, going in circles at a hundred miles an hour.” We had all better buckle up, hone our skills, and make sure we have the best possible navigators along for the ride!

As the open science movement is demonstrating, the solitary genius of individuals is rarely superior to the speed and power of expert networks. We are stronger, wiser, and more creative as a community. And we are going to need all of that. The issues we face – as a society, as scientists, as advocates for evidence-based decision-making – are entirely too important for us not to apply the best available science in every area of endeavor. And on top of that, how about tackling those “hard questions” I mentioned? Some of them are insidious. As long as we frame science engagement as a sacrifice for the greater good; as long as it’s seen as necessarily detrimental to science careers; as long as there are significant gender disparities in engagement; we have serious problems.

It’s only by supporting each other that we’ll endure in this and in challenging each other that we’ll improve. We need a constructively critical community of practice for science communication, and we need it now. Let’s get to work.


* We are biting off one sizeable chunk of this problem with our NSF-funded #gradscicomm project. One output will be a public, crowdsourced database of the science communication trainings and courses available to graduate students. To read about it, see our recent post and if you lead or have participated in such training in the past two years, contribute your experiences here.

** If you care about institutional incentives, this report is a must-read. Also see Resources on Re-Thinking Faculty Incentives and Rewards and peer-reviewed literature like these.



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