Soapbox Science

The Twenty-fifth Hour of the Day: Finding Time for Outreach: Part 2 #reachingoutsci

Information about the authors can be found here.

Academic scientists used to live by the mantra “publish or perish” but a sort of unwelcome relief is in sight: our fears about publishing enough and in prominent places are increasingly surpassed by the demands placed on us as hunters and gatherers of university overhead. With a growing number of soft-money research positions and tenure decisions decided by the number, and size, of NSF or NIH grants, there’s more pressure than ever to lock yourself in your office.

At the same time, the outside world needs science desperately. Atmospheric concentration of a key greenhouse gas, CO2, has just passed 400 ppm, a level that will cause dramatic climatic change unlike humanity has seen. Human population also has passed 7 billion people, placing strain on natural and built systems that are already stressed and diminishing. We need people of every color and walk of life to work on, speak out, and solve these problems. Doing science and engaging with the public about it can advance the reputation of scientists, help us to practice useful communication skills, and garner novel insights. There never has been a more important time to engage.

Is there a conflict here—is your career compromised if you spend time on outreach rather than science? Or is engagement all that really counts in a world urgently in need of scientific leadership? Fortunately, new studies suggest that these tasks aren’t necessarily a conflict—those scientists who reach beyond the boundaries of traditional science-doing also appear to be the most productive scientists, probably because they find inspiration, cutting-edge ideas, and novel ways of working while directly engaging with society.

We share this idea not as professional consultants, but as representatives of the Leopold Leadership Program, a training and fellowship program for mid-career environmental scientists, and as individuals who ponder about why we do the work we do and how to do it better. We aim to point out what appears to be fallacy in the idea that time spent on engagement usually comes at the expense of academic productivity and success. We do this by reviewing the—albeit fairly small—literature and by sharing some illuminating survey data from other Leopold Fellows. Our goal is to stimulate discussion and get young and mid-career scientists thinking about their own objectives and strategies for managing our most valuable commodity: time.

Scientific outreach and fears about it

In our session at the 2013 AAAS, “The Beauty and Benefits of Escaping the Ivory Tower” (#AAASbeit), we explored the role of academics in public education and engagement, performing tasks such as working with stakeholders on scientific issues to affect social change, applying academic expertise to real-world problem-solving, interacting with non-academics about scientific information, or generally serving as public intellectuals.

 “Education and public outreach represents that aspect of teaching that enables learning beyond the campus walls, that aspect of research that makes what we discover useful beyond the academic community, and that aspect of service that directly benefits the public.” (Ray 1999)

Do the reasons and rewards for outreach rise above the opportunity cost of time investing in it? Studies on this subject—by the National Science Foundation, the Royal Society and others—suggest that scientists think that there is not enough for outreach in addition to their primary job responsibilities of teaching, research and publication (Andrews et al. 2005; Kim & Fortner 2008).

Leopold Fellows largely agree with this concern. Of the 42 Fellows who responded to our survey (scientists who are mostly tenured academics and many from large state universities), 100% of respondents report a commitment to making science relevant. Granted, a priority for outreach is valued, and indeed part of, the Leopold fellowship search criteria. On average, however, Fellows spend only 1 hour per month outside the Ivory Tower. This includes interactions with journalists, NGOs, decision makers, social media and the public. Fellows reported that they did not have enough time (92%), lack institutional support (42%), don’t get credit for it (45%), do not feel comfortable (23%), or do not know how (16%). One Fellow, for example, reported:

“There is a big psychological ‘cost’ of doing something outside the norm. I feel pretty comfortable engaging, but it takes effort.  It forces me to watch my words carefully. I need to read up on the latest news, research, or place-specific data. I may need to straighten up my office, or set up a good photo of the lab.  This planning and general departure from the daily norm can make even a short interview very disruptive.”

The empirical evidence

Contrary to the concerned expressed by many scientists, including those by Leopold Fellows, the empirical data do not support the claim that time isn’t available or that time invested competes with other academic obligations. For example, Jensen et al. (2008) found a positive correlation between research productivity and time spent in outreach such that if you pick a random scientist and ask her about her level of outreach activity, you can predict quite a bit about her CV. Specifically, “dissemination-active” scientists have higher publication values. A study by Poliakoff & Webb (2007) also found that time constraints among scientific students, staff, and research at a major research university did not predict outreach intentions. Attempting to identify the mechanism behind the relationship between engagement and productivity, Jensen et al. (2008) speculated that:

“Dissemination activities compel scientists to open up their horizons to discuss with people having other points of view… which could improve their academic research.”

Strategizing about engagement

Morrow (2000; see Kim and Fortner 2008) created a framework for outreach and public education that explains a range of activities that vary in the amount of time required (Fig. 1a). Drawing upon the activities of Leopold Fellows, we propose another framework that varies in the extent of leadership and interval versus external consultation (Fig. 1b).

Figure 1: Frameworks for outreach and public education: (a) from Morrow (2000); (b) our own thoughts.

Figure 1: Frameworks for outreach and public education: (a) from Morrow (2000); (b) our own thoughts.

Figure 1: Frameworks for outreach and public education: (a) from Morrow (2000); (b) our own thoughts.

The “campus & community” quadrant may fit best with the job of an academic. For many academics with leadership goals and a desire to collaborate with others, the “network builder” quadrant can overlap well with other academic job responsibilities. The quadrant, “science communicator” might be the most time-efficient. Several 2011-2012 Leopold Fellows, however, felt that the “stakeholder engagement” quadrant was the overall best and most personally rewarding. When asked about important motivational factors for their outreach activities, Fellows reported that they are motivated by: discovering cool new scientific truths; advancing society’s understanding of nature; education and mentoring; independence; and improved decision-making. Each of these can be mapped on to Fig. 1.


Leopold Fellows offered a variety of advice when thinking about science outreach. Clearly teaching and other campus or local education is most aligned with our jobs and therefore required the least amount of “extra” time. In addition, Fellows suggested:

1) Bring the people with whom you want to interact or influence into your research program, take them into the field with you, give them responsibility for collecting data, maximize the overlap of research and outreach;

2) Several NGOs are poised to translate science into action so engage with them for maximal effectiveness; don’t reinvent the wheel;

3) Take advantage of ready audiences that you have ready access to; and

4) Use social networking. It’s easy, so why not? It offers a way to practice being accessible and transparent.

5) Outreach through your family. For example, why not develop an outreach program through your own children’s school, or your parents’ seniors program? Once you’ve spun up a great approach, you can broaden out to the larger community.

Because time spent doing outreach does not have to conflict with your scientific goals, we encourage you to identify your own reasons for reaching outside the Ivory Tower. Look for opportunities for outreach efficiency through training, activities that involve flexible time commitments, and assistance with outreach administration (Andrews et al. 2005; Ecklund et al. 2012).  And look for ways to make your activities do “double duty”: of the many goals you are chasing towards tenure or promotion, which of them can be melded with an engagement activity? How can one of your ‘science’ hours become an hour of engagement as well? Think of it as a kind of funny math: how can you take 2 hours and get the equivalent of 2 hours of outreach and 2 hours of science out of it? It might be the toughest calculus problem you’ll encounter this year, but the answer could change your future, and our world.


  • Andrews et al. 2005. Scientists and public outreach participation, motivations, and impediments. Journal of Geoscience Education 53: 281.
  • Ecklund et al. 2012. How academic biologists and physicist view science outreach. PLoS One 7(5): e36240.
  • Jensen et al. 2008. Scientists connected with society are more active academically. Science and Public Policy 35: 527.
  • Kim & Fortner 2008 Great Lakes scientists’ perspectives on K-12 education collaboration. Journal of Great Lakes Research 34: 98.
  • Morrow 2000 The diversity of roles for scientists in K-14 education and public outreach. Whitepaper accessed online here
  • Poliakoff & Webb 2007 What factors predict scientists’ intentions to participate in public engagement of science activities? Science Communication 29: 242.
  • Ray 1999 Outreach, engagement will keep academia relevant to twenty-first century societies. Journal of Public Service and Outreach 4: 21.

Authors in order of contribution: Jessica J. Hellmann, Elena Bennett, Leah Gerber, Liz A. Hadly, Hope Jahren and Dawn Wright


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