Information about the authors can be found here.
Scientists who engage in policy-relevant research yearn to make our results, knowledge, and ideas useful to decision-makers. More and more scientists are talking directly with stakeholders, policy makers and the public face-to-face and via the internet, both formally and informally. At the same time, many of us are employed by universities, and our jobs are stabilized through a merit-based tenure system. This can create daily pressures that add up to annual requirements and ultimately help give shape to whole careers. Given the realities of what scientific institutions require of their scientists, where does societal engagement fit in?
In theory, being a professor can offer nearly unlimited freedom to engage in outreach and policy, as universities are some of the most spectacularly make-it-up-as-you-go-along institutions to be found. Many professors are taking advantage of this unique employment arrangement. They are interpreting the few rules that do exist in ways that allow them to incorporate outreach into teaching. They push the existing systems to facilitate outreach. They use outreach to complement the research they are already doing to get tenure. Individuals exploring the boundaries of what their universities will let them do has gone a long way towards helping some individuals engage in outreach activities.
However, universities aren’t doing nearly enough to help or reward those who want to engage outside academe. While most institutions pay lip service to outreach, salary and promotion are usually determined by first considering “research productivity,” (i.e. numbers of publications and grants), and second by “teaching effectiveness,” (i.e. number of students and course evaluations). Highly focused pre-tenure faculty in particular are spread painfully thin. The connections needed for meaningful dialogue with decision-makers and the public take time to build, especially if you lack experience. Collectively, we’ve spent hundreds of hours struggling with effects ways to incorporate outreach and engagement in our academic lives. We believe that practical change must come—at least in part—from academic institutions in order to meaningfully expand the role of science outreach. Hours of discussion allowed us to distill our idea of the support that is needed down to four simple questions that we feel the time is ripe for asking.
Universities, will you …
1) … promote alternatively-funded research? To escape the ivory tower, we must revisit the historical cultural divide between alleged inferior “agencies” and pure academia. Land grant universities and extension programs are an underappreciated model for moving beyond the dichotomy between professional training and disciplinary expertise. Funding from agencies with specific goals is often valued less than traditional sources such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. With funding rates declining from these agencies, now is an ideal time to appreciate and reward faculty for seeking other, often more applied, funding sources. In short, Universities must encourage professors to come out of the academic woodwork and their comfort zones of disciplinary expertise to address complex environmental challenges of the 21st century.
2) … reinvent how beans are counted? Universities need to create rewards for outreach. We think of our work as research, teaching, and service, with service being a catch-all for activities that don’t fit into the first two categories. But what if engagement were recognized and lauded? It is important to begin developing metrics that incentivize science outcomes, recognize multiple tracks and consider outreach as a form of scholarship. Possible metrics include number of hits on a public blog, number of citations in the non-scientific literature, and number of social media followers. We are not arguing that such metrics replace traditional ones such as the number and quality of scientific publications, but that they might be calculated and considered alongside traditional metrics. Development of such metrics will require deep thinking about how to distinguish good outreach from mediocre outreach. As our efforts toward even unfunded grants can do much to indirectly enhance our academic research, so can the habitual translation of our science to the non-scientist. Universities will also indirectly benefit from a steady stream of ‘news’ about the relevance of the science done within its halls.
3) … help establish boundary organizations? We can’t all be constant conduits to the media. So we need to streamline efforts within universities. Boundary organizations might help to produce public and policy versions of traditional scientific papers. Outreach and sharing of ideas is something that has great overlap with both the goals of the investigator and the goals of the institution. However, it is the time-crunch of making contacts, appointments, events that will become the biggest time-obstacle. A boundary organization or university personnel dedicated to outreach can play multiple roles in terms of facilitating outreach for multiple PIs, “matching” community needs with PI expertise, following up with those reached to gauge impact, and relating outreach conduits between the university and the community while individual PIs focus more closely on content. Evidence suggests that such organizations and individuals reduce the time demands of outreach on faculty. Another idea is a “professors page” of tweet stream of just faculty, perhaps separated by division. Our point is that if you are using social media, try to get media relations at your university to amplify your signal, and your outreach reaches further. These offices are full of web savvy folks who are generally under used and glad to showcase an interesting professor.
4) … provide time and training? If universities want their faculty to engage with the public, they should be willing to re-count the beans, and they must also provide training so that we do it well. This entails real, effective training so future generations are prepared to engage. Clearly, not all faculty will require the same kind of training, given varying interests and capabilities. But training is needed in writing and speaking for a non-academic audience, in strategies for stakeholder engagement, and in methods of seeking funding for engagement and outreach through non-traditional fora. We imagine this training being provided to practicing scientists or academics, and also as part of graduate education (e.g., http://leopoldleadership.stanford.edu/graduate-student-portal).
Many universities are toying with the idea of saying “yes” to the above questions: 45% of Leopold Leadership Fellows report an improvement in the university landscape vis-à-vis engaging in communication over the last decade. As we continue to envision the modern university, we encourage a system that provides multiple incentives and rewards and cultivates solution-oriented research. While many of us have benefited mightily from involvement in outreach after tenure, we advocate emplacement of accessible paths for all phases of academic development: graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, pre-tenure, non-tenure track, and senior professors. We also suspect that the institutions that do this first and do this best will see rewards for it in terms of reputation, relevance, and financial reward. Professors always have and always will be first and foremost in the business of making new ideas, it is our produce and our stock and trade. Universities really only exist to put a roof over our heads and to drum up our customers: with some institutional tweaking we can together begin the business of changing the world.
Authors in order of contribution: Leah R. Gerber, Elena Bennett, Elizabeth A. Hadly, Jessica J. Hellmann, A. Hope Jahren, Dawn Wright