Are scientists THE solution for science outreach?
In a world where a staggering third (or more) of the American public would just as soon argue against evolution, it’s hard to claim that we couldn’t use a bit more science outreach. And when we begin to think of the looming significance of climate change or the growing affect of technology on our future (artificial intelligence, biotech, energy to just a few), we might well say that such efforts to link science and the public are, rather, crucial.
Luckily, as social media has blossomed over the generation and as STEM interest in K-12 education has grown, we’ve seen more and more scientists getting out there and sharing what they do.
That’s darn exciting.
But is it what we should expect?
Earlier this week, I read a fantastic piece on science communication being a moral imperative by one Jonathan Foley (who I’m increasingly seeing as a great science communicator and writer). It excited me, and it’s hard not to jump in favor of the premise. It seems intuitive that scientists should give back and spread the wealth of the knowledge we’re gaining as a society. Moreover, much of science is publicly funded, and it seems there must then be a civil obligation to return the yields of science back to the public. So I agree, wholeheartedly, that we should encourage all to do it, and indeed from my own experience, I generally see it as a positive outlet for the scientist his or her self.
But then I thought of how strong the word “all” is and began a trail of thought for the future of our science outreach expectations, and I believe there are some things we’re missing in the context if we really wanted to don public engagement as the expectation and imperative for all scientists:
(Readers’ warning– I’ll get back to being optimistic, but I have to play the cynic first…)
It’s always easy to ask someone to do a little bit more.
Many scientists really do already have a fair bit on their plate beyond the work of science alone — grant-writing, teaching, managing college labs, managing graduate students, etc. This is not to say that their time is so over-burdened as is that they couldn’t fit in the time for outreach (it’s surely different for different individuals), but it is to say, if an expectation, then that’s another thing to add to the list, something that may well not be part of why they picked the job.
In the world of education, or any other sphere that includes matters of high significance, it’s easy to say “Well why not do this little bit of xyz?”. K-12 teachers are a great example of this as their expectations grow (as we’ve learned more of what benefits students) to cover more than just instruction, but often also extra-curriculars, culturing student social behavior and positive psychology, improving student “soft skills,” preparing students for the workforce, teaching cross-cutting concepts, innovating, and more.
On the other hand, there’s probably a fair bit of room for at least some outreach in the life of most scientists, but it is always easy to ask a little more, and I wouldn’t blame the scientist who argued that this wasn’t why they got into the business. I think it would be wrong to argue that as lazy or selfish if one thought so — they would be just doing the affore-set expectations of their job, which is perfectly fine.
Scientists currently aren’t trained for outreach
Many of those who are involved in science outreach currently are quite charismatic and creative and possess innate skills for doing what they do. Those skills aren’t innate to all of us, and outreach isn’t always an easy thing. Before we really expect scientists to do any outreach, we need to consider how best to help equip them to do so.
We have to keep in mind the goal… which is…?
When we think about science outreach, it’s often a very general reaction to the relationship between science and the public (disinterest, misinformation, illiteracy, etc.), but this isn’t a tangible objective or goal. If, on the other hand, we dissect that ambiguity to some specifics, we see some interesting conclusions:
- If the goal of outreach is to combat key public science misconceptions, then we likely shouldn’t expect all scientists to be involved in this as not everyone’s research and background will line up accordingly with those topics.
- If the goal of outreach is to have the public informed on what we’re researching, then we should quickly realize the immensity of that task, and that even if every scientist shared their work, most outreach events would be small and locally targetting rather than a large public distribution.
- If the goal of outreach is to get the public more interested in science, then why expect it of all scientists when there are many others who can fill the role, especially in the domain of informal science ed and activities.
In short, I don’t think we really should expect all scientists to engage the public.
BUT, I realize I’m attacking an easy target, the word “all,” and I would (obviously) still beg and plead and hope that we engage the public more in science. I think though, to have good expectations for the future with this, we need to reframe our thinking to some new considerations:
Scientists who do engage the public are heroes!
Since we can’t expect it from everyone, I think we need to look at the scientists who go out of their way to do outreach and engage the public with the prestige they deserve. We should add glamour to the idea, focus its worthiness, convince academic institutions that they are doing valuable work (just as valuable as that extra publication), and hope others will get excited about it and join willingly. Think about it just as we would with charity — it’s often easier to compel donations from the feeling of good they bring than from the guilt of not doing them. So talk it up! We might see stronger involvement through this than through expectation.
We need to think seriously about funding outreach positions
If not every scientist can jump on the public bandwagon as easily, why not competitively seek out and reward those who do, freeing up more of their time for just that? We have research scientists and teaching scientists, so this seems like the natural next step if we really value public engagement. Some awards already exist for this at the occasional university, and more funding opportunities of course would have to exist to make this happen, but if we want a tangible target, perhaps this is one.
The public may need to engage with science in a completely different way
We often presume that what the public needs is just more science knowledge thrown at them or more accessibility, but what if that’s not what would create social change? What if, instead of more knowledge, the public needs more ownership of research directions (a can of worms, I know, but we need consider it)? What if, instead of access to scientists, what the public really needs to care about science is a way to do it themselves (think more citizen science opportunities)? What if science needs to continue to knock on the door of entertainment? And of course, as well, we already know that our K-12 education system is a great start for the future as well. Granted, each of these are very complicated issues, but if we want the best bang for our buck in social change, we must consider them.
We have to remember the other players in the field of science education
Finally, it’s not just scientists who are involved in the science outreach game. Many universities have an “outreach” department that does just this — running STEM competitions, science cafes, lab internships, and a variety of other opportunities. We also can’t forget the many venues of informal science education such as museums and similar centers. And of course there’s the youtubers, the bloggers, the maker space creators, and many other more unique modern innovators. As each of these groups may well take on science public engagement as their prime directive, we might be more efficient (in some cases) having scientists support the endeavors of these other players with expertise and resources than taking to the front-lines themselves.
So while I want as many scientists involved in outreach as are willing and able, I think there are a lot more ways we can look at the issue and that a broad-spectrum expectation isn’t necessary.
That said, I love everything I’ve seen and appreciate the many fantastic scientists I’ve worked with in my own outreach jaunts. Keep it up everyone. It’s fun, and let’s get creative as we refine our best way forward!