Science Outreach: What Do You Need?

06.12.2012 |

In recent weeks, the science community has engaged in an enormous amount of discussion about science outreach. There are calls from many people, including me, for scientists to take an active role in efforts to share their work with the public. But this leaves many scientists feeling put upon – and understandably so.

Scientists have work to do. This work often includes (among other things): writing and editing papers and grant proposals; teaching classes and grading papers; working with grad students and post-docs; reading up on relevant papers in the field; and, of course, actually doing the research that drew them to science in the first place.

What’s more, many – maybe even most – scientists have actual lives beyond the lab or classroom. Significant others, children, parents, siblings and friends – all of these relationships require investments of time. Not to mention the fact that people often want to spend time on (gasp!) hobbies and outside interests.

To paraphrase a question I’ve heard from numerous scientists: “When exactly do you expect me to do all of this ‘outreach’ you keep going on about?” That’s a good question.

To a certain extent, it depends on how you define “outreach.” In my opinion:

  • Anything that a scientist does to help explain his or her work to a non-expert audience is outreach.
  • Anything a scientist does to encourage public interest in the sciences (among children or adults) is outreach.
  • Anything a scientist does to educate non-scientists about the scientific process is outreach.

Taking this broad view means that there are some outreach efforts that will (theoretically) not take up an enormous amount of time. For example, if you are a scientist who works for an institution that employs public information officers (PIOs), let them know about your forthcoming journal articles or conference presentations. These people are paid to help you explain your work to a non-expert audience and highlight why it is interesting and/or important. (Of course, I’m a PIO, so I would say that.) I’ve written about this subject at greater length here.

But lots of outreach efforts do require significant amounts of time. Writing a blog or maintaining a social media presence requires time and commitment (I’ve written about that too). Working with area teachers and students is a great outreach activity – but it takes time. Planning and implementing outreach efforts through local museums? Time consuming.

If you’re struggling to get tenure, you don’t have that time. And if your peers in the science community belittle the idea of outreach, you’re discouraged from making that time.

What can be done? A number of ideas are out there. Scicurious has a great post on the subject, including some discussion about the long-term need for academia to formally embrace science outreach for faculty. Scientist (and blogger) Jeanne Garbarino has also weighed in. Among other things, she notes that there are few (or no) incentives for scientists to engage in outreach.

I’d like to see some positive discussion about potential solutions to the “outreach problem.” If you are a scientist: what, specifically, is needed to facilitate your involvement in outreach efforts? Should outreach be taken into consideration as part of tenure review? If you’re committed to a certain amount of outreach activity per semester, should you have a lighter course load to teach?

These may not be the answers – and they certainly wouldn’t be the only answers – but I’d love to get the ball rolling. Once we have some good ideas, we can start thinking about ways to implement them.

Scientists: what do you need?



28 Responses to “Science Outreach: What Do You Need?”

  1. Hey Matt –

    Great post, and thanks for the shout out. I definitely think about this A LOT and have come up with a lot of ideas, though most are filed away somewhere in my brain. But here are the few that I’ve been able to pull out of the ol’ neurological filing cabinet:

    1) FaceTime/Google Hangout/Skype sessions between a scientist and an entire classroom. I do this regularly with my daughter’s preschool class and they eat this stuff up. If we can somehow synchronize a sign up list between schools and scientists, it would be great. Plus, you only need 10 min of your time; any more than that and the kids will go crazy.

    2) I sooooo want to do more videos like the one on cholesterol (http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2011/09/14/cholesterol-friend-before-foe/) and the flame challenge (http://vimeo.com/39662277). It would be great to raise the funds to do this type of thing for individual labs in a uni/research institution, sort of like little advertisements for what science is done in each lab (can I please be Don Draper sans womanizing qualities?)

    3) The low hanging fruit would to be to get more interactive stuff going over social media. Polls, contests, etc…

    Anyway, let’s brainstorm – and count me in for each step.

    -Jeanne

  2. Since I’ve been the go-to online outreach lady at my institution for some years now, I’ve put a fair amount of thought into this (and my thinking has evolved considerably).

    For all scientists: work with your PIOs. I’m always surprised at how few scientists at my institution know/work with our excellent set of PIOs. The PIOs, in turn, should hold frequent “get to know us & learn about what we do” mini-workshops. Buy some donuts & tell everyone it’s open house – this doesn’t have to be a big fancy deal. That way when a scientist has news/wants to publicize a thing, everyone is not starting from zero.

    For most scientists: In my experience, the free-form just-do-it online land is really not for everyone. I know folks who have taken multiple communication workshops but are still not ready to just….communicate. For them, the best thing is to have formal links with existing programs. For these scientists, being offered formal speaking opportunities is way better and more familiar. I suggest that PIOs keep a list of local oppotunities – classrooms, social clubs (e.g., the Lion’s Club), fisher’s associations, science fairs, etc. – and make sure that scientists know they are available. Even better, offer opportunities to specific scientists. I don’t think many scientists would seek these out, but many would say yes if offered the opportunity.

    For the most social, outreach-motivated scientists: Make it so that scientists who WANT to do outreach don’t have to go through the hard work of building their own audience for every project. Consider investing in some kind of an online infrastructure that is flexible enough to support a variety of projects. For example, if you have a bunch of graduate students doing an expedition & wanting to blog about it, already have an institutional expedition blog set up so they don’t have to start their own.

  3. Karen James says:

    I could list what I need but the people we really need to hear from are those scientists who haven’t already taken a swan dive into the outreach Kool Aid.

    In other words, I worry that these discussions, while valuable, are taking place in an echo chamber between outreach professionals (like you), science communicators and already-on-side scientists (like me). In other words, those scientists who don’t do outreach because of various barriers are probably not the ones reading and commenting on posts like this. For this reason I think we would do well to lean heavily on existing and ongoing scholarly work like this:
    http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0036240
    http://www.sciencemag.org/content/321/5886/204
    http://www.nsrconline.org/base/sci_engin_learn_more_barriers.html
    http://ejse.southwestern.edu/article/view/7696
    etc.

    If these studies aren’t addressing the right questions, then we should partner with sociologists of science to get the answers in a rigorous way. We will need these data to support any suggestions we might make to university departments, funding agencies, etc.

  4. This is a great post! I recently started a blog called TheHumanSide.org for this very reason. I think its important to give science a human face and allow students to see that people of various backgrounds and experiences can contribute meaningfully to science! Please stop by and visit the new blog – and contact me!
    Good luck with this – Gabriel Roybal UCSF

  5. Matt Shipman says:

    Thanks for the feedback, everyone.

    Karen, I’m also worried that posts like this one become part of a feedback loop — bouncing around among the folks in the science community who are already actively involved in this conversation.

    I’m trying to expand that circle. E.g., I share posts like this one with department heads, lab heads and others who are in a position to disseminate information to researchers (and whose emails the researchers may actually read).

    If we continue sharing stuff like this with our co-workers and colleagues, I’m optimistic that we can (slowly but surely) get more people engaged.

    Thoughts?

  6. DNLee says:

    It might be a good idea to initiate this kind of dialogue in spaces where the scientists/PIs mentioned by Karen convene…at science meetings or the websites/discussion groups of professional science societies. Yes, there’s still a risk of mostly attracting ‘outreaching leaning folks’ but at least you’re waving this flag in front of them trying to get them into the conversation.

  7. Geoff Hunt says:

    Hi Matt,

    Great post. My organization, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, has started an outreach department to address exactly this issue (see this link for a description: http://www.asbmb.org/asbmbtoday/asbmbtoday_article.aspx?id=17227).

    I think using this avenue will help spread the outreach message beyond the converted by lowering the activation energy needed to get our members involved in outreach, rather than forcing scientists to come up with their own initiatives or search out disparate outreach opportunities.

    Let’s keep the conversation going!

  8. Wahida says:

    Just my opinion and I don’t think it’s a popular one, but scientific communicators have spent a lot of time communicating with people who want to learn about science. Which is great because you have to start with the most likely to work, like when we start undergrads with Western blots and cell lines. However, if we continue using the same venues to try to reach out, we are only reaching those who want to be reached. I’m not saying we should turn missionary and start trying to “spread the word” door to door, but possibly the best way to reach people is just to be nice and talk to them. If more scientists cared enough to want people to learn, they would learn. anyone, not just other scientists, but the people you meet outside the lab. I do understand that when we get busy, it’s hard to be patient and understanding to strangers. But, I’ve spent a lot of time teaching all kinds of people, from the disabled to the gifted and I’m effective because people like me. I do work hard to help them understand, but they want to learn simply because they want to please me. Of course it’s more complicated than that. I have a post at http://wahidaswords.wordpress.com/ if anyone cares to read more about my thoughts on this subject. Like I said, it’s just my opinion and experience has shown it to be effective for me.

  9. Larry says:

    OK, yes folks are busy so time is the issue. And there is the question of how it advances their research. Perhaps the question is how to stimulate discussion from releases of different kinds because that can lead to both.

    Of course, posts at the end of articles do stimulate discussion. The more these articles become “plugged in” to the many related blogs, the more this would stimulate discussion. Perhaps, like asking for key words, there are databases of blogs that the PI can check off that would be linked to when the articles go out to get more of this. This may be crazy, (or conversely standard fare) but I imagine is viewed as quite prestigious to be linked to our releases…

    Anyway, to summarize, being connected.

    Larry

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  11. Morton Barlaz says:

    The notion that outreach be considered in tenure decisions and teaching loads is not workable for my department (Civil, Constr and Env Eng at NCSU) and I can think lots of reasons why it is a bad idea.

  12. Tori Herridge says:

    controversially, perhaps, I don’t think this is much of a problem. At least from the POV of academic contributions to the mainstream/lay-person discussion of science. There is a huge volume of science programming out there; science stories make the news on a daily basis; science festivals are undergoing a renaissance; of those who go to university (in the UK) almost 50% are studying a science-related subject etc

    So I don’t know that we necessarily need more science outreach* by scientists, though I do think all of the above could be done better and the load shared more evenly, and that wont happen without broad engagement with, and support for, science communication from across the research community.

    I agree with Miriam about the need for facilitation by sci-comm professionals, be they press officers – is this the same as a PIO? – or educators, or even entertainers. Similarly, Kalliopi Monoyios makes some good points over at Symbartic: http://bit.ly/LWiDfq

    A while back I mooted the idea that a way to move towards meaningful, cost effective (no reinventing of the wheel), successful public engagement, whilst also supporting science communication as a profession in its own rig, would be to create a sort-of on-line dating service, integral to the electronic grant application service.

    I know nothing about the practicalities of the NSF application process, but in the UK, all components of your grant applications to large governmental research councils go on-line on a system called JES. If the popular summary part of this could be viewed by accredited sci-comms professionals (or even potential industry partners/policy types), interested parties could then contact the grant writers to offer their services in putting together the knowledge exchange/impact plan.

    As there are budget line implications, this isn’t just altruistic on their part. I still think this would work, with some refining, but haven’t had the time (oh the irony) to focus on how to I might go about making this happen.

    I’ll pause there, though I could say more about a number of issues (not least thinking about different strategies for different agendas)

    *I don’t want to derail the post/comment thread, which I think focuses rightly on how to facilitate change, and move from discussion into real-life solutions…

    …however,

    I think we should be talking about public engagement more broadly, rather than ‘outreach’. Even with the broad-brush used by Matt in his definitions, it feels a little too focused on the science-cheerleading/lobbyist/PR aspect of engagement. Terms like ‘explaining’, ‘educating’ etc are a little too deficit model** for my liking.

    Discuss, engage, be accountable and listen to the public – it might not always lead to comfortable answers, but if your agenda moves beyond promoting yourself, your institution, your field, or science as a whole, then this has to be part of it.

    ** http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_deficit_model

    (to contextualize my comments and experience: I work at a UK institution which has dual goals of scientific research and science communication – a natural history museum. As such, I accept that I may have a very skewed view of the difficulties some may face in different types of institutions. However, as a post-doc, I am also aware that when it comes to apply for posts elsewhere, my sci-comm activities may not stand me in good stead…).

  13. Tom Webb says:

    Really interesting reading, both post and comments. Few thoughts. First, let’s recognise that not all scientists should feel obliged to be doing a lot of outreach, and even those that are need not be doing it all the time. One barrier to outreach (in my experience) is the feeling that, actually, this specific piece of work might not be especially interesting to more than a handful of people. It’s difficult then to try to really push it in an outreach context.

    An alternative is to be much more general and not to tie outreach to specific research, but that can be tricky too. Even those of us who are ‘outreach inclined’ can be uncomfortable stepping too far beyond what it is that we’re expert on. I did a school thing a while back where I ended up representing ‘biology’ in a ‘battle of the sciences’ debate, and was asked a load of questions on human biology – I’m a marine ecologist, so was floundering a bit!

    This school experience brings me on to another point. We need a bit of reciprocity in enthusiasm from school teachers. Last year I had the idea of going back to my old school to talk to them about how I got from there to where I am now (I thought this might be of interest, given that I didn’t really know even what a PhD was until University). I got an initially enthusiastic response, but it went silent, nobody responded to emails as I tried to arrange logistics. Given that I was planning to travel there (a couple of hours drive) at my own expense, and felt I was doing them a favour anyway, I was not especially inclined then to spend a lot of time chasing them up. I have friends at other institutions who’ve also run into something similar – the teacher mentality that they are busier than anyone else, and so can change times / venues / parameters at minimal notice and everyone else will just cope.

    Oops. Turned into a bit of a rant, and more negative than intended. I guess the solution is what others have mentioned – get professionals in place to act as go-betweens, to link up scientists with schools / press / whatever. And in fact, that’s what a lot of institutions are doing, so I think for those interested in outreach, it’s easier than ever to get involved. Those not interested probably won’t be much good at it anyway.

    One final thing – in a UK context, people mention the ‘pathways to impact’ that need to accompany grant applications to the major research councils as something which might put a career-value on outreach work. It’s worth pointing out that impact != outreach. It means economic or policy impact, and an impact plan focused on outreach won’t get funded.

  14. Tori Herridge says:

    just had to challenge you on the last point – societal impact (benefits to society) is also part of the pathways to impact remit, and so could cover outreach activities.

    e.g. NERC:
    http://www.nerc.ac.uk/funding/application/pathwaystoimpact.asp

  15. Matt Shipman says:

    Interesting comments on all fronts. One of the things that I tried (and apparently failed) to do in the post was to take an incredibly broad view of outreach. One of the things that think should definitely fall under the umbrella definition of outreach is disseminating specific research findings.

    For example, Mort Barlaz commented above that it would be a bad idea to incorporate outreach into any academic tenure/classload determinations. His department includes civil, construction and environmental engineers. The research in that unit runs the gamut from building safer bridges to enhancing our understanding of the microbiology of landfills (which has ramifications for waste disposal, energy production, global climate change, etc.).

    If new research findings have ramifications for bridge-builders, landfill operators or policy-making bodies that oversee those fields, it makes sense to get that information into the hands of people who can use it as quickly as possible. The findings may not be ready for immediate application. They may simply offer a glimmer of possibility, which needs to be explored further. But getting that information into the broader world creates opportunities for research partnerships (and potential funding) that may not otherwise come to light.

    This gets (I think) to the “economic or policy impact” Tom Webb mentions.

    I am a PIO (which is the same as a press officer or flack) in a university setting, and I’d estimate that (at most) ~15-20 percent of the research faculty here are proactive about sharing their research findings in venues outside of peer-reviewed journals. Based on conversations with PIOs at other institutions, this percentage is normal. That means ~80-85 percent of researchers are limiting the audience for their work. For many disciplines, there are multiple journals that publish work in the field. Each journal has multiple issues per year, consisting of multiple articles. From talking with researchers, it’s clear that it is virtually impossible to read all of the relevant literature in one’s field in any sort of timely way. That limits impact WITHIN the field, to say nothing of potential interdisciplinary work.

    Anything we can do to remedy this, by making research findings more broadly accessible (in terms of both language and visibility) would be a good thing (in my opinion).

    I think this is an aspect of outreach that is often overlooked. Thoughts?

  16. Tori Herridge says:

    well, on this last point, many reluctant academics sit up when you tell them that press coverage is associated with a 2x increase in number of citations….

  17. Tom Webb says:

    On the last point – I’ve noticed a few journals now starting to send out non-technical abstracts, graphical abstracts, etc. with their tables of contents. Most of them are pretty poor (clearly just an afterthought by the authors), but I think if we could get that right, and actually distill the key findings of specific papers as they are disseminated to the scientific community, that would be great.

    One really important piece of advice I got when writing my (ultimately successful) fellowship application, and which I now pass on to anyone else thinking of applying, is: take as much time over the non-technical abstract as you do over the more ‘sciency’ parts of your application. Don’t just see it as a hoop to jump through at the last minute. It’s the first thing most people assessing your application will read (and, if they’re not in your field, may be the only bit they read and understand in detail.) If we could get that general message across – as Tori says, perhaps through bribery (tell people what you’ve found and they’ll cite you) – then I think these kind of simple summaries of papers could be really valuable for scientists and non-scientists alike.

  18. Jon Copley says:

    Tom and Tori – on the question of whether outreach = impact, RCUK are about to publish some more guidance on impact, which includes some of my group’s PE programme as an example – so in their eyes, *public engagement* can be recognised as generating “impact”. However, it needs to be focused/embedded in the funded research, and planned a priori rather than a posteriori, with inbuilt evaluation etc to inform it. But our “pathways to impact” along those lines have been well-received by PRCs, so there is hope. And PE along those lines is also now recognised as potentially generating impact for the REF, following some useful consultation by HEFCE last year.

  19. CF says:

    What about research assistants, techs and others who are involved in science? I feel like they have a great deal to share as well plus it’s a great way for RAs and techs to feel a part of the science, rather than just a tool for graduate students and PIs.

    When I was a research assistant at a cancer research centre, I did volunteer work at the local high school as part of a genomics outreach program and it was very rewarding. I talked to grade 11 and 12 biology students about my work and led them through problem-solving workshops. The students were great! I wish there had been more opportunities like that.

  20. I just wanted to drop this in to this mix – obviously UK based, and I’m not too sure what the overall feel for engagement is in the states and elsewhere…

    http://www.publicengagement.ac.uk

    as much for pointing to their more strategic objectives (getting uni’s to sign up to the manifesto) as perhaps pointers to helpful information, both for university staff supporting researchers and researchers themselves, AND for the training they provide and other projects they support on everything to do with impact.

    I agree that the main problem is time, followed by awareness – most researchers (I used to be one before leaving to work in science engagement) don’t have the time to think about what they could never, nevermind search out, or sometimes being the case, wade through all the various organisations that could potentially support them – other than their own unis!

    I’ve had emails in the past from people far away from my region request that I help them organise an event when in fact their own university had an absolutely brilliant ‘outreach’ department for their exact field of study. Not only this but in my university, depsite having a brilliant and active outreach department for the whole uni, AND department-specific school liaison officers and all sorts, a lot of researchers didn’t know where to go – they came to the loudest bunch – http://www.sciencebrainwaves.com.

    To summarise: time and awareness/connectivity.

  21. Tom Webb says:

    Jon – that’s really interesting, thanks. Just seems to me that they’ve made a right pigs breakfast of introducing impact (sorry, I enjoy mangling phrases!), the kinds of consultations you’re talking about should clearly have happened before the whole thing was released into the wild. But hopefully we’re gradually getting to the stage where everyone – from Chief Execs of the RCs through those writing and reviewing proposals – are singing from the same hymn sheet, if not actually the same hymn…

    (With apologies to all for the rather parochial UK-academia based digression this has turned into)

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