Scientists, Channel Your Inner Darwins and Einsteins

When Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, he intended for it to be read by a non-scientific audience. In addition to around 300 scientific papers, Albert Einstein published more than 150 non-scientific works throughout his career.

Arguably the most successful scientists in recent history, Darwin and Einstein conducted brilliant scientific work while staying in the public eye. In addition to their prolific scientific careers, both scientists regularly contributed to the prevailing political, religious and ethical conversations of their time.

Today, however, far fewer scientists are willing to engage with the public the way Darwin and Einstein so readily did. A 2004 report by the National Science Foundation (NSF) stated that nearly half of all scientists engaged in no public outreach at all. When the not-for-profit public education and advocacy group Research!America surveyed Americans in 2011, it found that two-thirds of Americans couldn’t name a single living scientist.

Today’s scientists seem to have adopted the notion that public participation necessitates some compromise of scholarly success. The metrics by which scientists are evaluated enforce this notion. A scientist’s institutional worth is determined by his or her research output, not ability to connect with society. At major research institutions, publication record, recognition in their field and the grant money they bring to the university constitute the bulk of how scientists are evaluated for tenure.

Outreach efforts “count little, sometimes nothing, towards tenure,” wrote Carl Safina, founder of the Blue Ocean Institute at Stony Brook University, in a recent publication of the American Physical Society. “Sometimes they actually hurt. Communicating science can be seen as unprofessional.”

Evaluations for grant money are not much better than those for tenure. Though the NSF requires that scientists include in their grant proposals an explanation of their study’s broader impacts, many researchers have found the parameters of “broader impacts” to be frustratingly vague and undefined.

“Because it lacks conceptual clarity, the broader-impacts requirement often leaves researchers unsure about what to include in their proposals,” Corie Lok, an editor at Nature wrote in a feature for the publication. “To make matters worse, the NSF has made little attempt to systematically track how its broader-impacts requirements are being met, or how much grant money is being spent in the process.”

The absence of scientists’ voices from the public discourse is the product of a system that not only fails to incentivize and reward scientific communication, but even sometimes actively discourages it.

Lackluster public participation from scientists is problematic for many reasons. Because scientists are closest to the science, they are in the best position to convey it accurately. They also wield tremendous authority, which gives them the opportunity to impact a large audience. An annual survey conducted by the Harris Poll consistently finds that scientists rank among the most respected professions in America, along with firefighters and doctors. When scientists speak, people will listen.

When scientists perform their research in a vacuum — gaining new knowledge and then neglecting to share it — they are doing a disservice to society. It’s akin to a discovering a shiny new penny and then throwing it into the bottom of a well, where it will sit unnoticed.

If we want scientists to share their discoveries, however, we first need to give them permission to do so. We can start by making it part of their job description. Tenure and grants are major components of a scientist’s livelihood. Making scientific outreach a more significant, visible and well-defined facet of tenure and grant evaluations could catalyze a much-needed shift in scientists’ attitudes toward public participation.

Recently, a group of sociologists conducted research on how academic biologists and physicists view science outreach. “Scientists who popularize or make science too accessible are suspect by their research community. Such efforts could be better recognized at the department and university levels,” they wrote in a 2012 publication in the scientific journal PLoS ONE. “Leadership at the departmental level not only legitimizes outreach efforts but, in this case, even makes them normative. And making outreach work seem normal is a sign that department and university leaders are reassessing their priorities.”

Aside from providing a larger service to society, institutions are also likely to benefit directly from prioritizing public outreach. By prompting researchers to scrutinize their work in a different light, science communication can enhance the quality of research. In thinking about their projects’ broader implications, scientists might develop new ideas or seek interdisciplinary collaborations. According to Nancy Baron, zoologist and science writer, “being a good communicator makes you a better scientist.”

Having scientists play a direct role in outreach can also raise popular opinion of and support for scientific research. This is particularly important during economic recessions, when the public might have less patience for government funding of basic research. Funding entities are more likely to support research that they believe holds some societal merit — that merit could lie in direct application to people’s lives, the potential to inform policy or public perception of excitement and intrigue.

“We’re entering a century of science in which we’ll have to save ourselves by using our own ingenuity,” said Paul Sereno, a dinosaur researcher at the University of Chicago. “We scientists need to participate in showing how exciting our profession is, rather than sitting back in our offices and enjoying it all for ourselves.”

Opponents of institutionalizing science outreach argue that forcing researchers to engage in anything other than research does not make the most of their talents — that scientists’ time is best spent actually doing science. But this argument does not hold water. We ask scientists to teach classes, even if teaching is not their forte, because, as experts of their subjects, they are often best equipped to do so. We ask them to deliver lectures and seminars even if they are not great orators.

Furthermore, outreach can take many different forms — and scientists can tailor outreach according to their personal interests or skills. They can write op-eds, advise politicians, produce videos or podcasts, engage in social media, lead workshops, give public lectures, make websites that are accessible to a lay audience; there are endless creative options.

For anyone who believes that public engagement and academic output are mutually exclusive, I refer them to Darwin and Einstein — both of whom left behind not just scientific, but also civic, legacies. It’s time to create an institutional environment in which scientists like them are allowed to thrive.

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4 thoughts on “Scientists, Channel Your Inner Darwins and Einsteins

  1. Ah, but there are scientists out there writing for a broader public. Hawking and Kaku are two who come to mind, and there are many others. The world of physics and cosmology is particularly filled with tomes written for the educated non=-scientist.

  2. I think it is essential for the scientific community to reach out to the world and make clear what is happening with tax’ payers or charity money. If not, I guess support for fundamental science can be easily lost, especially in times of economical hardship.

    And yes, I find that it helps me to discuss my PhD project with my friends and family, to get everything stripped to the essentials and clear to me as well!

  3. Pingback: Greetings from Lemont, IL! | Ink Chromatography

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