Speak Up, Scientists!

If you argue that scientists should try to communicate their ideas and findings more widely, rather than just staying hunched over their microscopes, everyone will nod vigorously. Of course they should, right? They have lots of important things to share with us, from the latest on the eating habits of vampire jumping spiders to the evidence that we’re on the cusp of a life-altering, worldwide catastrophe.

A recent editorial in The Biological Bulletin, for instance, makes the case that if you’re in a lab but not on Twitter, you’re falling down on the job and placing science in a “perilous position.”

But the idea of outreach—the term that’s inevitably applied when scientists talk to nonscientists about science—is complicated. And in the past week several researchers who also blog and Tweet have been explaining why it’s not always so simple.

As Jeanne Garbarino, a postdoc at Rockefeller University, puts it, researchers are “already overburdened with just keeping their laboratories and careers afloat.” She goes on:

I want to come out in defense of scientists. I am growing weary of the blame being placed on them (me) for not “breaking it down” for public audiences. All too often, scientists are painted as elitists who refuse to leave the comfy confines of their ivory towers, when in reality, they are locked in the tower, held captive by the evil stepmother that is our current funding system. Those who place the blame on scientists are just out of touch with the realities of basic science research.

This post from the researcher and blogger Scicurious sounds a similar note:

If you seem overly interested in outreach (or even in college teaching in some fields), you are not just odd. Your priorities are out of whack. No one ever got a faculty position based on outreach. I have seen colleagues get dinged in promotion meetings for too much time spent doing outreach. The unspoken implication is clear: If you’re doing outreach, you must not be doing science.

But maybe that’s starting to change, at least at some institutions. Kate Clancy, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, shares this heartening experience:

My third-year review letter contained language that agreed that my blog constitutes a kind of nontraditional, peer-reviewed writing. The letter applauded my efforts in outreach, over and over again. And so while my next year on the tenure track will surely be focused on my trying to find balance between research, teaching, and outreach efforts, I now have written insurance from higher-ups at my university that my outreach is considered valuable and aids my path to tenure.

Cedar Riener, an assistant professor of psychology at Randolph-Macon College, argues that it’s not just about dissemination:

Science outreach needn’t be just reaching out, but also pulling in. In this age when new forms of communication facilitate dialogue rather than broadcast, being a good innovative scientist should mean occasional interaction with a wide variety of people in a wide variety of disciplines. When people discourage science outreach, I think they hold a mistaken caricature of what outreach is (as merely broadcasting, instead of dialogue), but also, they perpetuate a needlessly limited and conservative view of science, as progress in isolated niches rather than a fundamentally multidisciplinary exercise.

Following up on this idea, John Hawks, the anthropologist who writes this popular blog, Tweets:

Labeling activities as “outreach” is a way for the academy to delegitimize them. We should resist pigeonholing.

More posts on outreach (or whatever you want to call it) can be found here, and also under the Twitter hashtag #reachingoutsci.

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