I want to consider another problem with the paper’s overvaluation: it discourages scientists from engaging the public. How so? Because many seem to think that when they’ve finished the paper, they’ve finished their work.
…..A scientist in the audience said something that always gets said during such discussions: “What if you want to just do the work?” What if you want, in other words, to do the experiment or observation, analyse the data, write and publish the damn thing, and then get back to the lab and do it all again. Investigate, publish, rinse, repeat.
They [scientists] need to go explain it at the Big Conference — the one outside of academe. They need to offer the larger world not just a paper meaningful only to peers, but a friendly account of the work’s relevance and connections to the rest of life. That means getting lucid with letters columns or op-ed pages or science writers or science cafes or schoolchildren or blog readers. Those who can’t hack that – stage fright, can’t write, or just doesn’t feel right – can support their peers who do engage the rabble. Write some code for them, maintain their web pages, give them rides, or grant them time off from inside the lab to take the lab’s work outside. But do something. Because if you “just do the work,” you’re not finishing the work. You haven’t got it out there.
I completely agree with Dobbs: if I didn’t, I would not spend time on this blog writing about science (it’s been known to happen, from time to time…). But there’s a problem.
Most scientists have no incentive to communicate to the public (beyond a personal desire to do so). Scientific papers aren’t just a form of communication, they are also a currency. If you publish often, and in glamour magz, that makes getting funding much easier (or simply possible). There is a strong career incentive to publish in scientific journals.
But how do we create incentives to communicate to the broader public? Doing so doesn’t help researchers get funding, which not only harms the researcher’s funding prospects, but also her institution’s bottom line. One way to do this, perhaps, is to make public communication a condition of successful grant completion (we’ll elide past how one would actually evaluate this). A more ‘carrot-oriented’ approach might involve providing additional funding for public communication–maybe recording and distributing a recording of a public lecture.
I’m sure people have good ideas, but exhorting scientists to communicate, by itself, won’t cut it. People already work really long hours, and there have to be professional, not just personal, incentives to take the time to reach out to the public.