Mike the Mad Biologist

David Dobbs asks a really good question about the effect of scientific (scholastic) publishing on communication of science to the public:

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.

Dobbs argues:

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.



  1. #1 DrugMonkey
    September 24, 2010

    At least at present, when the culture is so embedded, the stick is not going to work so well. If you add a requirement for public outreach to research grants, you’ll get minimum happy talk and no output.

    What will really work will be set-asides. Use something like the R25 mechanism- small amounts of PI time, like 3-5%, renewable (to ensure they actually do it) and promote the hell out of them as a prestigious award. Call it something grand (like MERIT).

  2. #2 NewEnglandBob
    September 24, 2010

    Beyond the myriad problems brought out in this post, there is another set of problems with the public’s acceptance of scientific information.

    There is an anti-science bigotry perpetrated by the right wing in the US. They stir up ignorant people to make them reject science, partly due to evangelical nonsensical woo belief.

    People like Sarah Palin, being ignorant and proud of it, prefers her fundy voodoo over real science. Fox news is also a perpetrator of hate for science.

  3. #3 Thomas Joseph
    September 24, 2010

    Don’t most institutions have public relations departments/divisions/agencies? They’re the ones who are well versed, and trained, in using all the social media and working directly with the professional media to get the word out.

    Why not allow researchers to funnel a small flow of their research money to them? Then the PR folk can interface with the research and do most of the polishing (with with input from the researcher). This funding should allow the PR divisions to expand operations to allow for direct interaction/consulting of individual PIs. No?

  4. #4 David Dobbs
    September 24, 2010


    You’re spot on here: The lack of incentives and rewards for engaging the public is a huge problem. That’s one reason the overvaluation of the paper — so much credit for publishing a paper, so little for talking science or taking part in other conversations or venues that expand and discuss scientific ideas — helps to create this problem. To change this we’ll need new metrics that reward other activities. People are working on that. I’m working on a long feature that looks at these bigger issues as well.



  5. #5 abb3w
    September 24, 2010

    There’s also the additional problem of not merely communicating the ideas to the public, but the public accurately grasping the ideas that are communicated. Leaving that aside?

    Is it better to encourage scientists to do it, or develop and encourage a new “science communicator” specialty? Someone who may not do research themselves, but who specializes in finding out what researchers are doing and finding, and communicating what was found (and why it is believable/interesting/important) to the general public (and perhaps, other researchers who might find results useful/relevant/irritating)?

    On another level, what is the goal that is trying to be achieved, and why is that goal desired?

  6. #6 Phoebe
    September 24, 2010

    “One way to do this, perhaps, is to make public communication a condition of successful grant completion”

    The increasing weight given to the ‘broader impacts’ section of NSF grants is one way to help this process along, though as far as I can tell, there are few repercussions for writing a great BI proposal and then never following through with is. NASA takes public outreach and education pretty seriously and large NASA grants often have dedicated staff members to implement education/outreach agendas. But it seems to be true that none of this matters much when tenure time comes along (though getting grants, which often requires a good BI section, does come into play).

    One of the issues with NSF’s BI section is that there is a lack of support in terms of implementation – not only do we need to communicate and educate, we need to do it in a way that actually *works*. Writing grants to include specific $ for outreach/communication is a first step.

  7. #7 Kevin
    September 24, 2010

    @Phoebe – In my NSF fellowship application, I put a lot of effort into the “broader impacts” section, and I got funded where another grad-student in the lab, who actually got higher marks on the research proposal, did not.

    I basically said that if I got funded, I’m have more time for outreach/teaching since my PI wouldn’t be responsible for funding me (so would have less clout telling me to stay in lab all day).

  8. #8 hoary puccoon
    September 24, 2010

    Forcing scientists who are not good communicators and who have no interest in communicating their ideas to the public to try to do so would not be a good move.

    Try to simplify an idea, say “nucleic acids contain four bases, call them A, C, G, and T,” and the next thing you know, some scientist will be screaming, “No! That’s completely wrong!! You’re an idiot!!!” followed by a long explanation of how “T” is only found in DNA, not RNA, and its real name is thymine, and, anyway, nucleic acids also have backbones and….
    And the crucial concept of base pairing is never even mentioned, let alone explained. (This is obviously a made-up example, so please don’t jump in with how base pairing should really be explained by quantum physics, or whatever the newest thing in the biological theory is, okay?)

    For all the scientists who are good communicators, you’re wonderful, I love you all, and thank you, thank you. I buy your books. I watch your TV documentaries. But forcing scientists who are good in the lab to be science reporters as well when they have no talent or interest in it, strikes me as a bad use of everybody’s energy.

  9. #9 SurgPA
    September 24, 2010

    A few comments from outside the research world:

    NewEnglandBob@2 – it is precisely because the right is working so hard to delegitimize science that it’s important for scientists to help the general public understand their work and results. I see the culture war (as perpetrated by FoxNews/Palin et al) as a battle about the truth and who’s truth history will remember. The public may be skeptical of science because of the propaganda from the antiscience crowd, but they will certainly never be convinced unless scientists speak out to counter the fallacies.

    Hoary Puccoon@8 – It’s a cop-out to say “I’m not good at communicating to the public.” I’m sure that most scientists (as most professionals) have parts of their jobs that they enjoy less and have less skill, but you don’t say “I’m not good at grant-writing, so I don’t have to do it. I don’t like crunching statistics, so I’ll skip that part.” It’s a skill that can be developed like any other. The key is to incentivise scientists to make this part of their repetoire. I don’t know what the carrot is (prestige? money?) but based on the posts above it seems the carrot is probably more effective than the stick.

  10. #10 Thomas Joseph
    September 24, 2010

    @SurgPA – in regards to your comments re: developing skills. It’s not always necessary, and that is what collaborators are for. If they do something better than you, you work with them. Ergo, why not go with someone who is better at PR than you are? Why not allow funding to make that happen?

  11. #11 SurgPA
    September 24, 2010

    I’m not opposed to collaborators, and it would be great if the public debate were just about the merits of the ideas; in that case the mouthpiece wouldn’t matter. But to use an analogy from medicine, when public figure has a complicated surgery that is deemed to warrant a press conference, the PR guy who comes out and say “everything went fine” has much less credibility than the operating surgeon who comes out and says “I found X and did Y, and everything is fine.” Similarly, if the collaborators are “just” PR people, not scientists intimately involved in the projects, their statements won’t carry as much weight. It becomes harder to marginalize science when those whom you are trying to marginalize can effectively and publicly rebut your criticism.

  12. #12 Dario Ringach
    September 24, 2010

    So many opportunities…

    For each R01, request the awardee to generate during the first year of the grant a one-page HTML document with a lay explanation as to what were the advances in his/her field in the last 50 years, how the public benefited, and what are the present challenges people are working on. These get submitted to the NIH OD Education Office which screen the top ones and publishes them in a dedicated site.

    Each institute can set aside funds to explain the public the best research done in the past year, with video interviews and everything and picking the best science communicators. In fact, it appears this is already being done.

    Organize a special session at large scientific conferences, like SfN, where selected speakers give lay talks to the public and the press emphasizing how is that we got here and where their fields are going next.

    And I am sure people can come up with better ideas too….

  13. #13 Shawn
    September 25, 2010

    I would think most scientists would like to be able to write their own sound bite that the media picks up rather than have their observations and claims sensationalized. The current format for publication does not allow for this. Perhaps a new section with a few lines saying what this research actually means in layman’s terms would make science more accessible to people outside the field.

  14. #14 Maryn
    September 25, 2010

    “Is it better to encourage scientists to do it, or develop and encourage a new “science communicator” specialty? Someone who may not do research themselves, but who specializes in finding out what researchers are doing and finding, and communicating what was found (and why it is believable/interesting/important) to the general public (and perhaps, other researchers who might find results useful/relevant/irritating)?” (@abb3w)

    We have those people. We’re called science journalists.

    (Or, within universities, “science writers,” who may be under the PR/P-Aff umbrella but tend to do long explanatory releases, mag articles, etc.)

  15. #15 Hank Roberts
    September 26, 2010

    Hat tip to Michael Tobis here

    for his pointer to this:

    MT wrote: “Bob Grumbine … captured the essence of the science/sustainability problem perfectly.”

    Grumbine wrote:

    “I think a crucial part of that error is a failure to understand how science works. While you and I (and others) look at it and see masses of scientists from different areas and reach a conclusion, others don’t. The extra piece of knowledge we have is that science has to hang together as a coherent picture. If climate people were seriously wrong about the radiative properties of CO2, then CO2 lasers would not work. And so on through a very, very long list. Conversely, if climate types were seriously wrong about CO2′s radiative properties, laser specialists would look at the climate work and point to the errors and that’d be the end of the wrong climate CO2 work.

    Instead, they take the view that science is story-telling. Laser physicists go along with the climate people because the climate folks are telling a story that the laser folks like, not because there’s any particular evidence in favor of it. The “It’s a liberal conspiracy”, or “They only say this because they want to impose one world government” responses are part of this. The he said — she said journalistic line is exactly this, as the science is presented as two stories the reader is chosing between. They think the scientists are doing the same thing. (How would they know differently?)”

    Point is — scientists need to explain _each_other’s_ work and how the view given by science is put together from all these individual papers and perspectives.

    People who don’t understand how science works assume each scientist is spinning to support their chosen story, politics or religion.

  16. #16 Peter
    September 26, 2010

    In the post you point out

    “Scientific papers aren’t just a form of communication, they are also a currency.”

    I think there needs to be a new ‘currency’.

    In my own field (which is mathematics not science) I often feel that papers have been reduced to currency only. That is, papers are too often barely readable, nobody invests the time to make them accessible beyond what a referee requires. You try to get it out with as little effort as possible; just add one more entry to you publication list, forget the rest. In short, publish-or-perish has eliminated the culture of writing well.

    Over at gobbledygook there was a discussion on automated evaluation tools. I think continuous evaluation tools (e.g. in a shape similar to a weekly blog-post) might be an incentive to practice science writing/communication with very small long-term costs (in terms of workload). This writing would be aimed at other researchers at first — but where else should it begin?

    As Maryn said, there are specialists. So making room for them (being are of their work, seeking interaction) might be another way; especially for those who do not feel able to do it themselves.

  17. #17 Hank Roberts
    September 28, 2010

    This seems like a very good idea.

    I wonder if there’s a chance someone could make it work?

    I suppose it’s the kind of thing a few publications are already doing quietly — any scientists able to recommend journals or magazines where they know they _can_ get the kind of good editing help discussed here?



    …. in an ideal world often the best people to write about science are people who work in that field, people who are working scientists. And what I’d really like to see is fewer science writers and more science editors.

    … If you ever … work on maybe a features desk in a newspaper, you’ll find that people who regard themselves as ‘features’ journalists really do email in some of the most appalling, disorganised bullshit, that then has to be fixed from top to bottom by the editors on the features desk- that happens in every publication. …

    What I think is bizarre is why do you bother having science writers? Why don’t you just have really good editors who can help people who work in a field to chorale their thoughts, to get a good structure to their piece, to express themselves clearly? Why not help them do that? ….

    — end excerpt

  18. #18 Liisa
    September 29, 2010

    I’m working on another textbook, this time for 6th graders. (I’ve already published one for 4th and 5th grade and it is generally liked, I hear). I’m a historian and I totally love to explain things to people. I also hear that I’m a good storyteller and it may be true, people do listen, laugh, ask instead of yawning and running away.

    Well, the other day, I brought my brand new nice little book to the department to brag and I was told that textbooks are not serious enough to be considered publications.