Popularization Is Its Own Reward?

One of the major problems contributing to the dire situation described in Unscientific America is that the incentives of academia don’t align very well with the public interest. Academic scientists are rewarded– with tenure, promotion, and salary increases– for producing technical, scholarly articles, and not for writing for a general audience. There is very little institutionalized reward within academia for science popularization.

An extreme example of this is the failure of Carl Sagan’s nomination to the National Academy of Sciences:

According to sources within the academy, Sagan was criticized for “oversimplification” in his scientific writings. Lynn Margulis, an academy member and by then Sagan’s ex-wife, wrote him a sympathetic note in the wake of the debacle: “They are jealous of your communications skills, charm, good looks and outspoken attitude especially on nuclear winter.” The scientist who nominated Sagan, the distinguished origins-of-life researcher Stanley Miller, concurred with her assessment. “I can just see them saying it: ‘Here’s this little punk with all this publicity and Johnny Carson. I’m a ten times better scientist than that punk!’”

This is, again, an extreme example. There is, however, some small justification for some of the academic system’s treatment of popularization activities: people who write for a mass audience are generally paid for their work.

The process of writing my book has led to a number of awkward situations, but the second-most-common of them is related to this. On several occasions, the book has come up in conversation with a faculty colleague. “Oh, you’re publishing a book,” they say. “Congratulations. What press is it?”

“Um. Scribner.” I reply. And there’s always an embarrassing instant of shock. People in academia expect academics– especially relatively junior people like me– to be publishing with academic presses. Doing a book with an imprint of Simon and Schuster is almost unheard of.

(The most common awkward exchange is related to the description of the project. “It’s a general audience book on quantum mechanics, explaining it through imaginary conversations with my dog” is generally met with a look that says “Oh, so you’re a crazy person…” That’s a hard one to shake.)

There’s a really big difference between general-audience publishing and academic-press publishing, and the difference is money. Most of my colleagues in the humanities and social sciences who publish scholarly monographs aren’t going to see significant royalties on the deal. My advance, on the other hand, was roughly one year worth of my salary. That was spread out over a period of at least three years (I almost certainly won’t get the last chunk of it until next year), but it’s still more than I would get in summer salary from an NSF grant, say.

As a result, I can understand how there would be some reluctance to treat this sort of book in the same way that one would treat an academic-press book. A historian publishing with the Big State University Press isn’t going to get a financial reward from the book itself, so their efforts need to be rewarded through the academic salary and promotion system. For somebody who’s getting up-front money from a trade publisher, though, that looks a little like double-dipping.

So, as I said, it’s kind of an awkward situation. In the end, I don’t think it’s right, so I have been listing the book under “scholarly production” in my annual activity reports for the last few years. I don’t believe they’ve come up for review by the relevant committee, though, so I’m not sure what the official response to that is.

To be clear, I’m not trying to claim that I’m in Sagan’s league– I’m biiiiiilyuns of miles away from that. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.) And the money in general-audience publishing isn’t nearly as good as people think (there’s a wonderful piece by Daniel “Lemony Snicket” Handler about this)– I was paid a surprisingly large amount for the book, which honestly makes me kind of nervous. But I think it is legitimately true that non-scholarly publication (of books at least) carries more financial rewards than scholarly publication, and I think that leads to the difference in treatment of the two.

The problem is that this extends down from things that legitimately do carry financial rewards to things that don’t. The vast majority of outreach-type writing that scientists or other academics can do isn’t going to carry significant financial compensation– the local paper isn’t going to buy you a new car for writing an op-ed about science. And tv news programs don’t pay you for appearing in short clips on the evening news– I’ve been on three of the four local networks for one thing or another (one, two, three), and haven’t made a dime off it.

Those sorts of unpaid outreach activities go into the same “that and a cup of coffee will get you a cup of coffee” category as the paid variety. Blogging falls in there as well. Which is kind of a shame, because it’s activities like silly little tv news clips that put science in front of people who wouldn’t otherwise see it, and activities like blogging that help people learn whether they have the inclination and aptitude to do larger-scale outreach and popularization..

By strongly discouraging young scientists from doing small-scale popularization (that is, by not including it as a positive factor in tenure and merit reviews), we cut some of them off from the opportunity to discover whether they would be good at the sort of outreach and popularization that is rewarded (albeit outside the academic system). Which leaves it for people who, for whatever reason, regard that sort of work as its own reward. Which is part of why there are relatively few scientists blogging, writing articles for the general press, and appearing in the media.

I don’t have a solution to propose, alas. I’m just sort of thinking out loud, in print. If you have brilliant suggestions to offer, though, please leave them in the comments. We could all use some brilliant suggestions right about now.

Comments

  1. #1 Ray
    July 6, 2009

    Not especially relevant – tangentially, I suppose, in that it’s about how the media covers science – but you might enjoy Bad Science, by Ben Goldacre
    http://www.badscience.net/

  2. #2 Ray
    July 6, 2009

    Not especially relevant – tangentially, I suppose, in that it’s about how the media covers science – but you might enjoy Bad Science, by Ben Goldacre
    http://www.badscience.net/

  3. #3 Eric Lund
    July 6, 2009

    NASA offers various funding opportunities under the label Education and Public Outreach (EPO), which would cover this sort of thing for NASA-funded research. Presumably the same is true of NSF and probably DOE. My impression is that this category is not as appreciated as it should be, except for satellite projects, which are required to have such a component. I know at least one person who started out as a scientist and fell into this kind of work–she is now regarded as an EPO specialist rather than a scientist per se.

    The best solution would be to have some kind of reinforcement from the funding agencies, but if there is any such reinforcement, it’s spotty at best. In a system where peers select what research gets funded, it’s easy to see why reviewers would tend to emphasize science over EPO. Maybe if they had more reviewers like the friend I mentioned above there would be more of an incentive, but there is still the hurdle of funding agencies recognizing that such people are experts in something other than EPO.

  4. #4 ponderingfool
    July 6, 2009

    By strongly discouraging young scientists from doing small-scale popularization (that is, by not including it as a positive factor in tenure and merit reviews), we cut some of them off from the opportunity to discover whether they would be good at the sort of outreach and popularization that is rewarded (albeit outside the academic system).
    ***********************
    How much of that is science per se vs. the institutions science is done in? Research universities I have been a part of love overhead dollars.

    When I was a graduate student rotating in a lab of a professor working towards tenure he sat the lab down to tell us about the lab budget. He explained his grants. One did not include overhead. The PI explained the grant was great for helping pay for the science but for his tenure wasn’t as valuable as the slightly smaller grant which did bring in overhead dollars. Overhead at said university was/is 65.5%. The upshot being there was a selection favoring not just grant dollars but those that bring in overhead. That selection came from the administration not fellow scientists.

    The university also loves patents which they can get in on. Once again potential revenue stream for the university.

    In those type of places you are going to favor professors who go after cash money for the university. You select for certain types of professors guess who they are going to vote in favor of for positions in the NAS? Yep those who are like them. That is human nature. Those professors have been conditioned by the reward system to favor scientists who go after overhead dollars not those who popularize science.

    Basically you have to create reward systems not just for scientists but also the institutions they work if you want things to change. When dollars are scarce for science as it is, where is that money going to come from? To get more science dollars, means getting people to understand the importance of science. It is negative feedback loop. As dollars decrease relatively for science the harder it is in the short term to get scientists to popularize science as universities become even more thirsty for overhead dollars, favoring grant writing over popularizing science.

    It will have to be up to scientists like Chad, Paul, etc. at undergraduate focussed institutions to make the case and keep their places from being seduced by the overhead dollars and have a selection that is more open.

  5. #5 Kate W.
    July 6, 2009

    I think colleges and univesities need to remember the PR value of popular work to people outside the academic world. Almost fifteen years after the fact my mother still sends me press clippings with quotes from one of my undergraduate professors who is the press go to guy on Minnesota politics. She still gets a kick out of the fact that I studied under “an expert.”

    For a private liberal arts college with sky high tution, letting parents of students or parents of prospective students (plus alumni)know that interesting people who know stuff about interesting things are teaching is valuable. It resonants with regular people in a way that most academic accolades don’t. Someone who can teach physics to a dog is probably going to be able to engage your kid.

    For a public school, the chance is equally valuable and the audience includes taxpayers. A chance to connect with people over something they care about in a way they can understand reminds them of value of the institution. Taxpayers who see the state college and university system as providing something of value are less likely to see it as a frill to be cut back in tight times.

    It’s pretty short-sighted not to view these as significant contributions even if they don’t bring in overhead dollars or break new ground in research.

  6. #6 Zen Faulkes
    July 6, 2009

    In our department, popularization is a positive factor in merit and tenure. It falls under “Service” rather than “Research,” but it counts. It doesn’t count as much. If I write one peer reviewed publication, it gets me about one merit point. I blog a lot and it gets me about half a merit point. Considering that original research is harder than blogging, I’m okay with that.

    Academics should check their own department’s merit and tenure process to see if there is a mechanism to reward popularization. If there isn’t, change it.

  7. #7 Sean Carroll
    July 6, 2009

    For what it’s worth, I mentioned my own book in our recent DOE grant renewal presentation. Didn’t make a big deal out of it, nor was it treated as especially unusual.

    If everyone put aside research to start popularizing, it would be bad. So academia tends to overcorrect by being afraid of popularizers and discouraging young people from getting involved. I very much wish there was institutional support for a wider porfolio of intellectual activities on the part of young faculty, but I’m not sure how to make it happen.

  8. #8 ponderingfool
    July 6, 2009

    Kate that is more long term looking. University presidents like CEOs of companies have pressure to perform in the short term. Long term planning is great but selection is in the short term.

    Zen the departments I have seen have service and teaching listed in their tenure requirements. A professor universally hailed as a poor teacher by students and fellow faculty alike got tenure. Why? Dollars brought in. Service is important for getting the thumbs up from the department. It mostly focusses on university service. Community outreach is only a small sub-category. That is the reality. The university has no real incentive to change that in the short term. Great teachers, who did service work, but who were good researchers were told to not even apply for tenure. This is at a top R1.

    Other universities/colleges have different priorities with regards to tenure. Some of these places are getting a taste of overhead dollars. That seduction can alter things.

    The top tier SLAC I went to for undergraduate turned down a faculty member for tenure because of his/her research was not high enough for the college’s new standards. Teaching and service were all highly regarded. Research was good for a SLAC. Outside letters were supportive. For the university council and president, it wasn’t enough. They now wanted more in terms of research ($$). The faculty were supportive of their fellow professor but that wasn’t enough. He/she was denied tenure.

    Similar stories I have heard from those at regional colleges who said the administration for the first time tasted overhead dollars and wanted more, altering the focus for tenure while not changing course loads.

  9. #9 Chris C. Mooney
    July 7, 2009

    Hi Chad,
    As you know we have strong views on this in the book. What’s needed, we believe, is a change of academic culture so that popularization comes to be viewed as an essential part of the role of the university. That doesn’t mean everyone has to do it, but those who want to should be encouraged.

    Moreover, once we acknowledge up front that there aren’t enough academic jobs for every graduate student in science to some day become a tenured professor, it becomes much harder to discourage those young scientists who are interested in popularization and outreach to the public from engaging in these activities.

    So now comes the real trick–there needs to also be training for these people, *interdisciplinary* training, and also jobs waiting for them so they can take science to the public. And that…well, that costs money.

  10. #10 Zen Faulkes
    July 7, 2009

    Ponderingfool: There is no question that at many universities, research is the most important factor in those decisions.

    But academic evaluation is a complex beast. Tenure decisions are unlikely to be swayed much by popularization. Annual merit evaluations, however, are more likely to be places where someone can get rewarded financially for popularization.

    The point is that the original post was saying that people popularizing often get no reward; I’m saying that there can be some professional recognition, even though it is small.

    It seems foolish to throw up your hands and say that nothing can be done. Things can be done. But it’s something that occurs on local levels, with individuals work at their own departments and institutions. I’ve seen such changes at universities. They do happen.

  11. #11 Zen Faulkes
    July 7, 2009

    Ponderingfool: There is no question that at many universities, research is the most important factor in those decisions.

    But academic evaluation is a complex beast. Tenure decisions are unlikely to be swayed much by popularization. Annual merit evaluations, however, are more likely to be places where someone can get rewarded financially for popularization.

    The point is that the original post was saying that people popularizing often get no reward; I’m saying that there can be some professional recognition, even though it is small.

    It seems foolish to throw up your hands and say that nothing can be done. Things can be done. But it’s something that occurs on local levels, with individuals work at their own departments and institutions. I’ve seen such changes at universities. They do happen.

  12. #12 ponderingfool
    July 7, 2009

    It seems foolish to throw up your hands and say that nothing can be done. Things can be done. But it’s something that occurs on local levels, with individuals work at their own departments and institutions. I’ve seen such changes at universities. They do happen.
    ***********
    I am not throwing my hands up but to truly change requires adjusting the reward system. Top R1s who produce many of the professors for other institutions are going the other way. They are focussing even more. It isn’t easy. Not to mention I would say science faculty at SLACs and other undergraduate focussed institutions need to be proactive to prevent the seduction of overhead dollars from changing their focus. In my mind such places are where a line has to be drawn and fostering young scientists with the confidence to pursue a career in science that is not only an academic researcher.

  13. #13 Jon
    July 8, 2009

    You have some chutzpah. You are being paid, probably quite well, to do research! Journalists are paid, not nearly so well, to popularize research. It takes some nerve to take an extra year’s salary, and to take time away from your real job—and then to complain about not being well-enough rewarded. If you want something to complain about, become a science journalist and see how well you are rewarded then. I’m sure you think that is beneath you, and that you do so much better a job—but the general audience you aim to address can’t tell the difference.

    We need fewer scientists doing committee work/writing reports/giving TV interviews/blogging/”popularizing”/writing the thousandth general audience book on quantum mechanics. We need more scientists doing their jobs.

    The reason that these extra activities are mildly encouraged is that funding agencies love it and universities like it—good marketing, good publicity = more money. But ultimately you are responsible to the taxpayers and your mandate from them is to do new research, not to glorify the old or be an NSF fundraiser.

  14. #14 onymous
    July 8, 2009

    And I would have thought what took chutzpah is being a raging asshole and insulting the owner of the blog you’re commenting on.

  15. #15 red slider
    March 25, 2012

    In a recent review (of Pellegrino’s “Farewell Titanic”) I think I made a fair case for why popularizations of science (done right) are not only a worthwhile adjunct to sciencing, but may be critical to its core missions as well. The case in point is drawn from forensic archaeology, but I’ll leave it to your imagination how its thesis might be extended to more physical or mathematical sciences as well.

    http://www.supportows.org/redslider/titanic-rev/

  16. #16 Red Slider
    March 25, 2012

    In a recent review (of Pellegrino’s “Farewell Titanic”) I think I made a fair case for why popularizations of science (done right) are not only a worthwhile adjunct to sciencing, but may be critical to its core missions as well. The case in point is drawn from forensic archaeology, but I’ll leave it to your imagination how its thesis might be extended to more physical or mathematical sciences as well.

    http://www.supportows.org/redslider/titanic-rev/

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