This isn’t actually about a literal or metaphorical smackdown– it’s more about a distinction in language, related to a number of the comments that have been made regarding Unscientific America. (Yeah, I know. I’ll find something else to talk about soon.)

The issue is most clearly laid out by Janet, who writes:

In addition to the research, the grant writing, the manuscript drafting, the student training, the classroom teaching, the paper and grant refereeing, and the always rewarding committee work, academic scientists should be working hard to communicate with the public, to generate their own science news for public distribution, to advise filmmakers, and to get politically active.

This is the most common immediate negative reaction to the suggestion that scientists should become more involved in anything: “I already have too much to do.” The problem here is a confusion between “scientists” in the sense of “the scientific community” and “scientists” in the sense of “you and your closest collaborators.” When Chris and Sheril suggest that scientists need to become more involved in the broad communication of science, and when I say the same sort of thing, we’re using the word in the former sense.

Of course, Janet being Janet, she also acknowledges this:

(To be fair, Mooney and Kirshenbaum actually seem to be suggesting more of a division of labor within the scientific community — rather than making all the researchers be communicators, some scientists in a department could focus on research and others on communication. But there are significant challenges in making an arrangement like this work, including but not limited to issues of fair evaluation of work that a department is not used to evaluating. The challenges experienced within departments that include traditional chemists and those whose research focuses on chemical education, for example, might be instructive in coming up with something like a blueprint to diversify science departments in the ways Mooney and Kirshenbaum suggest.)”

This is all absolutely correct. There are significant problems with broadening the roles that academic scientists can take on, mostly relating to the reward culture we currently have in academia. That does pose a significant obstacle to the suggestion that more scientists should do communication– the default method of accommodating new tasks is to add new items to the checklist of things that academics must do in order to get tenure, and that’s not really sustainable.

But here’s the thing: this is a problem that needs to be solved anyway. It’s just another aspect of the academic-culture problems that stand in the way of efforts to improve racial and gender diversity (“You want me to spend time doing outreach to minority students?” and “I can’t have a family, I need to get tenure”). It’s just another aspect of the problems that hold back “open science” initiatives (“I have to publish in high-impact journals or I won’t get tenure” or “I have to keep my data secret, or I won’t be able to publish in high-impact journals”). It’s just another aspect of the distortions of research culture that lead to a relative lack of people pursuing high-risk, high-reward problems, and an overabundance of relatively “safe” projects that will lead to immediate papers.

Academic culture as it currently exists poses major problems for people interested in a whole host of different reforms. They all have the same root cause, though, and they all ought to be pursued together. We need to re-shape the reward structure in academia not only because we ought to have more scientists doing outreach, but because we ought to have more diversity in science, and because we ought to have a more open publishing culture, and because we ought to have more people pursuing long-shot projects, and so on. If you fix the problem for one, you fix it for all of them.

(Pause here to acknowledge Mad Mike’s pointing out that not all scientists are academics. Which is another thing that we need to change about academic culture– the notion that the only acceptable goal of a scientific career is a tenure-track position at a major research university.)

It’s also worth explicitly stating what Janet has read into the book, though. Well, OK, I can’t speak for Chris and Sheril, but when I say that we as scientists need to do something, I do not mean to suggest that every single scientist needs to find a way to squeeze an hour worth of public outreach into their calendar. That would be crazy.

When I say that we as scientists need to do something, I am saying that the scientific community needs to do these things. The best way to do that is almost certainly to free up those scientists with an aptitude and an inclination to speak to a broad public to do that. Some people will be good at this, and they should be encouraged to run with that. Other scientists will not be good at outreach, or won’t be interested in doing outreach, and they can hunker down in their labs and offices and leave the media stuff to others.

The idea that every scientist needs to do public outreach is as crazy as the idea that every scientist needs to be working on quantum gravity, because it is the Most Fundamental and Important Problem EVAR!!!1!, or that the only real scientists are those who can do original work in both experiment and theory. We allow people to specialize in either experiment or theory, according to their talents, and we should treat outreach the same way.

But we should, as a community, recognize that speaking to a broad audience is a valuable activity for science as a whole. And we should, as a community, recognize and reward those members of the community who choose to focus their efforts in that direction.

Comments

  1. #1 ponderingfool
    July 16, 2009

    We allow people to specialize in either experiment or theory, according to their talents, and we should treat outreach the same way.
    **********************
    But how is this going to be measured and rewarded by institutions? Research is measured rightly or wrongly by overhead dollars brought in at research universities. In industry it is by making products that generate a profit for investors. It is not enough as a scientist to appreciate communication. It has to have a reward system that gives space that others recognize as important. Rightly or wrongly that is $$$.

    We have seen however how the drive for $$$ in the short term has altered newspapers and TV news. Which raises the question Janet has been asking, is our system really compatible with what is required to be done if we want a scientifically literate population.

  2. #2 Sigmund
    July 16, 2009

    I haven’t read their book yet but I was interested in one aspect that was mentioned in one amazon.com review – the section about the difficult career structure for aspiring scientists.
    I think its a pity that all the debate about their book has been about the completely separate subject of accomodationism.

  3. #3 ponderingfool
    July 16, 2009

    I think its a pity that all the debate about their book has been about the completely separate subject of accomodationism.
    ********************
    Reviewers on Amazon and other places have mentioned that they thought the book was good and important read but wondered about the inclusion of the contentious chapter. Why authors decided to include this they discuss on their blog.

    The fact the authors took time on their blog before and after their blog was published to discuss the the same issues has also contributed to the focus skewing away from the rest of the book. Their book, their blog, their choice. Hope the contentious part gets more to read the book and discuss/debate the rest of the book.

  4. #4 Alex
    July 16, 2009

    Eh, I only agree up to a point. I don’t think every department should decide to give equal reward to every science-related activity that a person might pursue. There’s nothing wrong with a department deciding that outreach is nice but anything that directly benefits their own students (be it laboratory research with students or pedagogical research that improves a class) has to get higher weight.

    A PhD-granting department might quit reasonably decide that research that leads to dissertations has to get higher weight than outreach. Of course, one could do research on outreach, but a department might decide that it can’t allow Ph.D. students to do that work in the absence of a critical mass of faculty qualified to evaluate the dissertation, administer an appropriate qualifying exam, offer coursework in support of the program, etc. And one could reply “Fine, then build the critical mass!” One might also reply that departments find ways to let students do dissertations with other faculty members whose interests wander into areas where nobody else in the department is working. However, on the second point, even if only one person in the department is doing, say, nonlinear dynamics, generally a lot of other people will at least have some knowledge of the topic and/or methods and/or applications. Outreach and pedagogy are so different in methodology (for good reasons!) and draw on such a different literature (for good reasons!) that it would be hard for somebody in a different physics field to evaluate it.

    OK, then build the critical mass. Except that resources are finite, and not every department can have critical mass in everything.

    I was thinking about this in the context of curriculum the other day. One might point to the curriculum and say “You know, all these theory and lab classes are great, but students don’t take any classes on [circle one or more and argue for its importance: the history of their discipline, science writing, ethics and technology, presentation skills, intellectual property in the sciences, economic aspects of scientific innovation, environmental issues relevant to their discipline, educational methods in the discipline, business courses for working in industry, other].” And that’s great. And if a student wanted to take an elective or two (or even more….) in those fields I wouldn’t discourage him or her. But I would reject any call to mandate all of that into the curriculum via a host of specific requirements, because it would eliminate any possibility of four year graduation five year graduation.

    Just as no individual can do everything, no department can do everything. All a department can do is keep an open mind and be somewhat flexible in thinking about priorities, while also being realistic.

  5. #5 Alex
    July 16, 2009

    In the second to last paragraph, “four year graduation” was supposed to have strike tags. Oh well.

    Also, I’m not against building critical mass in that field, but a department can’t have critical mass in everything. And critical mass is important if you’re going to really give significant rewards for something. You need people who are qualified to recognize good work (as well as bad work). One trend in certain departments at a particular undergraduate institution (that I may or may not work at) is for everyone to style himself/herself as an education research specialist because they did something and presented it at local meeting. Real education specialists, who do statistical studies and publish them in high impact education journals, tend to roll their eyes.

  6. #6 Hank Roberts
    July 16, 2009

    Ya know, what puzzles me is nobody’s talking about the PR people the universities hire to write and send out press releases.

    Don’t scientists have any thoughts about the quality of the presentation of their work done by the professional presenters at their own institutions?

    (Or do they feel they don’t dare criticize them for fear of what they’d do next time?)

  7. #7 Hank Roberts
    July 16, 2009

    This press release of a couple of days ago would be, I think the worst example to date.

    If there are better ones, someone should be writing a book about them:

    http://www.google.com/search?q=Models+on+Global+Warming+models+“press+release”++Fundamentally+Wrong

  8. #8 Hank Roberts
    July 16, 2009
  9. #9 ponderingfool
    July 16, 2009

    Don’t scientists have any thoughts about the quality of the presentation of their work done by the professional presenters at their own institutions?
    *********
    Don’t read Larry Moran’s blog much do you? He is very vocal about this. Though he also points blame, and rightly so, towards the scientists who for short term gain play up hype over accuracy. Scientists are people and prone to the same flights of grandeur as anyone else.

  10. #10 BioinfoTools
    July 16, 2009

    Alex,

    I guess later comments are already pointing this way, but one solution is simply to have a department (or, at a pinch, and office) of science communication and let that have a mandate to deal with all the science departments. You could argue that there is little or no difference with the existing PR offices; that it’d be more in how the coverage is done, as it were.

  11. #11 antipodean
    July 17, 2009

    There is no line in any of the budgets of any of the grants I’m paid from that supports chatting to the media or the public.

  12. #12 Vagueofgodalming
    July 17, 2009

    But here’s the thing: this is a problem that needs to be solved anyway.

    Reading the subsequent list of issues makes me come over all Marxist. Strikes me you have a classic situation where the system is such that anyone who tries to act in community solidarity loses out individually.

    What you need is a labor union.

    Of course, in this light, the two things that are the biggest obstacles are the tenure system (which incentivises community leaders to preserve the system) and enthusiasm for science in the young (which allows the system to punish the ornery without loss to itself). Which is maybe where you – or Chris and Sheril – didn’t want to end up.

  13. #13 harold lee
    July 18, 2009

    Scientists too are just human like every one walking on the treets. Some are more socialble than others; some can comunicate better than others. To reach the general public, of course scientific community should do more. Let us look at a giant firm. If it wants to sell its product for profit, the engineers and production staffs are not going to sell them. The firm hires ad people to do it. So, scientific community should hire ad people to sell their science. A commercial firm does it for profit. What would science community benefit from having ad people? More money for research ? May be that is the way to go for more funds for research especially during a lean period. But then, where would the money come from to hire ad people.

  14. #14 harold lee
    July 18, 2009

    Scientists too are just human like every one walking on the streets. Some are more socialble than others; some can communicate better than others. To reach the general public, of course scientific community should do more. Let us look at a giant firm. If it wants to sell its product for profit, the engineers and production staffs are not going to sell them. The firm hires sales and ad people to do it. So, scientific community should hire ad people to sell their science. A commercial firm does it for profit. What would science community benefit from having ad people? More money for research ? May be that is the way to go for more funds for research especially during a lean period. But then, where would the money come from to hire ad people.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.