Moving science communication into the public sphere--how?

Mike and David Dobbs both have great posts up discussing "whither rewards for scientists who communicate to the public?" This ended up being one of the themes of my recent SciencePub talk in Columbus--what are the incentives--and disincentives--to scientists for bringing their work to the public at large, rather than simply publishing in journals?

David notes that there has been much discussion about scientific papers being over-valued. As an untenured professor, certainly I realize just how much papers matter for my career, and how little blogging/outreach does (or, how much it may even hurt my chances of gaining tenure). So while I agree with David's assessment that outreach is critical, especially in this age of increasing science denial and devaluation, it's unclear how scientists are to be rewarded for this, when there's already so much to be done when it comes to research, teaching, and other forms of service. Mike suggests the potential for a "carrot" approach, bringing in outreach to grant completion, and in in the comments the potential for set-asides/novel awards to promote communication.

I think something like this is more likely to work, especially if they are, as DM suggests, somewhat of a prestigious award. It's still so embedded in the culture of academia that presentations at scientific conferences and other venues with a focus on other scientists are the only communication that "counts," that anything short of additional funding to carry out public outreach isn't likely to succeed in the short run. Long-term, perhaps a culture shift will occur as the generations that have grown up with this type of communication become leaders, but this type of change will be slow to come.

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Science outreach is relatively easy for me...because I love it. I do research but I'm relatively weak on the publishing side. And as you've noted this is NOT the formula for gaining tenure. So, right now, I'm going full-in on science outreach. Instead of compelling each scientists to be perfect researchers, writers, fundraisers, mentors, teachers, AND outreachers, I think it is best to build a department that builds on everyone's strengths. Just like faculty are assembled in a way where each members discipline strength is complemented by others, why can't we add a layer to that and include these factors in the equation as well?

That's what I'm hoping for when I'm finally ready to throw myself back into the academic fray and compete for a tenure-track job.

Hi Tara,

You're dead right: Scientists need incentives and rewards to engage the public, and right now they get few of these from the career track or the scientific establishment. (Exception: Those few whose chairs or lab heads encourage engagement.) The open science movement is hoping to remedy this by creating unique contributor identifiers that make it possible to track non-paper contributions of all sorts so they can be credited toward things like grant and tenure applications. (See This could create rewards/incentives for public engagement, as well as for contributions like blogging, commenting on papers in the scientific literature, etc.

Long way to go, obviously. But this is one of several promising ideas aimed at creating incentives to encourage contributions to both science and society outside of the rather limited range for which researchers and other academics get credit at this point.

Interesting, but there still needs to be a culture shift. The people who review grants and tenure packages are still largely ones who don't see a lot of value in outreach, so even having a crafty way to keep track of outreach activities won't be helpful until this is seen as something scientists *should* be doing, rather than a waste of time.

I agree with the need for a culture shift. In New Zealand one step in this direction has been the creation of the Prime Ministerâs Science Media Communication Prize:

It's possible that initiative like this might make it more desirable (money to be had does have it's effectâ¦) and eventually move the thinking.