REPOST: Do scientists have a duty to engage the public? ?>

REPOST: Do scientists have a duty to engage the public?

This was first posted on April 20th 2009 on v2.0 of this blog. It’s still relevant.

Is there something about being a scientist that means we are obliged to deal with public misconceptions of science? Should we be rising up and defeating all examples of bad science or pseudoscience in the media, on tv or in the newspapers?
The main purpose of wider engagement for scientists is to recruit more scientists. It is to portray a career in science as an achievable goal for anyone who wishes to try, and to break down the barriers that decades (centuries?) of negative stereotyping have created. Yes, I did say that anyone who wished one could have a career in science. You don’t have to be a professor to be a scientist, what about the lab techs and similar? As scientists we generally feel that the world would be a better place if there were more scientists, more discoveries, more people able to comprehend our elaborate experimental elucidations. I’m reasonably sure that most vicars feel that the world would be a better place if there were more respectably religious people and bigger congregations on Sunday mornings.
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But is this need to engage the public a function of the public’s supposed scientific ignorance, or that of science’s need for recognition and praise? The media act as a useful intermediary, able to screen the vast quantity of scientific research that is published annually and select the most relevant stories. That sounds like a pretty useful tool to use, and yet we don’t use it. We view the media as the enemy, the people who distort the science, the people who perpetuate bad science and the people who are somehow out to get us. Historically, has there ever been a period of good public engagement? (Think carefully about that because class differences had significant impact on who had access to what knowledge in previous centuries). What if things are really better now than ever before?
Back to duty then. If we are funded by tax payers, through academic positions and research grants, are we obliged to give something other than the results of study in return? Should we present all of our methodologies and findings to the lowest common denominator as standard practice? An academic job is still just a job, with responsibilities and pressures like any other. Do some scientists feel that they need to give back to society because of the long training they have benefited from? If that’s the case, then why don’t medics do more public outreach? Or is there a major difference between treating the sick and educating the undergraduates?
Perhaps some scientists view public engagement as a means to achieve science’s rightful place in society, or scientist’s rightful place in society. Would it not be better to get the message out there that its OK to be smart, that you can be clever and still like everyday things like pop music and pizza? More to the point, that you can be a scientist and still have a normal life. But perhaps we can’t promote that view because we don’t believe it ourselves. We don’t believe that we do lead normal lives, because we’re working 60 hour weeks, doing jobs that people don’t seem to understand and constantly having to justify ourselves to our peers and funding bodies alike. Perhaps as scientists we need to stop trying to convert the public to our cause and start converting ourselves to theirs: fitting in and being part of a community. Could something so simple really make more difference than every outreach and engagement activity combined?

10 thoughts on “REPOST: Do scientists have a duty to engage the public?

  1. bq. If we are funded by tax payers, through academic positions and research grants, are we obliged to give something other than the results of study in return?
    Strictly speaking, only if the funding includes an obligation for outreach. this just moves the question onto whether the funding should oblige us to talk to the public. I’m not sure about forcing us to do that is a good idea: very few people really care about the coverage properties of Qst estimators (say), and neither should they. On the other hand, there is work that would be of interest (e.g. adaptation of frogs to agricultural pollution, something which has used Qst estimation).
    If our funders are persuaded that we should engage in more outreach, then they could do it by providing money for this, something like giving a 3 month extension for starting a blog, and 6 months for a newspaper column. That would pay for the time needed to do the outreach, but wouldn’t force unwilling scientists to do something they don’t really care about, and which the public won’t notice anyway.

  2. __The main purpose of wider engagement for scientists is to recruit more scientists._
    Is this really true? Surely it’s just as much (in no particular order):
    a) To make sure that funds keep flowing
    b) To try to spread that ‘sense of wonder’ (scientific evangelism)
    c) Because it’s important for _everyone_ to understand science better
    … I’d have thought recruitment was less significant than all of these.

  3. I agree with Brian. As Jenny has said elsewhere, there isn’t really a shortage of scientists: just a shortage of money to fund them. As I well know.

  4. I agree, there should be more incentives for engaging in public outreach. The reason why I believe few do it (unless it’s in their contract) is that it doesn’t score in their CV. You see, you put your teaching experiences in your CV and your papers and your seminars into your CV. But what do you do with your blog?
    I would thus recommend to provide something that is accountable. Like, take a lecture in public outreach and have your institute (department) set up a website that links to your blog, so it’s integrated into your research life and invent some serious sounding expression, then put something into the CV like ‘science communication specialist’. Or whatever. Needless to say, it would greatly help if people would look for such characteristics when hiring.
    (Since I just applied for jobs, in my case, they asked how much time I am spending or intend to spend on that blog? Ooh, not much, obviously. Just a hobby you know.)
    The issue however is more generally that under time and efficiency pressure people drop everything that doesn’t score in the CV. I thus suggested “here”:http://backreaction.blogspot.com/2008/07/research-and-teaching.html that it would be of advantage to allow for a specialization in task, next to research, and in such a way that this can be put into the CV. One such specialization is eg public outreach. But it could also be a science adviser to politics, or writing referee reports, or improving interdisciplinary communication, etc. Things that people right now don’t spend enough time on because they aren’t of much advantage for their career.

  5. I definitely agree with the career, time and funding concerns expressed in some of the other comments, however I think communicating science with the public should be viewed as part of a sustainable long-term strategy in our job as scientists and academics. The vast majority of research funding is provided by the public. We may only see the grant committees as holding the purse strings (or our research institutions putting pressure on the kinds of research that is supported) but the willingness to make that money available in the first place is and always has been a political issue. If the average voter doesn’t understand the significance of what scientists are doing they will pressure their representatives to cut funding for research. Furthermore, a scientifically literate public is in the best interests of the nation as a whole. Many of the most pressing issues today require a strong understanding of the scientific evidence involved. Helping people develop the tools to understand these issues will be providing both a public service as well as promoting the work we do so as to ensure its long term support. I don’t think all scientists need to be involved in this dialogue, but I think everyone needs to know that those who are involved are not just engaged in a hobby; we are involved in a necessary part of a long-term strategy and should be supported in our work.

  6. I agree with Eric and would like to second Sabine’s suggestion. Why can’t we support development of scientists beyond the bench role.
    Many of us recognize that if you are successful at research your time at the bench is actually quite limited. Once you are a P.I. or even in industry you will leave the bench and become a “pitch-man”. We should do more to encourage students to learn tools to engage a wide variety of audiences.
    Now, do we need to be compelled to present material as an effort to recruit more scientists? Maybe, maybe not. I would argue that getting more people trained as scientists is not a bad thing, no matter how many we have now. However, we have to provide additional training because we all recognize that not everyone will or can become a P.I. But having more people trained with a Science mindset is probably a good thing.

  7. _take a lecture in public outreach and have your institute (department) set up a website that links to your blog_
    I absolutely agree that this is something that should be done – how cool if people can go ‘hey, I wonder what they really do at institution xyz’ and, instead of just looking at shiny (…or quite bad) press releases on their website, can check out some blogs that clearly show there are actually normal (well, relatively) people behind it all?
    Very commendable in that respect: “Stanford”:http://blog.stanford.edu/taxonomy/term/49.

  8. _We don’t believe that we do lead normal lives, because we’re working 60 hour weeks, doing jobs that people don’t seem to understand and constantly having to justify ourselves to our peers and funding bodies alike._
    That statement sums it up for myself and most of my labmates. I’m lucky enough to work in a lab where my fellow scientists are also many of my close friends.
    However the friends that are part of our social group who aren’t scientists do view us as a bit odd for the reasons already stated.
    That’s why I was so excited to join the scientific blogging world. It makes you realize that there are many many other people who have devoted themselves to science and shouldn’t think of themselves as awkward social beings for enjoying such a career path.
    I think its untrue to ourselves to try and “fit in” with the rest of the community purely for outreach reasons. Maybe anyone could be a scientist, but not everyone would _want_ to be a scientist. It, perhaps, could be called a “lifestyle choice.”

  9. More accurately a ‘lack-of-lifestyle’ choice Elizabeth, given the long hours…?
    @Steffi – thanks for the Stanford link. Intrigued to learn they have a blogger who goes by the moniker ‘Feral Librarian’. The mind boggles.

  10. _’We view the media as the enemy, the people who distort the science, the people who perpetuate bad science and the people who are somehow out to get us.’_
    It’s not so much the media – there are many excellent science journalists and broadcasters; rather the problem as I see it is those individuals / groups / interests that exploit the media and other platforms as vehicles to disingenuously instill doubt and suspicion in the mind of the populace. The media is often culpable, however, in its often reaching attempts to supposedly remain fair and balanced; it usually looks for a dissenting argument / debate, and the more controversial the better – it sells! That is not to say that minority viewpoints should not be heard; but they shouldn’t be given illusory weight for anti-scientific/pseudo-scientific stances that promote their interests. If the media is being manipulated, _we’re_ being manipulated (governments do it all the time).
    So, if we’re going to engage, then perhaps this is what we should consider. Science should be more _rebellious_. Key to this, I believe, is less of the attitude that somehow imparting a few more scientific facts to the public is job done, but rather conveying what science _is_; how and why evidence and knowledge are important.
    Problem is, however, most of us are just too bloody busy. And to many, science is just a job, with as many apathetic types as anywhere else. I don’t denigrate this; it demonstrates that most of us are as ‘normal’ as anybody. And it’s better for the blood pressure.

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