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What do scientists think of science outreach?

by Sarah Scoles

The Public Library of Science recently published a paper entitled "How Academic Biologists and Physicists View Science Outreach." While there are many peer-reviewed, quantitatively substantial papers about outreach and "the public," few such papers exist on the topic of outreach and "the scientists." This May 2012 paper reports on biologists' and physicists' participation in and attitudes toward outreach.

The paper is very readable, is freely available online, and was published just three months after it was received, because PLoS agrees that science is for everybody. So I encourage you to read the paper itself, but here are some interesting statistics:

Of those scientists surveyed:

  • 80% of female scientists with children do outreach; 66% of female scientists without children do outreach.
  • 72% of female scientists participate in outreach, while only 43 of male scientists do.
  • 50% of male scientists with children do outreach; 37% of male scientists without children do outreach.
  • 42% of scientists engage in no public outreach.
  • 29% of scientists say that scientists are bad at communicating, or are peceived as bad communicators.
  • 25% of scientists think that the public is the main barrier to effective outreach.70% of these scientists perceive the public as scientifically ignorant, and 30% perceive the public as disinterested.
  • 19% of scientists say that they would pursue more outreach experiences if they received more recognition and respect for their efforts.
  • 15% of scientists think that non-scientists should run outreach programs.
  • 5% of scientists are not interested in outreach because they don't see it as part of their role as scientists..
  • 5% of scientists do 50% of the outreach.

Others spoke of the "Sagan Effect," or the perception that if you are a popularizer of science, your research is not as extreme/hard-core, and you probably have subpar scientific abilities...if you can communicate well, energize the public, and inspire the scientists of the future (Jensen, et al., 2008).

This image could show either how scientists sometimes perceive "communicators" OR how "the public" sometimes perceives scientists' communication. Scientists may fear that journalists and outreachers will not grasp their work or will simplify it, messing up the message. When scientists present their work publicly in the same way they present it to their collaborators, it can sound like gibberish to the uninitiated (Image credit: Business Week).


Further Questions

  1. Is communicating research one of scientists' responsibilities, or is adding their results to the human knowledge base enough?
  2. Some scientists believe that non-scientists are unable to comprehend the complexities of their research and thus cannot communicate it well, but they do not want to do the communication themselves or are not good at it, but they do want their results to reach a wide audience. Who is to do the communicating, then? Other scientists who do value outreach?
  3. Is it best to separate the scientists and the science communicators?
  4. Should scientists be encouraged to do more outreach? Or should they just be encouraged to respect outreach and leave it to those with writing/speaking skills, charisma, and well-tailored pants?
  5. How much scientific background is necessary to do outreach/communication well?
  6. What is different about those 5% of scientists who do so much outreach? Do they place less value on their research and the time/energy they have for it? Are their priorities those of "true scientists" if that is the case?
  7. How much is outreach based on altruism and/or a desire to "give back"? On a sense of responsibility? On a desire for recognition and fame, since few scientists will be on Jersey Shore? Does having been inspired by a science superhero as a kid affect the likelihood that you'll try to become a science superhero for someone else?

I'll post some of these as discussion topics on our nascent forum, so if you have ideas, please share!


ResearchBlogging.org Ecklund, E., James, S., & Lincoln, A. (2012). How Academic Biologists and Physicists View Science Outreach PLoS ONE, 7 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0036240  

Jensen, P., Rouquier, J., Kreimer, P., & Croissant, Y. (2008). Scientists who engage with society perform better academically Science and Public Policy, 35 (7), 527-541 DOI: 10.3152/030234208X329130


Further Reading Material:

What factors predict scientists' intentions to participate in public engagement of science activities? (Poliakoffl & Webb, 2007)

Scientists and public outreach: participation, motivations, and impediments. (Andrews, et. al, 2004)

Out of the loop: why research rarely reaches policy makers and the public and what can be done. (Shanley & Lopez, 2008)

Constructing Communcation: talking to scientists about talking to the public. (Davies, 2008) [sorry, I couldn't find a free version of this one]

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Reader Comments (1)

This is exactly what I want to do. I have done it in many respects before as a science teacher, science research industry liaison, science higher education program outreach director, technical writer, medical editor, technology marketer, and on and on. Now, I must find or create a place to do this full time. I put my career on the back burner doing only part time or short term projects while I homeschooled a very advanced student. Now that he's in college on a full ride, I can do what I want to do. You see, I started out going for an MD/PhD, but reluctantly gave that up when my husband insisted we didn't need two physicians in the family. My higher grades threatened him, and even the professors teased him because of it. I later gave up a masters in EE when my mom said she needed some practical support. I got a masters in technical communication instead as that required fewer background courses. Twice after that I considered going back for that MD/PhD, but by then my child was so far ahead that he had to be homeschooled fulltime to get any kind of appropriate education. I do have science minors and tons of on the job and personal study. So, I'm a frustrated scientist at heart at a time in my life when going back to get another degree is not my next logical step. I can do this well. I'm an enthusiast. Now, onward!

September 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea Martin

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