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Science Outreach: What Do You Need?

In recent weeks, the science community has engaged in an enormous amount of discussion about science outreach. There are calls from many people, including me, for scientists to take an active role in efforts to share their work with the public. But this leaves many scientists feeling put upon – and understandably so.

Scientists have work to do. This work often includes (among other things): writing and editing papers and grant proposals; teaching classes and grading papers; working with grad students and post-docs; reading up on relevant papers in the field; and, of course, actually doing the research that drew them to science in the first place.

What’s more, many – maybe even most – scientists have actual lives beyond the lab or classroom. Significant others, children, parents, siblings and friends – all of these relationships require investments of time. Not to mention the fact that people often want to spend time on (gasp!) hobbies and outside interests.

To paraphrase a question I’ve heard from numerous scientists: “When exactly do you expect me to do all of this ‘outreach’ you keep going on about?” That’s a good question.

To a certain extent, it depends on how you define “outreach.” In my opinion:

  • Anything that a scientist does to help explain his or her work to a non-expert audience is outreach.
  • Anything a scientist does to encourage public interest in the sciences (among children or adults) is outreach.
  • Anything a scientist does to educate non-scientists about the scientific process is outreach.

Taking this broad view means that there are some outreach efforts that will (theoretically) not take up an enormous amount of time. For example, if you are a scientist who works for an institution that employs public information officers (PIOs), let them know about your forthcoming journal articles or conference presentations. These people are paid to help you explain your work to a non-expert audience and highlight why it is interesting and/or important. (Of course, I’m a PIO, so I would say that.) I’ve written about this subject at greater length here.

But lots of outreach efforts do require significant amounts of time. Writing a blog or maintaining a social media presence requires time and commitment (I’ve written about that too). Working with area teachers and students is a great outreach activity – but it takes time. Planning and implementing outreach efforts through local museums? Time consuming.

If you’re struggling to get tenure, you don’t have that time. And if your peers in the science community belittle the idea of outreach, you’re discouraged from making that time.

What can be done? A number of ideas are out there. Scicurious has a great post on the subject, including some discussion about the long-term need for academia to formally embrace science outreach for faculty. Scientist (and blogger) Jeanne Garbarino has also weighed in. Among other things, she notes that there are few (or no) incentives for scientists to engage in outreach.

I’d like to see some positive discussion about potential solutions to the “outreach problem.” If you are a scientist: what, specifically, is needed to facilitate your involvement in outreach efforts? Should outreach be taken into consideration as part of tenure review? If you’re committed to a certain amount of outreach activity per semester, should you have a lighter course load to teach?

These may not be the answers – and they certainly wouldn’t be the only answers – but I’d love to get the ball rolling. Once we have some good ideas, we can start thinking about ways to implement them.

Scientists: what do you need?