It’s 6AM and I’m wide awake, because my bank did not realise that I’m at a conference in California to talk to scientists about peer review and thought 4:45 would be a great time to call me. Thanks to them, I was already awake when my iPad started pinging at me for every mention I got in a Twitter thread about a possible tweetup for science communication types in London that I unwittingly got included in. And now that I was properly awake, I might as well catch up on reading.
While tweeting about the biophysics conference to a following of mainly scientists, I’d seen several people get riled up about a column in the New York Times, so I decided to figure out what the fuss was about. From the tweets I saw, people seemed offended about an accusation that academics don’t do more outreach to the public. Since I’m seeing most of them at the Science Online conference next week, I thought I’d better get up to speed on the source of the outrage.
In his NYT column, Nick Kristof writes about professors, who are not part of greater discussions outside of academia. I put some consideration into that second comma in the previous sentence, but the difference between all professors and those professors who are not part of greater discussions outside of academia is so small that it only made a subtle difference. That’s the point of the column: very few professors are engaged with the non-academic world. Kristof points out that this inherent to the reward system. There is usually no reward to spend time doing outreach, and only penalization when an academic spends less time on their work.
I carefully wrote “professors” and “academia” above, because there are huge differences between different academic disciplines. This is also addressed in Kristof’s column: for example, he points out that economists are more likely to step out and interact with the world outside the ivory tower. He also mentions “some sciences” as an exception to the rule.
But I’d say that even in the sciences most academics don’t engage much with the public. Next week will be my third visit to the Science Online conference. I haven’t been in five years, but I know many of the other attendees. They’re the usual suspects. Science communication is almost a discipline of its own, where those people active in it have formed their own community and attends their own conferences to talk about it. Yes, there is also a large emphasis on science outreach at several other large conferences, such as the AAAS Meeting and the SfN Meeting, but those large conferences are not usually the conferences that are most important to an academic’s tenure progress. The conferences that are the most crucial to an academic making progress in their career are the smaller ones, where speakers dare to present their newest findings, knowing that the small audience are collaborators, not communicators. This is where they get feedback on their work, and plan their next joint grant applications. The big ones are social events, and, increasingly, places to discuss science communication.
The science communication community is great, and the academics within that community are doing an amazing job of combining a career in academic with public outreach, but Kristof is right: this is the exception. It’s not true for most scientists, especially not those beyond postdoc-level, and it’s not true for most other fields of academia.
I ended up in the science communication community because I did lots of outreach when I was still in the lab. I blogged, I visited schools, I had a side gig writing about the science in a TV show. I didn’t have much interest in doing research, so I left the lab, but I stayed connected to academia. I now work for a scientific journal, so I mainly talk to researchers. I tell them about our novel method of doing peer review, about the importance of data sharing, and, for those that do it, I let them know that they can even publish their science communication papers with us. I write emails, visit institutes, and attend conferences. That, talking to academics, is my job as Outreach Director. I’m very aware that that is “outreach” only to a very specific audience.
One day when I was coming home, my neighbour, taking a tea break outside his corner store, asked me what my job is. I couldn’t explain. He doesn’t know that academics need to publish papers to progress in their career. He has never heard of peer review, let alone about post-publication peer review. He probably never attended any sort of conference, let alone a scientific one. For all my work doing outreach about science, I wasn’t able to explain the culture of scientific academia and how it was intrinsically linked to my job. The whole system was unrelated to any of his daily experiences, and I struggled to find a summary or analogy that made sense.
“I work for a magazine for scientists”, I offered, thinking it was the most satisfactory explanation I could offer in the time I was opening my front door. “Can I read it?” Technically, yes. It’s open access. But I wouldn’t recommend it as casual reading for non-scientists. “I don’t think you would like it very much. It’s written for other scientists.”
And that’s probably true of most of what I’ve ever done in any form of outreach. Even when I was doing outreach about science (rather than about scientific publishing), it was mainly seen by people who sought it out – and I’m sure they were often other scientists, or high school students interested in science.
Really engaging with “the public(s)” is hard, and takes time, and there are reasons why very few academics take on the responsibility. It’s part of the culture of academia, and I think that Kristof’s column is addressing that culture, and not blaming individual professors for not trying hard enough. Before patting ourselves on the back for getting it right, I think we need to be aware that when we’re at Science Online next week, most of our colleagues don’t understand what we’re doing there. We talk a lot about talking about science, but when it comes down to it, we seem to be the only ones.