Home Science CommunicationCommunity & events We talk a lot about talking about science

We talk a lot about talking about science

by Eva Amsen

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.

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Terry McGlynn February 17, 2014 - 4:59 PM

Yes, thank you for making this point so clearly.

If the majority of americans can’t name a single scientist, we are not truly public scholars. How often is it that any scientist you know is writing an op-ed piece, or writing a column for a non-specialized publication, or giving a public lecture about an intellectual topic in a venue that isn’t discipline-specific? When was the last time one of your scientific colleagues visited the local congressional office? How many of us, who actively practicing real science, are bothering to write for the broader public? (I don’t count blogs in this category; that is preaching to the converted.)

It’s funny how that piece was characterized by some as anti-academic, when in fact, it’s encouraging our engagement. I think the only people offended are the ones who are engaged in some form of outreach, and it wasn’t adequately recognized or acknowledged. However, as you point out, much of what we scientists consider to be “outreach” is really just talking to a broader segment of our own community.

Madhusudan Katti February 17, 2014 - 6:13 PM

Thank you! You have captured my reaction to the twitter outrage over Kristof’s column very well indeed. I’ll also echo Terry’s sentiment in his comment above. I was also baffled at how upset people were about it, given my own experience as a prof in a dept where hardly anyone acts like a public intellectual in the sense Kristof describes. I try and have tenure despite doing outreach, not because of it.

Jonathan February 18, 2014 - 10:49 AM

I agree with a lot of what you say about Kristof’s column. I read it mostly as an encouragement for professors to go out and engage more. Unfortunately, it also contains a thread dismissing quantitative argument and specific terminology as being arcane and exclusive. This rubs me up the wrong way, because there’s already a too strong current in society that wants everything to be easy and equal, but therefore simplistic and shallow. Its one thing to encourage academics to translate their work for a broader audience, which is a good thing, and another to say that academics should only talk to one another in simple terms understandable to everyone. Kristof recognises this distinction, but conflates the two to play on the unintelligible academic stereotype and I don’t think that’s super helpful.

Louis February 22, 2014 - 6:10 PM

Hey Eva,

I don’t know about a bubble so much as a gap between the science we read about in journals, and the science we tell others about. You touch upon this when you say you felt unable to recommend the journal you write for to your neighbour.

The #scicomm message (whatever that really means) is stuck within a bubble out of touch with the [social] media of the times. Most young people get news and updates from Twitter and more importantly Tumblr, where neat things can be shared easily and outreach is possible through far-reaching networks. Wordpress, as you’re writing on here is more suited to building niche academic environments ? and it’s a shame that scientists & “communicators of science” don’t make use of the former 2 in a more serious way (I’m not talking about picture blogs).

I cover scientific news on my blog without assuming that it has to be overly simplified for a non-scientific audience, and because of the way these networks work, many younger students (who I wouldn’t expect to follow everything I write about) follow, reblog and appreciate this. Likewise, senior academics have expressed interest in my posts – it’s a leveller.

It’s also a lot better than regurgitating press releases. A big list of scientific Tumblrs has been compiled at http://shychemist.tumblr.com/post/70009446189/follow-all-the-science-blogs-masterpost-part-1 which has 3,000+ notes and has had who knows how many views in the process

As to what Jonathan says, I totally agree that we needn’t oversimplify, and that simply including a Wikipedia link can make something a whole lot less mystifying. Often the finer details aren’t absolutely necessary to an understanding, but knowing that links are there if wanted breaks down the barrier to entry a great deal. It’s just about having an understanding of the audience I suppose.

To Terry McGlynn, I’d say that blogs reach new people each time their posts are passed on in networks like Tumblr ? it’s a cop-out to call a 16 year old reading about the latest crystallography techniques “converted”, and my point is that you can’t say who’ll be reading it when it’s reblogged 100s of times in an expansive networks, but if you don’t post anything worthwhile in the first place the news will stay uncommunicated, yes.

Blogs are shared on facebook, twitter, reddit, etc. and exist as reference for years to come being indexed by search engines etc.

People definitely get excited when they see someone writing is qualified and intelligent — there’s every incentive to have senior academics posting in this way. The problem is that these people only tend to speak through press officers and newspapers, or in 140 characters.

It shouldn’t be left to journals, the press, or others with interests in dictating this discourse to do so. Press releases are awful and we can do better (am I repeating myself?)

We can write our own summaries of new research, and talk about themes and trends in science without having to appeal to everyone’s sense of wonder all the time, without having to make it a TED talk, using figures rather than stock photos, the basics of treating something seriously (i.e. enthusiastically) and showing the genuine interest we actually have in this.

Not ranting, just thinking out loud. Hope the conference goes well! :~)

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