Monthly Archives: June 2012

Some Scattered Thoughts on Outreach Work

There’s been a flurry of discussion recently about the nature, value, and workload or or related to outreach work, and as a fledgling blog writer with grand ambitions, I have a few cents I’d like to toss into the ring. The flurry got kicked off by Scicurious’s and Kate Clancy’s excellent posts, and Cedar Riener weighed in on it shortly afterward, but there’s lots going on on Twitter too. Miriam Goldstein’s flowchart is worth a look too (and has some great resources at the end).

In my (admittedly limited) experience, outreach work is seen as icing flourishes on a cake: nice to see, can make an otherwise tasty cake stand out amongst its bretheren, but not really necessary, and occasionally a bit too flashy. I’ve not seen any academics be especially bothered by a lack of outreach work, though I have seen the presence of it help make an already highly regarded candidate for a position stand out a little more (and some people suppress an eyeroll when it comes up). However, I’ve never seen it outweigh more directly academic factors on a scientist’s CV, and I don’t expect it ever would. So of course, given the dizzying array of Things That Academics Must or Should Do To Be Good Scientists, it’s natural that outreach is often very low or entirely absent from that list, because there’s a dozen other things that are more pressing.

I understand why academics don’t prioritize outreach in their own work, but the dismissal that other academics sometimes (often?) show for other people’s outreach work is a bit baffling to me. I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but is it considered a waste of time? A waste of knowledge? A waste of effort? Or are they threatened by the idea of Top Secret Scientific Knowledge escaping from the pristine ivory tower? I think this is all nonsense — I think communicating our scientific progress to the public is extremely important, and while it’s not something that can be dashed off in an hour while you wait for your code to finish running, it’s certainly not an impossible task. (Apparently I still have some vestigial idealism clinging to my pant hems from my undergrad days!)

The (A?) key to successfully communicating science to the public lies, I think (she said with the sparest of evidence to attest to her qualification to opine on the matter), both in the flexibility of language and the scientist’s (or science communicator’s) ability to understand what context the intended audience has in which to place the science being communicated. The language used to communicate with, say, one’s non-specialist parents, and the language used to communicate with the neighbour that you occasionally talk to down the hall are likely different, even though both are laypeople. Your parents probably have a more comprehensive grasp of what you do, since they’ve been asking about it for years. They can slot new details amongst broad context they’ve gathered from discussions over the years. Your neighbour, on the other hand, hasn’t been so persistently curious, and has only a vague idea what you do. Trying to explain the specific, detailed nuances to your research will likely be frustrating to both of you, because the neighbour doesn’t have any context to process the detail with. Understanding and accommodating the context in which your audience places science and science knowledge, then, is very important.

This is not a skill that is ever taught, emphasized, or often even acknowledged anywhere along the academic path.

Compounding that is a prevailing attitude that anything other than talking primarily about specific details of a piece of scientific work, regardless of whether the intended audience has an context in which to place those details, is “dumbing down” (oh, how I hate that term) the science. Is it any wonder that outreach is often thought of as a chore or a duty, or that much of the public tunes out scientists?

One the other hand, people like Carl Sagan and Neil de Grasse Tyson are well-loved public figures (at least amongst people who seek out science), who did/do excellent work communicating science to the public. Two things about Sagan and Tyson stand out to me: their tangible, infectious enthusiasm, and their confidence in their audience’s ability to grasp science. They talk about science as source of wonder, but a source or wonder that everyone can grasp. They don’t talk down to their audience, and even though they use some technical language, there’s context in plain English that helps situate the technical language. They assume that their audience is intelligent, and that the conversation is a discussion rather than a lecture.

We as scientists need to stop thinking about science communication in terms of “dumbing down” the science, and shift it to fostering a dialogue with the public that helps build a context for laypeople to organize scientific knowledge. The online community I’ve seen seems to get this, but they’re the sort of people who’re already taking an initiative with outreach; I’m not sure it’s a widespread attitude.

But this is fine! Not everyone needs to do everything! However, universities, media, and public organizations need to realize that the science communications community can enhance the relationship between scientists and the public, to everyone’s benefit. Retaining science journalists and communications experts to build those bridges means that scientists can engage with the public at their comfort level, and yet there’s still a conduit for the knowledge to propagate. But how do we get the resources to do this? How do we get the resources to reach beyond the self-selecting section of the public who go seeking science writing and science journalism? How do we better anticipate and understand the publics’ (plural because there’s a huge range of scientific literacy amongst non-scientists) contexts?