Quick thoughts on the what and why of science outreach

Scicurious and Kate Clancy recently shared some interesting thoughts about science outreach. Sci was pointing out that scientists have a lot on their plates, and being held accountable for not reaching out to the public doesn’t make sense when all the incentives in science (getting a job, keeping a job) either ignore science outreach or actively discourage it. Kate riffed off of KatiePhD’s comment that science outreach is a chicken and the egg problem. It won’t get rewarded until it gets done (and people can see it’s value), and it won’t get done until it is rewarded (and people find it valuable). Kate shared some of the reasons why, as an early career scientist, she finds her blogging and outreach efforts helpful. (*On update: I somehow missed Jeanne Garbarino’s great post on science outreach as part of the special series on science outreach at the Nature blog Soapbox Science, highlighting the benefits of transparency, as well as some of the interdisciplinarity points I make below. Her post reminds me of that Harry Truman saying: “It’s amazing what you can get done when you don’t care who gets the credit.” Science can get a lot more done in collaborations when we aren’t worried about quantifying and evaluating our own contributions).

I had a few quick thoughts to add. First, as Jason Goldman pointed out on twitter, science outreach isn’t monolithic, and includes many different activities. I think we could look at science outreach as merely a question of audience. If I communicate the results of an experiment I conducted to other researchers in distance perception (in the form of a scientific journal article) then this is counted as “science.” But if I write a piece in scientific american describing the research to those lay readers, this is outreach. But what about points in between? I could describe my research to other perceptual psychologists, or to other cognitive psychologists, or to other psychologists, or to other scientists, each time taking a step away from the specific knowledge of the context of distance perception research. But these steps are encouraged, the journals that reach wider audiences have more credibility and more impact. But then if I take one more step beyond Science and Nature, to the lay public, all of a sudden it becomes not science but science outreach? This seems like a bit of an arbitrary distinction. Maybe it is just that Science and Nature are super competitive, and the selectivity itself is what is solely responsible for their high currency in the scientific world?

So, to summarize that, defining science outreach seems to mostly be done on the basis of how much your audience knows. And an interested architect who reads Scientific American may know just as much about distance perception as an astrophysicist who reads Science. To call talking to one “outreach” and the other “real science” seems arbitrary to me.

Which leads me to the “why do science” question.

There are many obvious reasons to do science outreach if one is interested in how the public perceives science, or the direction of science policy, or science teaching, but I’d like to address a goal of science outreach using the very limited goals that people who discourage science outreach might have in mind. Let’s say for an instant that I was in a purely research position, in which teaching was discouraged and I was evaluated by my scientific contribution. I would be encouraged to carve out my own niche and become the world’s expert on that, for example perception of distance. I could crank out my studies, communicate only with other researchers in distance perception, and only look far away (ha!) outside my field when I needed a specific piece of science, let’s say to optics when I was concerned about distance perception at far distances being affected by the different wavelengths of light reaching my eye (atmospheric perspective). Any serious dialogue with people who do not have immediate relevant expertise to my studies would be discouraged. I see this as perpetuating a conservative, incremental science, and missing critical opportunities for breaking new ground. In efforts to find exactly what is new about human distance perception, I might miss great studies about how bees or elephants see and act, from animal ecology. Having some real interaction with people in these fields (and not just reading studies when they bubble up in Science or Nature) can be useful, even if I were only interested in learning more about human distance perception. The history of science is littered with examples of the benefits of scientists communicating with people outside their specific discipline. Some of the beginnings of the science of psychology were when astronomers realized that different people timed star movements differently, and that they needed to figure out time perception to get more accurate astronomical measurements.

Science outreach needn’t be just reaching out, but also pulling in. In this age when new forms of communication facilitate dialogue rather than broadcast, being a good innovative scientist should mean occasional interaction with a wide variety of people in a wide variety of disciplines. When people discourage science outreach, I think they hold a mistaken caricature of what outreach is (as merely broadcasting, instead of dialogue), but also, they perpetuate a needlessly limited and conservative view of science, as progress in isolated niches rather than a fundamentally multidisciplinary exercise.

About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.
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11 Responses to Quick thoughts on the what and why of science outreach

  1. “Science outreach needn’t be just reaching out, but also pulling in. In this age when new forms of communication facilitate dialogue rather than broadcast, being a good innovative scientist should mean occasional interaction with a wide variety of people in a wide variety of disciplines.”

    I cannot agree more with this. Insular scientists leads to insular science, and in an increasingly interdisciplinary world, that closes the door to a lot of potential innovation. Outreach is in some ways on the end of that spectrum — rather than seeking other scientists with whom to collaborate, you’re looking for lay people to collaborate with and new contexts and settings to put the work in.

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Thanks for commenting (and enjoyed your comments over at sci’s place).
      Another point that your comment reminds me of is that the “lay” public is neither monolithic nor universally ignorant either. I sometimes present cognitive science research to teachers or people in training situations, for example. As far as the science of how an experiment is conducted, neuroscience, basic research in memory, they may be “lay public,” but they might be quite skilled with craft knowledge on how to motivate their particular class, which might be useful to me to inspire new studies, but also think of past studies in a new way.
      Anyways, thanks for dropping by, checking out your blog now and digging it.

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  4. Joe Riener says:

    –or you might be Johnny Gutenberg, baffled about how to leave the imprint of that movable type on a page. Take a little vacation, visit some friends who own a vineyard. (With thanks to Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From.)

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