Science Communication as a Moral Imperative – Info Gadgets

August 5, 2016

Dear Fellow Scientists,

I am so proud to know many of you, especially the young scientists I get to meet these days. You’re incredibly smart and hard-working, and many of you are striving to make a real difference in the world. And, unlike previous generations of academics, many of you up-and-coming scientists are passionate about sharing your science with the larger world.

How inspiring! I’m so glad that the future of science is in your hands.

But, sadly, there are still too many scientists and academic administrators — young and old alike — who view science communication, outreach, and engagement with disinterest, disdain, or even contempt. Many see themselves as “serious academics” who think they shouldn’t waste time outside the lab, sharing science with the world.

Some scientists say they are just too busy “doing their jobs” (as they see it) and are frantically chasing grants, publishing academic journal articles, getting citations, managing their graduate students and postdocs, and other aspects of running their research enterprise. That’s fine, and I know the feeling, but I think you’re fundamentally wrong about what your job actually is. It really isn’t to land big grants for your university, crank out obscure academic publications by the dozens, and amass a long list of peer citations. (If your administrators are actually telling you that this is your job, they should be ignored. And you might want to start looking for a job at a better institution.) As scientists, your real job should be to make great discoveries and share them with the world.

Sadly, some young professors I’ve met have also told me that they feel (or are told by administrators) that their first job is to “get tenure”, and everything else should wait. No! Your job is not about getting tenure! Your job is to do good science, share it with your students and the community around you, and make the world a little bit wiser and a little bit better. Tenure will come. Or not. But if you honestly think your primary job is to get tenure, then the academic world has failed you entirely.

Finally, some scientists and administrators are just plain arrogant, and think scientists are somehow “above” communicating with ordinary, non-expert audiences. Well, they’re just jerks, and there is little to be done about that.

To all of these scientists and academic administrators, I say this: you are failing one of the most important moral imperatives of science in the 21st century.

As scientists, we owe it to the world to do a better job communicating the wonders of science, and the incredible discoveries being made by our field, to everyone around us. And in this moment of history, when addressing scientific issues has never been more urgent and important, we have a special duty to share our knowledge, expertise, and passion with the wider world. It is part of our social compact as scientists.

As Dr. Jane Lubchenco — someone I have always looked up to, and an incredible role model for any scientist today — once wrote back in 1998:

“Scientists today are privileged to be able to indulge their passions for science and simultaneously to provide something useful to society. With these privileges, of course, comes serious responsibility.”

If this doesn’t persuade you, please think about other moral responsibilities we have as scientists to share discoveries with the world:

Who inspired you to get into science? What teacher, role model, or mentor spent time with you — sharing their experience and knowledge, expecting little or nothing in return — to get you interested in science? (For me, Carl Sagan was an incredible inspiration. I never met the man, and he would never know who I was, but he made a huge difference in my life.) Don’t we all owe it to the people who encouraged and supported us — whether as teachers, mentors, or role models — to do the same for aspiring young scientists?

Have you, or the institutions that trained you, employed you, or funded you, ever received public support? If so, then I think you owe the broader public your full attention. Don’t think for a minute that you, or any of us, are simply entitled to public support, whether through tax-supported grants, fellowships, or salaries. We’re not entitled to a damn thing. No one owes us a job, or tenure, or lab space, or grants for our research. We have to earn those. And that means giving something back to society, whether through the direct applications of our research, the potential long-range indirect benefits of our research to society, or through the broader educational value of our scientific discoveries. If you don’t like it, I hope you’re independently wealthy, and can support your own research.

Have you benefited from privilege? Many of us should feel a special obligation to help others, especially women and underrepresented minorities who are interested in science. Sure, like many of my white, male colleagues, I worked extremely hard to get where I am today. But many women and minorities have worked just as hard, and often much harder, but have had countless obstacles thrown in their way — obstacles that I never experienced. So those of us who come from positions of privilege should do what we can to help boost the careers of others who travelled a much more difficult road. Not only is this the right thing to do, the scientific world greatly benefits from having more diversity. Countless studies have shown that diverse teams are more innovative, more efficient, and are simply better at solving complex problems. Diverse groups of scientists, with diverse life experiences and points of view, can see things that narrower groups can’t. Diverse scientists make for better science, period. But we all need to ensure that everyone gets a chance to learn more about science.

Naturally, I am not suggesting that everyone should do everything — run a big lab, teach several courses, and then write a blog, regularly engage with journalists, publish a popular book, get on social media, speak in public forums, produce a podcast, do a TED talk, and so on. There are always limits of time, energy, and skill to consider. But each scientist can at least do something to communicate their science to broader audiences — and find a niche that works for them. Try something. Experiment. Be willing to invest the time needed to master another aspect of your profession. And stick with it.

On the whole, I am encouraged that so many scientists today value science communication, outreach, and engagement. Sadly, administrators at our universities and other research institutions are still lagging behind, and do not provide all of the incentives we should see to encourage this. But, still, great progress is being made — thanks largely to the idealism, passion, and hard work of so many young scientists today.

However, I would urge a bit of caution here. Scientists should be clear what their underlying motives are. communication, engagement and outreach should not be viewed as tactics to get a grant, get promoted, or get tenure. That’s a shallow, and ultimately unsuccessful, view. It should be done because it is the right thing to do. That’s the path for a fulfilling and successful career as a scientist and science communicator.

And, finally, to those skeptics out there — who aren’t sure if science communication is worth the time and investment — I will share a secret with you: You’re going to love it! Communicating your science with the broader world is one of the most fulfilling things you will ever do, and I guarantee you will find it fun, rewarding, and ultimately very educational. I know that I have learned far more from my audiences, and the great questions they’ve asked me, than they have learned from me. Being a good science communicator has made me a much better scientist, and I am sure the same will be true for you too.

Good luck with your work!

Best Wishes, Jon

Article Prepared by Ollala Corp

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