Carl Sagan’s scientific career took a bruising because of his outreach work.

I am convinced that a lot of people’s misconceptions about science could be cleared up with a little outreach from scientists. I’m talking about outreach activities like creating websites that give good, reliable, understandable information, talking to school and adult groups, getting involved in museums, PBS, the Discovery Channel, etc.

Getting scientists to do any of this is the tricky part. They have no immediate incentives to do it and in fact, there are disincentives. But they need to learn that it is in their best interests.

Taxpayers pay most scientists’ salaries through federal grants. An uninformed, suspicious, or actively hostile public obviously will not want to pay for scientific research. So anything that can be done to inform the public about the good work being done will probably loosen the purse strings in Washington at least a bit.

Of course the problem with this argument is that it uses an abstract fear of something in the distant future. Sort of like global warming.

As we’ve learned from that, most people aren’t willing to sacrifice much for far off, future dangers. If gas is cheap, we’ll keep driving big cars. And we certainly won’t sacrifice any current goods for a future that may or may not come to pass.

Same thing with scientists. Outreach is a thankless task that can actually work against the people who do it. Scientists who do a lot of outreach are often perceived as not being serious about true science and they’re dinged for it.

There is also no incentive at Universities to do outreach. As anyone who has been involved in academic science knows, the key to success is to get government grants that help fund the scientist’s research, his or her department and the University. Everything else an academic scientist does takes a backseat to this. And outreach isn’t even in the car.

Outreach takes scientists away from the lab. It is in the lab where results are generated that can be published to get grants to fund more research. Less time on research equals less money.

So to get scientists doing outreach, we need to change the incentives. There either has to be a change at Universities so that outreach is valued. And by valued I mean tenure track positions or long term funding for people to do outreach. Frankly this is pretty unlikely.

The other possibility is to include outreach as part of a scientist’s grant. In other words, to get money for their research, scientists will need to do some outreach.

I am aware of two major funding agencies—the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI)*—that mandate outreach for at least some of their grants. These mandates are a critical first step in getting more digestible science out to the public. But to make a major dent, we need the NIH to get involved too. They fund a whole lot more research and so a whole lot more outreach would get done too.

The NSF and NHGRI requirements are definitely causing a lot of scientists to scramble around and try to find outreach projects to fund. (Email me if you have some spare money lying around!) But I don’t know the quality of the outreach that is being done.

Hopefully the people doing outreach are better than the average scientist at talking or writing about science with the public. For the most part, the money would probably best be spent on hiring someone with a scientific background who is good at explaining science. Or in training scientists first in how to effectively communicate science to the public.

All of this points to another major issue—we need to figure out what we want from these outreach opportunities. Is it to provide a good source of information for the public? To enhance understanding of how science works? To teach people how to tell good science from bad? To train the next generation of scientists? To…? No one is really providing leadership on these questions. Let’s hope someone does soon.

*The NHGRI is interested in increasing the numbers of genomic scientists who are under-represented minorities. Definitely worthwhile but not really doing a lot for the public understanding of science.

Here is a great book on the subject: Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future.

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Forcing Scientists Into The Public Square 1 February,2010Dr. Barry Starr
  • John Fiorentino

    I certainly compliment Dr. Starr on a fine article. And, while it would be extremely difficult to disagree with the concept, I do believe as Dr. Starr has stated, the effective implementation of this concept is certainly not at our doorstep.

    For someone who has written numerous science articles I can attest to the obstacles one runs into. Most of these obstacles are imposed by the scientific community itself.

    Unless as an author one wishes to stick to the more “vanilla” subjects in science, the obstacles for the uninitiated are oft times seemingly insurmountable.

    In my own particular case, my age, (58) and my own personality are distinctly positive circumstances. Unfortunately, for many, they have neither the experience nor the positive outlook to sustain themselves.

    The oft times encountered “country-club” attitude of many in the scientific community only fuels the general feeling of distrust many lay people have regarding those who practice in the scientific realm.

    As a rule, it is extremely difficult to get a scientist in one discipline to even offer an opinion about anything except as regarding his narrow “field of expertise.” In fact, most scientists are unusually hesitant to think outside of the box. Everyone has an opinion about just about everything. At least most mere mortals do. It’s a bit unfortunate that many in science seem to place themselves a bit higher on the social order.

    Conversely, there are those in science who seem to be just about everywhere on the public scene. Richard Dawkins and Ken Miller are two who come to mind immediately. They certainly have enough time to write numerous trade books, travel around the world and maintain a rather rigorous academic schedule. So for some, Dr. Starr’s assessment that, “Less time on research equals less money.” apparently doesn’t seem to apply.

    So, I think when the scientific community comes to the realization that the biggest roadblock to an effective communication of science to the general public is their own attitude, we just may start to see some progress.

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  • ashley

    I agree whole-heartedly. You did a great job explaining the whole predicament. I’m sharing this article with all my fellow scientists!!

  • John Fiorentino


    There’s nothing like a stimulating discussion!

  • Ashley: Thanks for sharing! I hope a few of them decide that the outreach sacrifice is worth it.

    John: I am not sure where Ken would be in his scientific career if he spent less time debating evolution…he may have more scientific accolades at this point in his career. Then again, since the majority of scientists see intelligent design as an attack on science, Ken’s outreach may be less about educating the public and more about defending science.

    Dawkins is an interesting case. I believe part of his job is to increase the public’s understanding of science but I would argue that in his latest work, he has not done this well.

    He is currently talking about using science to disprove the existence of God. This is not science. God is supernatural, science is natural. You can’t prove or disprove God with science, God is beyond science. In fact, I might argue that if God wanted a belief based on faith, God would have hidden his tracks pretty well. Only a fool would not believe in God if there were scientific proof!

    I’ll try to tackle the rest of the comment later today…gotta get the kids ready for school now.

  • John Fiorentino

    Indeed Dawkins is “an interesting case.”

    I find it very hard to fathom that the same individual who rants about ID as not being science, to which I agree, wishes to use science to somehow try and disprove the existence of God.

    As for ID, a finding of the court in the Kitzmiller trial fairly well sums it up for me.

    121. The Court concludes that while intelligent design arguments may be true a proposition on which the Court takes no position ­ the theory is not science. Moreover, because intelligent design is ultimately predicated on a supernatural creator, the theory is religious, a finding required by the Supreme Court’s holding in Edwards v. Aguillard.

    So, the court concludes that while ID isn’t science, it may nontheless be true.

    My only disagreement here is a technical one, as I don’t consider ID a “theory” either.

    Apparently, nothing short of the excision of every reference to a Supreme Being suits Dr. Dawkins.

    My suggestion is that he have the true strength of his convictions and send me all of that filthy green paper he has in his wallet stamped with the words “In God We Trust.”

  • John Fiorentino

    Well, I made another comment which seems to have disappeared. In any event, this is some recently news on climate change as it was mentioned in the article.

    This Week in SCIENCE
    February 12 2010, 327 (5967)

    Sea-level rises and falls as Earth’s giant ice sheets shrink and grow. It has been thought that sea level around 81,000 years ago—well into the last glacial period—was 15 to 20 meters below that of today and, thus, that the ice sheets were more extensive. Dorale et al. (p. 860; see the Perspective by Edwards) now challenge this view. A speleothem that has been intermittently submerged in a cave on the island of Mallorca was dated to show that, historically, sea level was more than a meter above its present height. This data implies that temperatures were as high as or higher than now, even though the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was much lower.

    AAAS / Science
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    Washington, DC 20005

  • I didn’t want to turn this into a Dawkins-bashing. His ability to explain evolutionary theory has been exemplary and in many ways he has helped to explain how biology works to many people.

    You are right that scientists tend to be pretty specialized which means they don’t feel like they have the expertise to comment on fields too far from the ones they study. I imagine one concern is that what they say will be seen as coming from an expert because they are a scientist. Since they are not an expert on that subject, this is a very uncomfortable place to be.

    Another concern is that their words will be used against them. They may not be expert wordsmiths and so aren’t necessarily careful to choose the exact right words.

    There are probably other reasons too. Any scientists feel free to chime in here.

  • John Fiorentino

    Not really bashing Dawkins, just stating the facts I think.

    While I understand Dr. Starr’s comments above, I still also see the “great divide” many scientists seemingly place between the abstract and reality.

    Certainly I for one solicit opinions from scientists because they are (hopefully and in most cases) among the best and brightest. And the opinions I seek are normally still well within the bounds of science itself, if not always within their particular discipline.

    As for their words possibly being “used against them” that applies to everyone, not just scientists. And while some may have this as their “motive” for inquiry, certainly not all do. Furthermore, if this did occur, it really would have no bearing on their honest opinion.

    Not everyone is an expert wordsmith that is true. But I find it very unlikely that a competent scientist is unable to string together a few coherent sentences. After all, Dr. Starr seems to have this ability.

    I also think it should be noted, that even the most famous in the scientific community didn’t start out that way. The simple fact is, the coursework necessary on the way up provides adequate instruction in communication. So, I think that idea is a bit feeble.

    And of course, the notion that an “expert” must be right……..or that the only place one can learn is in a traditional institutional setting is simply bunkum.

    If you have an inquisitive mind and reasonable intelligence, the world of knowledge is there for the taking.

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Dr. Barry Starr

Dr. Barry Starr (@geneticsboy) is a Geneticist-in-Residence at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA and runs their Stanford at The Tech program. The program is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Stanford Department of Genetics and The Tech Museum of Innovation. Together these two partners created the Genetics: Technology with a Twist exhibition.

You can also see additional posts by Barry at KQED Science, and read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.

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