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

Author

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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