Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Is 'outreach' a dirty word in academia?

On August 9th I found myself sitting in a courtyard at Google's Palo Alto campus, leading an animated discussion about "outreach" with a broad cross-section of geeky, articulate science types.
Enjoying some adult beverages at the Googleplex

It was my first Science Foo Camp ("Scifoo" for short) -- an invitation-only event sponsored by Google, O'Reilly Media, Digital Science, and the Nature Publishing Group. There were 250 invitees from around the world, ranging from academic scientists like me to science writers, foundation representatives, science artists, even science comedians and a science magician (perhaps my favorite). It felt like a brain vacation. I let my brain "play" all weekend long, while my body enjoyed delicious and abundant food and drink.

The campers themselves set the agenda for the meeting, by proposing sessions on over-sized post-its tacked to a huge schedule board (see pic). While there were a few serious topics, including a great session on "Reproducibility in Science", most were creative spin-offs on attendees' professional
A schedule board at SciFoo14
interests, such as "Beyonce and Science" or "De-extinction:  should we bring extinct things back to life?" or "What happens in the last 3 minutes before Singularity?" or "Find deep friendships (and love?) in 45 minutes" (which I missed, because, ironically, I was deep in conversation with a new acquaintance - but see this article to get an idea of the approach).

I was nervous proposing a session entitled "Why is 'outreach' a dirty word in science academia? and How can we change this?", but felt like I might get some creative solutions out of this crowd. You see, scientists are rewarded by the numbers of papers (and numbers of citations, at enlightened institutions) and the amount of external funding they receive. They are not rewarded for time and effort spent communicating science to the public, working with K-12 teachers, meeting lawmakers on Capitol Hill, blogging about science, etc. So why "waste" your time? At worst, I expected to receive a few sympathetic pats on the back from similarly tortured souls who, like me, are committed to 'outreach' despite clear disincentives. [I wrote a previous post outlining these disincentives, for those that want more detail.]

To my delight, the session drew 20+ enthusiastic participants, ranging from graduate students to TV science personalities to academic scientists to professional science writers. The first order of business was to dispense with the term "outreach" in favor of "engagement"-- signaling a movement away from the model whereby the Ivory Tower dispenses Knowledge to the ignorant masses, and towards a model defined by sustained conversations (by definition bi-directional) about the wonder and value of science and its applicability in our everyday lives. These days, "engagement" is embodied in ambitious citizen-science programs like PaleoQuest's Sharkfinder initiative, whereby folks can hunt for fossil fish teeth in unsorted sands (my 7-yr-old daughter was ecstatic to find a 3mm-long tooth in her kit last night.)

Attendees shared inspiring stories of how they had channeled their personal passion for public engagement into reality, and even, in some cases, institutional change. There was Dr. Sarah Imari Walker, an Asst. Prof. at ASU who had co-founded SAGANet.org (Social Action for a Grassroots Astrobiology Network), an e-community made of scientists and interested members of the public. All-but-doctored Asha Devos heavily leverages her blue whale research in some high-profile public engagement activities. Dr. Ray Jayawardhana, who had served as the President's Senior Advisor on Science Engagement at U. Toronto for two years, emphasized the need for public engagement training of both students and faculty, supported by institutional resources. I was especially intrigued by the UK's Wellcome Trust, who have dedicated some of their funding exclusively to public engagement activities, awarded competitively as supplements to funded research grants. They even have a whole page dedicated to public engagement! This is quite different from the NSF model, wherein "Broader Impacts" scores are considered in ranking a proposal's merit. While some researchers pursue such activities in earnest, the vast majority pay lip service to NSF's goals for its Broader Impacts. For example, many simply vow to incorporate their research into their undergraduate classes. Gee thanks -- nothing says "taxpayer value" quite like putting 20 undergrads to sleep with the technical details of your research.

We all agreed that while public engagement is not for everyone, those who choose to do it should be given the resources to do it effectively, and rewarded for their successes. Every university has an Office of Communications or Public Relations, but effective public engagement does not start or end with a press release. Universities should be encouraging their graduate and postdoctoral students, as well as their faculty, to explore the vast landscape of public engagement, when they are so inclined, and provide training to make them as effective as possible. Unfortunately, such activities are too often seen as a distraction from "real work", as several young Scifoo scientists lamented, and as confirmed by one very senior scientist at the session.

Why do young scientists participate in public engagement activities, you might ask, when they have so much to lose? First and foremost, these young scientists are driven by the need to keep science relevant and exciting to the public, and the personal satisfaction that comes from effective engagement. [Editor's note:  much feedback on the importance of inspiring the next generation of scientists, as well as informing the public/policymakers on issues of high societal relevance, like climate change.] But they also sense that the ground is shifting beneath them, as science academia begins to recognize the rewards of broad and deep engagement with the public. While public engagement acumen is not considered in hiring decisions nor promotion and tenure at present, these young scientists felt certain that it soon would be. Effective communication is a learned skill that takes years to develop, so they are building their toolkits well before the market forces materialize.

A "normal" scientist
As a senior academic in my field, I was deeply moved by their faith in the evolution of a system that is notoriously slow to change. Buoyed by reports of creative, new engagement platforms and real-world institutional change, I left the session feeling like I was part of a not-so-secret society. We may look like we're "normal" scientists, but we are slowly and steadily pushing at the frontiers of scientific culture, hoping that one day, public engagement will be nurtured and celebrated across all institutions of higher education.


  1. Kim, great post. We try to "engage" as much as possible within the constraints you are familiar with. Some examples here http://conectechlabs.wix.com/home#!outreach/cek1

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