Friday, February 14, 2014

A scientist's dilemma: to tweet or not to tweet?

[Below is a loose summary of my comments in the “Engaging Social Media” panel at the AAAS meeting in Chicago, with superstars Maggie Koerth-Baker and Danielle N. Lee. My slides are here. Thanks to all for the Twitter outpouring of support and new followers!]

It’s 2010, and I’m sitting in a room with 18 other young scientists as part of the inaugural PopTech Science Fellows program. Its aim is to develop “a corps of highly visible and socially engaged scientific leaders.” They had packed our day full of presentations by marketing experts, journalists, social media gurus, etc. But they forgot to ask us one key question:  "Is building a significant public presence one of your goals?" After some intense discussion, the common answer was "I'm not sure…"

Frustrating, right? Don't we, most of us newly tenured, feel an obligation to communicate our findings, our passion, and keep science relevant? Of course we do. 

But here are some of the things that make scientists uneasy about social media in particular:

1. Discomfort/stigma associated with (non-traditional) self-promotion. It's all well and good to shamelessly plug your results at a conference, repeatedly cite yourself in publications, place well-timed calls to program managers, etc. [Ladies, apparently we do not do this enough, to our great detriment.] It's quite another to actively seek out the public spotlight, to court media attention. Deep down, we'd all like to be that modest, noble scientist whose results changed the world based on their own scientific merit. "Shouldn't the quality of my science speak for itself?" If we do seek a larger audience for our work, is that short-circuiting, or making less relevant, the peer evaluation process that crowns blockbusters and condemns duds?

2a. Danger of over-selling societal relevance of results. This is especially dangerous territory in climate change science, wherein people constantly want to know what your work means for future climate change projections.
2b. Danger of over-simplifying results to the point of inaccuracy. Following on the last point, climate science communication can be a mine-field. "So basically your results confirm a link between X impact and rising CO2, right?" or just as problematic "It seems your work really calls into question the link between X impact and rising CO2, right?" Communicating your results in the context of uncertainties can quickly lead to the listener saying "So basically, there is still a lot of uncertainty." No… Arghghghgh!

3. Fear of the scientist as advocate; loss of objectivity. This issue flames up on Twitter every now and again, because it can never be fully resolved. We are scientists. But we are also humans with well-founded beliefs about the world, many of which stem from our profound understanding of certain scientific facts, like that CO2 is warming the planet and things will get a lot worse before they get better. There is an obvious tension in communicating that fact and its implications - it is very hard to avoid advocating for significant and immediate emissions cuts as an obvious response to the magnitude of the threat. Gavin Schmidt gave a wonderful talk at AGU a few months ago on this general topic, you can see it here, including links to reactions in the blogosphere. 

4. Who has the time anyway? [subtext:  there are no tangible rewards for such efforts] A bullet-proof argument against engagement, at face value. Our worth is measured in # of publications (and their impact, if your institution is enlightened) and $ of grants, with 'marketability' and salary scaling accordingly. Women like myself, as a mother of four young children, fare especially poorly in these quantitative metrics already (the subject of a future post), so there is a clear negative incentive to spend time on social media, which robs time from your sputtering research program. For those of us who do engage, we can never attribute X research or career development directly to our social media engagement, because we are not running a control experiment in parallel.

So why embark on such a fool's journey?
I can't speak for all scientists out there blogging and tweeting, but here's why I made the leap:

As a climate scientist, I strongly feel an obligation to communicate the facts that I know, and their implications. Enough said.

I want to be accessible, in two different ways. First, I want to make myself available as a resource for the public, to answer questions, offer to speak at public venues, etc. Second, I want the public to understand that climate scientists are humans too! 99% of us are not crazy ideologues nor emotionless robots. I want to add another face to the phrase "climate scientist" -- one of a somewhat frazzled Mom trying to raise four reasonable humans and provide a few clues about the workings of our climate system.

I have some great stories to tell. My blog lets me illustrate the beauty and adventure of my fieldwork, in a story-telling format. See these posts, authored by students. As proud as I am of my lab's recent publications, they are impersonal, inaccessible, and do not tell the story of our research. 

I want to help change the culture (and structures) of science regarding 1) public engagement and 2) women in science. Yes, I am willing to spend a lot of spare time that I don't have on Twitter and blogging, on trips to Capitol Hill, in K-12 classrooms, and even in front of Hollywood cameras, in pursuit of these goals. Some will call me crazy. Some will call me self-serving. Taking the plunge means growing some thick skin (easier to do with tenure), while keeping your eyes on the long-term prize.

And as for those uncertain PopTech Science Fellows, the majority of us took the plunge, some more wholeheartedly than others. See Twitter handles and links for some of my friends below. They rock.

Photo of 2010 PopTech Science Fellows, including (from left) Sean Gourley,
Gidon EshelAmro Hamdoun, Sarah Fortune, myself, and Sinan Aral