Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Where have I been? Or, science outreach's place in science.

It's been a few weeks since my first post. Oops. Between home internet and computer problems, political and birthday celebrations, medical stuff, wedding planning, attempting to get in shape... you get the idea.

Oh, and, you know, doing my science. Despite popular perception, universities don't just lie dormant over the summer. In some ways, academics are actually more busy during these "breaks" because we're trying to fit in the many activities that are near-impossible during the school year. As just a sampling, I'm currently writing four manuscripts, training to code videos, getting an undergrad's project up and running, preparing for prelims, and writing a grant.

So when I read Scicurious's blog post on outreach and how "something's got to give," I found myself cheering along. She is just oh-so-right-on! Seriously, go read the post (many of the comments are also very worthy). I'll wait...

And for those of you who didn't click through, here's the part that grabbed me the most:
Outreach is not what we're paid for. Outreach is not what we're awarded things for...And in the scientific world of getting grants, of publish or perish, well, that doesn't fly. If you seem overly interested in outreach (or even in college teaching in some fields), you are not just odd. Your priorities are out of whack. No one ever got a faculty position based on outreach. I have seen colleagues get dinged in promotion meetings for too much time spent doing outreach. The unspoken implication is clear: if you're doing outreach, you must not be doing science.
You don't have to be a psychology graduate student to realize that people respond to incentives. Scientists--people, after all--generally aren't incentivized to do outreach (though the situation is different at liberal arts institutions) so outreach generally doesn't happen. As Kate Clancy points out (based on Katie PhD's comment on Sci's post), this becomes a chicken and egg problem: "we need people to step forward and do outreach, but we also need to make it worth their while...which will only be recognized and understood when more people do outreach." The issue is deeply structural, down to things that seem unrelated at first blush, like how universities are funded and how many grad students are admitted each year.

So most academics don't gain visible, quantifiable, tangible, external rewards for doing outreach about their research. I think that should change. But one thing that's absolutely crucial to keep in mind is that outreach comes with its own intrinsic rewards! Commenter Suzie on Sci's post put it perfectly: "outreach is a profile raising activity, why does no-one ever mention that?... the personal and career-related benefits are more than worth it." Two specific examples of the less-visible-but-still-valuable benefits science outreach can provide: building relationships with peers and senior faculty alike, and building a reputation as a good communicator.

I might not blog as regularly as I'd like to, and I might only get to explain visual illusions to elementary school kids twice per semester, and I almost certainly won't get any meaningful kind of payment or promotion from these activities. But I will continue to make time for them when I can. I'm gaining valuable skills, developing a network, and I enjoy communicating new findings and general excitement for the scientific process! When we feel down on the lack of external rewards for outreach, we should try to remember the many intrinsic benefits it provides as well.


  1. True, but intrinsic rewards only gets you so far. And not everyone is going to buy into intrinsic rewards. "It's good for you!" doesn't get people to eat as many vegetables and exercise, either.

    1. I totally agree with you. I think we definitely need to work to change the system to give tangible external rewards for outreach as well. However, "it's good for you!" is at least *something* in the interim.

  2. There are external rewards to this... if spun correctly. We recommend outreach as one way faculty can address the broader impact requirements for federal funding (National Science Foundation). Train them and their grad students how to do outreach, and to evaluate participant learning gains, and you have a recipe for success.

    1. I agree that broader impact statements are a step in the right direction, but unfortunately many people don't take them very seriously...