Science outreach

ResearchBlogging.orgSince the mid-1990s, proposals submitted to the National Science Foundation have been judged on two criteria: intellectual merit and broader impacts. The current version of the Grant Proposal Guide describes the broader impacts criterion as follows:

How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning? How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of underrepresented groups (e.g., gender, ethnicity, disability, geographic, etc.)? To what extent will it enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such as facilities, instrumentation, networks, and partnerships? Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding? What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?
In the panels on which I've served, the last two questions have received especially keen attention. In a recent PLoS One paper, Elaine Howard Ecklund and her collaborators report results from semi-structured interviews of academic biologists and physicists to understand the target and type of outreach in each community. The sample is small (only 97 interviewees), but the patterns are revealing.

  • Biologists and physicists are equally engaged in public outreach.
  • Women are more involved in outreach than men, and the gap is larger in biology than in physics (biology: 69 percent of women, 32 percent of men. physics: 76 percent of women, 58 percent of men).
  • A plurality of outreach efforts involve school-aged children, e.g., presentations to elementary or high-school students.
In scientists' own words, science outreach is a bleak prospect with limited room for improvement.

...The barriers to science outreach are generally attributed to one or more of the three elements that shape science outreach: scientists, the academy, and the public.
The barriers from scientists are "that scientists are poor interpersonal communicators or that nonscientists perceive them to be uniformly inept at communication".

There's a solution for that: practice. I can't claim to be good at it, but I think I am getting better.

The barriers from the academy are what you'd expect. At research universities, the focus is on publishing high quality research, not on sharing the results of that research with other audiences. Interestingly, physicists seem more aware of how important it is to provide exciting insights into their latest work for the simple reason that continued funding for research and education depends on public support.

As for the public, the scientists blame ignorance and disinterest. I agree that we haven't done a good job in teaching science to non-scientists so that many know little about what we do or about what science has taught us about our world. I also agree that many people really aren't interested in science. While both ignorance and disinterest pose challenges to ensuring that solid scientific understanding underlies the formulation of public policy, science isn't unique in facing those challenges. Just ask an economist, an historian, a sociologist, a psychologist, or a political scientist.

The lessons? For us as individuals, if we think communication is important, we need to seek resources to help us improve. For institutions, scientific societies and universities, if we think public support is important for science education and research, we need to recognize and value the efforts of those who reach beyond our campuses.
Ecklund, E., James, S., & Lincoln, A. (2012). How Academic Biologists and Physicists View Science Outreach PLoS ONE, 7 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0036240