Why (Some) Scientists Avoid the Public
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Female scientists and researchers with kids are the most likely to reach out and communicate their science to the public, a new study finds.
The results are based on a random sample of biologists and physicists in the United States, so they may not be universal for all scientists. But according to their interviews with these researchers, science communication is getting the short end of the stick.
Though 58 percent of the scientists surveyed in the study reported engaging in some sort of public outreach, 31 percent said their universities were a major barrier in communicating their research. The few scientists who said they wished to dedicate their entire careers to public outreach reported facing disapproval from their peers.
"The best way you can do it is to keep your mouth shut and keep going until you finish. If [mentors] realize that you don't want to become them [university professors] eventually, well, then they'll basically not give you enough to work with — enough resources or time or investment on their part for you to finish your Ph.D.," said one respondent, a physics graduate student. "It's medieval."
Who is talking to the public
With U.S. science and math test scores lagging behind those of other countries, science communication is a hot topic. Since the mid-1990s, for example, any researcher receiving a National Science Foundation grant must explain how their research will affect the public, including plans for outreach and teaching.
But the small amount of research done on public outreach suggests that public engagement is spotty. According to earlier studies, about half of scientists conduct some sort of public outreach; the most active 5 percent shoulder about half of the outreach work. [Best Supporting Role: 8 Celebs Who Promote Science]
To find out more about how scientists see outreach work, Rice University sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund and colleagues interviewed a random sample of 97 biologists and physicists from top research universities, including everyone from graduate students to postdoctoral researchers to veteran university professors. They found that women are more likely to conduct outreach than men, with 72 percent of female scientists reporting participating in public communication versus 43 percent of male scientists.
Having children was linked with an increased likelihood of outreach, with 81 percent of women with children participating versus 66 percent of women without kids. Half of fathers interviewed participated in outreach versus only 37 percent of childless men.
Although you might expect these publically active parents to be visiting their own child's classroom or school, that did not seem to explain the difference between parents and non-parents: Only three people surveyed said they did outreach in their child's own school, though 32 percent said their outreach was done for school-age children.
The study isn't clear on why women are more likely than men to conduct outreach. It's possible that as more women enter science, outreach may increase, the researchers reported Wednesday (May 9) in the journal PLoS ONE. Or outreach may be seen as less legitimate than pure research — in other words, "women's work" that male scientists are more likely to see as beneath them, the researchers say.
Who's to blame
Each participant also shared what they thought were the major barriers to communicating their research. A significant number, 37 percent, said scientist were simply bad communicators and wouldn't do a good job explaining their work to the public.
"I'm not sure you want most of the people that I know here to go out and try to talk to the public. They're [the public is] gonna say 'stop spending my tax dollars on this person!'" one assistant professor joked.
Thirty-one percent of people said the blame for bad communication fell mainly on universities, pointing out that there was little time, opportunity or reward for sharing their research.
Researchers also worried about the "Sagan effect," named after the astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan, which holds that the more a scientist interacts with the media, the less competent he or she will seem to his or her peers.
"I think that people look down on the popularizer, and I think that's a real big mistake, personally," one biologist told the researchers.
About a quarter of respondents saw outreach as a lost cause thanks to the public itself. They perceived non-scientists to be ignorant or simply disinterested in their work. One biology professor cited people who are "afraid of scientific knowledge" when discussing the cultural gulf between scientists and some laypeople.
"When somebody doesn't believe what you are doing is true or has any value, then trying to explain to them what you are doing, you're starting from this cultural foundation that is a complete disconnect," the researcher said.
To make outreach more likely, Ecklund and her colleagues suggest a cultural shift: "Making outreach work seem normal is a sign that department and university leaders are reassessing their priorities," they wrote.
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