Study: Trying to Popularize Science Won’t Hurt You (and Probably Won’t Help You)
I write, and think, a lot about science outreach activities. I define the term broadly, to cover any efforts to communicate about scientific topics to any audience outside of one’s own discipline. One idea that crops up fairly often is that such efforts to “popularize” science could adversely affect one’s career – particularly in academia. And, while this has been the subject of some research, I hadn’t run across a large-scale study that evaluated the hypothesis that outreach efforts will hurt you.
So I was pretty interested last week when I found a study that tried to do just that. (Thanks to @sciencemeandyou for tweeting it!) The 2008 paper describing the study, “Scientists who engage with society perform better academically,” was published in Science and Public Policy – and I’d like to highlight a couple of key points. [Note: I won’t recap the entire paper. In fact, I’m writing this post primarily as an encouragement to get any interested parties to read it themselves.]
Key point #1: The study “clearly invalidates” the hypothesis that “dissemination [i.e., outreach] is done by those who are not good enough for an academic career.” I’ll quote the paper: “First, randomly chosen active scientists have higher academic indicators than inactive ones. Second, all other things being equal, the probability of disseminating increases with academic position.” The academic indicators they refer to are bibliometric indicators, including number of publications, citations, etc.
Key point #2: The study found that “dissemination activities” have “no negative effect” on scientists’ prospects for promotion – in any field. In fact, in a couple of fields, some dissemination activities actually slightly improved a scientist’s prospects. In other words, outreach won’t hurt you – but it probably won’t help you much either.
Lastly, the paper highlights this absence of incentives for outreach activities – despite the fact that “many prestigious institutions” have said that such activities are a priority: “We feel that [the] institutions’ duty is now to invent ways of evaluating and rewarding” scientists who are actively engaged in outreach efforts. I agree.
Also, it's worth pointing out the obvious here: the world is a constantly changing place. This paper came out in 2008, and discussions/debates about the role of scientists in outreach have been, um, enthusiastic over the past five years. And where there's heated debate, there is the possibility for change. In time, attitudes shift. Anecdotally, I see many young researchers who are more comfortable with the idea of scientists engaging in outreach – even if they have no interest in doing outreach themselves. Are my anecdotal observations indicative of a generational shift toward acceptance of outreach in the research community? Time will tell.
In the meantime, what do you make of this paper?