Study: Trying to Popularize Science Won’t Hurt You (and Probably Won’t Help You)

21 February 2013 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

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?


5 Responses to “Study: Trying to Popularize Science Won’t Hurt You (and Probably Won’t Help You)”

  1. Mark Reply | Permalink

    NIce study and very encouraging. I think the perception of public / community engagement within academia is undergoing quite a big shift and research institutions are becoming increasingly aware of its value to themselves and to society.

    One point I'd like to address is that outreach work doesn't improve career prospect. While this may be true for those firmly embarked on an academic career path, I'm sure it will be a substantial benefit to those side-stepping out of academia into other sectors of work (e.g. education, commercial, journalism, local government, etc).

  2. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    Excellent point, Mark. Outreach activities can be enormously valuable for those seeking work outside of the traditional academic environment.

  3. Jon Copley Reply | Permalink

    Interesting, but I think there may be a distinction between scientists engaging wider audiences specifically about their own research, and scientists popularising their wider subject area in general (but not specifically linked to their own research). I think the former, at least in my experience, can be beneficial to a research career - please see http://www.sciconnect.co.uk/blog/2012/07/can-outreach-make-you-a-better-scientist-2/ if interested. For example, it can now be defined and measured as "wider societal impact" of research, if done carefully.

    But I'd be interested to see whether that same applies to the latter, i.e. general popularisation; I suspect that may be where the outcome is still more likely to be neutral, or even negative (again from my own admittedly anecdotal experience, as a science writer who resumed a full-time research career).

    I think that a distinction between general popularisation and specific research-pegged engagement is important for other reasons. One doesn't have to be a research-active scientist to be an excellent science communicator or to popularise a subject area (e.g. Adam Rutherford, Ed Youg etc). Similarly, researchers do not necessarily need to embark on effectively parallel careers as general science communicators to share their own specific work effectively with wider audiences (for example, Brian Cox and Jim Al-Khalili are great presenters / popularisers of their discipline areas, but neither talks much or at all about their own specific research while in that "parallel" role - the task of engaging wider audiences about your own research is separate).

  4. hapsci Reply | Permalink

    Interesting paper! I agree it would be interesting to see if this was repeated now if there would be any shift. I know in many universities they are pushing to value the outreach work that researchers do - in real terms of promotion and employment. Whether this will actually happen and if those steps will mean that taking part in outreach activities will increase your chances of promotion/retaining a job and even getting grant funding remain to be seen.

    Actually, it would be really interesting to include the success rate for grant applications for those that have a good background in outreach activites vs those that don't - as that could be another measure of benefit.

  5. David Woods Reply | Permalink

    I detest, utterly detest the word phrase 'Astronomy Outreach.

    I makes me almost physically wretch when I see it. Obviously created by some illegitimate fusion of a thought processes going in some marketing department of a university with too much time on its hands.

    My influences motives came from Sir Patrick Moore, Carl Sagan et Al. Not all were academic.

    I am not a scientist but an Amateur Astronomer. Just. I have no desire to become to media frontman but promoting the efforts of my Astronomy Group HantsAstro goes with being the founder of it, I guess. I co-produce an astronomy podcast that's downloaded thousands of times a month across 100 countries and the group web site is visited by over 3000 people a week. In less than 4 years we have become the largest observing group in Southern England, with one in four members being women. This can only be good for science in the long term.

    The responsibility of getting the fact right is as weighing as my lack of academic capital. Whatever I say or do on radio or in the press can affect the perception of astronomy and astronomers, both amateur and professional alike.

    So it has to be done right, doesn't it

    Science Communication is not, nor should ever be the sole preserve of Scientists, either or science risks losing it accessibility. Engaging and innovative communication is key, and that requires a creativity that is not formulaic or delivered via lab coats.

    We are, to be simplistic selling Discovery and Learning. Science is is the business of finding answers and solutions. There are many parallels in this.

    My burning ambition is to help inspire more people to get involved in Astronomy, to open the parents eyes that there is a future in UK Space Industry for their children and what we do as amateurs is a useful stepping stone into that. If I could have influenced enough people to become 10,000 scientists, then my work on Earth is done.

    If you're already working in Science, you should have the same desire to help build more pathways into all its ways. There are so many benefits, whether it helps your career directly or not. Either way, your ability in your career is down to you and whatever vehicles you choose to promote that ability may open up doors to you faster. Science, like communication is about running the numbers. :)

Leave a Reply


7 × six =