SciComm Matters Because … Funding Agencies Say So

5 December 2012 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

Photo: kwod/stock.xchng

(Note: This post is part of an occasional series about why science communication is important.)

Science is not cheap. Whether you want to do research on cancer, fruit flies or computer malware, you’re going to have to find someone to pick up the tab. In many cases, that benefactor is going to be a government funding agency. And funding agencies want you to tell the world exactly what you did with their money.

How common is this?

From the European Union to South Africa to China to Brazil, government agencies, ministries, associations and foundations highlight the importance of science communication. The language differs, but the goals are similar. In New Zealand, for example, the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology cites “engaging New Zealanders with science and technology” as a key objective. Meanwhile, the Chinese Association for Science and Technology is tasked, by law, with disseminating “scientific and technological knowledge to raise the scientific and cultural level of all citizens.”

Rather than trying to provide a comprehensive overview of how every funding agency addresses science communication, I’ll focus on a specific example. And, because I live and work in the United States, I’m going to focus on the National Science Foundation (NSF). (Note: There’s an interesting 2010 paper, from Palmer and Schibeci in Public Understanding of Science, on how funding bodies around the world address science communication. Worth a read.)

NSF uses two criteria when evaluating research proposals: intellectual merit and “broader impacts” (read: science communication/outreach). To quote an NSF guidance document on the subject, “Experience shows that while most proposers have little difficulty responding to the criterion relating to intellectual merit, many proposers have difficulty understanding how to frame the broader impacts of the activities they propose to undertake.” The guidance goes on to list a variety of “representative activities” researchers can engage in to tackle the “broader impacts” mandate.

Do funding agencies really care?

In a word: yes. I asked Dr. Denise Barnes, head of NSF’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, whether science communication is important to NSF (and if so, why). Her response: “It is imperative that NSF staff and those funded by NSF be able to communicate in a clear, concise and compelling way the outcomes and impacts of taxpayers’ investments and do so in a manner that is easily understood by a diverse group of stakeholders who span broad technical literacy levels. Effective communication can help stakeholders grasp the societal benefits of NSF-supported research and education undertaken in the nation.”

In summary, scientists who receive NSF funding need to explain why their work matters. I’m pretty sure that can be translated to: If taxpayers, and Congress, don’t understand what federally funded scientists are working on – and why the scientists are working on it – they may decide they don’t want to pay for that science any more.

In short, if you’re a researcher who relies on grant funding, it behooves you to take science communication seriously by actively promoting your work. This will make your funding agency happy because it improves the likelihood that they will get continued funding, which they can then make available to fund more science. If you’re not promoting your work, you’re biting the hand that feeds you. That rarely ends well.

What you can do, part one

Science communication doesn’t have to take a lot of your time and effort. You can delegate it. If you’re a researcher who is not interested in tackling science communication efforts on your own, talk to your PIO; it is his or her job to help you promote your work. I wrote an overview of how PIOs and researchers can work together a while back, but it all starts with letting the PIO know about your research in a timely way (i.e., before the papers have been published). If you don’t reach out to the PIO, nothing will happen.

A researcher I work with says that tackling the “broader impacts” section of his first few grant proposals felt “a bit forced and unnatural.” But he was open to the idea of working with his PIO (me), and we were able to effectively communicate his work to a fairly large audience. It didn’t take up much of his time, and he found that “all of my funding agencies appreciated the publicity.”

What you can do, part two

If you are interested in actively engaging in science communication, there’s a lot you can do. After all, this whole blog revolves around science communication efforts.

During our interview, Barnes offered up some good, basic advice for scientists when it comes to outreach: “First, learn how to communicate to the nonexpert; then practice, practice, practice. If you do this, you will notice improvements in your abilities to get your message across. Also, in introductory settings, keep it simple and concise. If you can do that in a powerful way, you will whet the appetite of the audience for more, and then you can take them where you want them to go. Finally, you do not have to use all communication tools; find and use what works best for you, and never overpromise.”

Amen, sister.

Note: I linked to a paper that may not be open access. Citation below.

“What conceptions of science communication are espoused by science research funding bodies?” Public Understanding of Science, Sarah E. Palmer and Renato A. Schibeci, DOI: 10.1177/0963662512455295


4 Responses to “SciComm Matters Because … Funding Agencies Say So”

  1. Matthew (@MCeeP) Reply | Permalink

    I recently took the time to look over the out-reach / public dissemination rules within the terms and conditions for three of the UK research councils (RC); BBSRC, EPSRC and NERC. Specifically I wanted to know what their rules were with regard to public engagement during a project, e.g. blogging about the work.

    Of the 3 only one (NERC) mentioned of ANY kind of online engagement and this mention was to simply point to the guidance set out by the Central Office of Information .... a government agency that was closed 8 months ago (with all guidance document removed).

    As you discuss, the RCs do have an 'impact' section within any grant proposal but there is a feeling that this section is more aimed at explaining what tangible impact you research will have on the industry/academic filed, not communicating your work to a wider audience. It would be nice to see the RCs clarify the guidance on this section or perhaps include 'communication' as a separate entity all together. I love talking about our work, it would be great to make that part of any grant proposal

  2. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    I just had an opportunity to glance over the RCUK Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research: http://www.rcuk.ac.uk/per/Pages/Concordat.aspx

    So, it seems that there is a defined and clearly-stated DESIRE for effective communication from researchers that receive government funding. Is the problem that there is not clear guidance on how researchers should pursue science communication? E.g., is there a lack of clarity on what sorts of communication efforts researchers could/should be pursuing?

    There are best practices guides and public engagement resources linked from the Concordat. How do they fall short? Is it a case of there being so much information that it's difficult to parse out exactly how to proceed?

    Does anyone know Kerry Leslie or someone in her shop? I'd love to get her input here.

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