Why I do so much outreach and science communication

We do science for different reasons and different motivations, but curiosity and being life-long learners are probably at the core. Our careers, however, are never static, and even when landing the ‘dream job’ (such as I did), things change and evolve, including perspectives on what it means to do scientific research.  For example, I realized a few years ago that I had essentially traded field biology for a desk job. I was no longer spending long periods of time collecting data, and was instead managing money, people, and emails.  I don’t lament this fact: it’s not necessarily a negative change, but it is a change and was a different path than what I expected during grad school.

As a career develops, the work-life balance also comes into play with more and more force – a growing family puts additional pressures on time, from sitting poolside while kids are at their lessons, or spending volunteer time sitting on an elementary school governing board.  There are continual shifts in personal and professional life, and I found that, after getting tenure, I was just getting busier and busier with family and work, but I wasn’t feeling the satisfaction that I expected. Something was missing.

Learning about insects in Nunavut (photo by Crystal Ernst)

One kind of outreach: sharing knowledge about insects with a community in Nunavut (photo by Crystal Ernst)

A few years ago a respected colleague said to me “It’s no longer just about the next publication or research grant, it’s about how we interact with our larger community, how we, as scientists, affect policy, and change lives”.   This resonated strongly with me: my career can and should be dynamic and it should continually evolve. For me, this involved a deeper commitment to outreach activities (which, in my opinion, is broad terminology that includes science communication).

Many scientists will continue to be happy to be in the lab or field, collecting data and writing papers until CVs are long. That is a wonderful and worthy use of time and although I will continue to do this, it’s not my only priority anymore and my personality is such that I need to do outreach: I’ve always loved to discuss my science with anyone who will listen, whether it be friends at a BBQ, readers of this blog, or kids in Iqaluit. However, that aspect of my personality sometimes felt stifled under some of the strict structures of a University.  I love doing outreach, but it takes precious time, and, my job is primarily about research and teaching and doing service within my Department and University.

But things have changed: being a scientist can really take on new directions, especially now that we’re in digital age where we have technology that can effectively facilitate knowledge exchange.  We have tools that make it less of a burden.  Broadening my social media profile, and becoming a science blogger is something that I enjoy immensely, largely because it’s allowed me, as a scientist, to interact and discuss science with a broader community. Sometimes this community really is the ‘broader public’ when a blog post eventually makes its way into the mainstream media; often this community is found on Twitter or through Facebook, and it’s a fascinating network of people from different sectors and with different perspectives. This community will challenge me, debate, and discuss areas of interest both within and beyond my direct area of expertise (and provide me laugh or two).  So many people are insanely eager to discuss science with scientists, and it’s gratifying and validating to have opportunities to do outreach, and make outreach a component of my professional life.  And I’ve learned that all these outreach activities create a positive feedback loop: they make me a better communicator, a better advocate for science and education, a better scientist, and a happier person (the latter point should never be understated).

Three days on twitter: the connections between the people I chat with on Twitter (from Bluenod)

Three days on twitter: the connections between the people I chat with on Twitter (from Bluenod)

Outreach can do all of these things without a significant investment of time (I probably spend 1-3 hours per week doing this blog, similar to other bloggers). That’s the beauty of it. Although outreach doesn’t always get the ‘direct’ support it should within the Ivory tower, I believe firmly that the tide is starting to shift.  My University has been nothing but supportive, and outreach and community engagement are words being used by upper administrators at Universities across Canada. Future scientists will likely live in a world where outreach is a core activity for scientists, and this will be an exciting time for science and society.


Note: this is an exert from a presentation I gave at a recent workshop on Science Blogging.

One Response to “Why I do so much outreach and science communication”

  1. D. Huber Reply | Permalink

    Great post, and I fully agree.

    On the topic of "the tide starting to shift" I was pleasantly surprised that my CFI yearly reports this year had space devoted to outlining "electronic" outreach.

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