I’m currently working my way through Unscientific America, and I have the sneaking suspicion that I’m going to wind up agreeing with ScienceBlogling Janet’s assessment (actually, it will probably be harsher). But speaking of Janet, I want to take exception with one thing in her review: her emphasis on academic science. From her review (italics mine):
In addition to the research, the grant writing, the manuscript drafting, the student training, the classroom teaching, the paper and grant refereeing, and the always rewarding committee work, academic scientists should be working hard to communicate with the public, to generate their own science news for public distribution, to advise filmmakers, and to get politically active.
(To be fair, Mooney and Kirshenbaum actually seem to be suggesting more of a division of labor within the scientific community — rather than making all the researchers be communicators, some scientists in a department could focus on research and others on communication. But there are significant challenges in making an arrangement like this work, including but not limited to issues of fair evaluation of work that a department is not used to evaluating. The challenges experienced within departments that include traditional chemists and those whose research focuses on chemical education, for example, might be instructive in coming up with something like a blueprint to diversify science departments in the ways Mooney and Kirshenbaum suggest.)
Throwing these additional communication, outreach, and lobbying tasks on every scientist’s shoulders seems a little nuts (unless we can give them each eight more hours per day to accomplish these additional tasks). And if you really wanted it to happen, this would require changing the official standards against which the job performance of scientists is judged (e.g., in their tenure and promotion cases). Making such changes — not only in official policies but in the work cultures that implement them — would require significant effort, coordination of a lot of decision makers, and probably resources (like funding and release time). At universities like mine, not only would such changes require large-scale buy-in from departments and administrators at all levels, but they would require a change in faculty contracts (which would need to be approved by the university, the faculty union, and perhaps even the state legislature).
None of this is to say that it would be a bad idea to recognize communication with and outreach to those beyond the tribe of science as a meaningful activity for a scientist. But if is to have a chance of being so recognized in any official way, someone needs to frame a clear argument identifying the benefits of doing it (and the costs of failing to) so as to make it a no-brainer for deans, provosts, presidents, chancellors, legislatures, governors, and unions.
Janet is right in that, within the context of academia, public outreach is very difficult. But there is another option: non-profit, non-academic science. My last two (current and previous one) jobs are (were? Stupid tenses…) at non-profits, and public outreach, especially at the previous one, was part of the job. You can have a Ph.D., do research, and engage in outreach, but it’s a lot easier if you’re not in academia. What we need to do is encourage students and post-docs to explore non-academic, non-profit options. And we need to financially support such groups, particularly when they perform outreach roles (by “we”, I mean funders and the reviewers they use).
Many of the problems that appear difficult within the context of academia aren’t once you leave academia.