You Don’t Have to Be in Academia to Be a Scientist

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.

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9 Responses to You Don’t Have to Be in Academia to Be a Scientist

  1. Ron says:

    Not all scientists are in academia. I opted out of that path about 20 years ago, and now work on my own – and while my output is lower – the quality is higher. One just needs to maintain their internal compass and own high standards.

  2. D. C. Sessions says:

    My last two (current and previous one) jobs are (were? Stupid tenses…)

    Present perfect is the tense you’re looking for: “have been.”
    Grammar aside, one problem with trying to weld outreach onto the side of Good Ship Academia is that it doesn’t bring in any money.
    On the other hand, if a nonprofit were to fund grants for outreach, finding solutions to all of those other obstacles would suddenly become a high priority all over academia.

  3. JD says:

    You should read what Jerry Coyne thinks about M&K’s manifesto.

  4. Onkel Bob says:

    Unfortunately NGO’s (as the most visible non academic centers of learning) bring the taint of advocacy – i.e., they have an agenda and will be perceived (rightly or wrongly) not to be honest brokers. How many times have you disregarded/dismissed/derided the think tank Center for Science in the Public Interest as the “food police” or simply as a wet blanket? Furthermore, NGO’s tend to emphasize their point to the level of stridency, which then shuts down the avenues of communication. The very title of this book, itself is strident and accusatory. Yeah that’s going to engender trust.
    There is no simple solution, a multidisciplinary approach must be employed. One place I would start is with museums. I’d like to see a local corporation sponsor a day at the museum. Pay the admission for all visitors on the day. Have them bring in a corporate officer or engineer to describe how the exhibits translate to the work they do. Open some trade shows and conferences to the public, engage them showing how these events translate to their lives. We rely on the sequestered classroom to be the only place of learning and so imply that learning only occurs there.

  5. MK says:

    One step in the right direction would be for NIH to adopt NSF’s model of requiring “broader impacts” (i.e. outreach) as an integral part of their grant requirements. This requirement not only provides funds for outreach activities, but incentivizes outreach as part of a broader research project.
    In fact, I’ve heard of several cases where NSF grants with solid science were turned down because of weak broader impacts sections.

  6. Philip H says:

    And whiter, dear colleagues, goeth the government scientist? Surely our colleagues at NIH, or NOAA, or DOE, or DoD can be engaged too . . . or are we no longer “scientists” because we don’t have to write grant proposals to ourselves?

  7. JohnV says:

    You may be scientists but those of us who have to write grants hate you.

  8. I don’t think it is unfair to blame the audience for not paying attention, myself. I don’t think that the problem has anything to do with scientists (wherever they work) not trying to communicate.
    I think there is too much noise out there competing and trying to distract the public from learning (if they want to.)

  9. Biotunes says:

    There is another part of this problem, which is that scientists (arguably whether in academia or not) are increasingly specialized and in love with jargon that only a few others in the field understand. What would really help would be if newspapers had a science PhD on staff to learn and translate the jargon, because the job that big, national newspapers do with that is pathetic. They end up merely as mouthpieces for publicity-seeking journals whose self-interest does not always coincide with scientific rigor, merely reprinting press releases instead of doing their own investigation into what a paper really means.

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