Popularization Is Its Own Reward?

One of the major problems contributing to the dire situation described in Unscientific America is that the incentives of academia don’t align very well with the public interest. Academic scientists are rewarded– with tenure, promotion, and salary increases– for producing technical, scholarly articles, and not for writing for a general audience. There is very little institutionalized reward within academia for science popularization.

An extreme example of this is the failure of Carl Sagan’s nomination to the National Academy of Sciences:

According to sources within the academy, Sagan was criticized for “oversimplification” in his scientific writings. Lynn Margulis, an academy member and by then Sagan’s ex-wife, wrote him a sympathetic note in the wake of the debacle: “They are jealous of your communications skills, charm, good looks and outspoken attitude especially on nuclear winter.” The scientist who nominated Sagan, the distinguished origins-of-life researcher Stanley Miller, concurred with her assessment. “I can just see them saying it: ‘Here’s this little punk with all this publicity and Johnny Carson. I’m a ten times better scientist than that punk!'”

This is, again, an extreme example. There is, however, some small justification for some of the academic system’s treatment of popularization activities: people who write for a mass audience are generally paid for their work.

The process of writing my book has led to a number of awkward situations, but the second-most-common of them is related to this. On several occasions, the book has come up in conversation with a faculty colleague. “Oh, you’re publishing a book,” they say. “Congratulations. What press is it?”

“Um. Scribner.” I reply. And there’s always an embarrassing instant of shock. People in academia expect academics– especially relatively junior people like me– to be publishing with academic presses. Doing a book with an imprint of Simon and Schuster is almost unheard of.

(The most common awkward exchange is related to the description of the project. “It’s a general audience book on quantum mechanics, explaining it through imaginary conversations with my dog” is generally met with a look that says “Oh, so you’re a crazy person…” That’s a hard one to shake.)

There’s a really big difference between general-audience publishing and academic-press publishing, and the difference is money. Most of my colleagues in the humanities and social sciences who publish scholarly monographs aren’t going to see significant royalties on the deal. My advance, on the other hand, was roughly one year worth of my salary. That was spread out over a period of at least three years (I almost certainly won’t get the last chunk of it until next year), but it’s still more than I would get in summer salary from an NSF grant, say.

As a result, I can understand how there would be some reluctance to treat this sort of book in the same way that one would treat an academic-press book. A historian publishing with the Big State University Press isn’t going to get a financial reward from the book itself, so their efforts need to be rewarded through the academic salary and promotion system. For somebody who’s getting up-front money from a trade publisher, though, that looks a little like double-dipping.

So, as I said, it’s kind of an awkward situation. In the end, I don’t think it’s right, so I have been listing the book under “scholarly production” in my annual activity reports for the last few years. I don’t believe they’ve come up for review by the relevant committee, though, so I’m not sure what the official response to that is.

To be clear, I’m not trying to claim that I’m in Sagan’s league– I’m biiiiiilyuns of miles away from that. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.) And the money in general-audience publishing isn’t nearly as good as people think (there’s a wonderful piece by Daniel “Lemony Snicket” Handler about this)– I was paid a surprisingly large amount for the book, which honestly makes me kind of nervous. But I think it is legitimately true that non-scholarly publication (of books at least) carries more financial rewards than scholarly publication, and I think that leads to the difference in treatment of the two.

The problem is that this extends down from things that legitimately do carry financial rewards to things that don’t. The vast majority of outreach-type writing that scientists or other academics can do isn’t going to carry significant financial compensation– the local paper isn’t going to buy you a new car for writing an op-ed about science. And tv news programs don’t pay you for appearing in short clips on the evening news– I’ve been on three of the four local networks for one thing or another (one, two, three), and haven’t made a dime off it.

Those sorts of unpaid outreach activities go into the same “that and a cup of coffee will get you a cup of coffee” category as the paid variety. Blogging falls in there as well. Which is kind of a shame, because it’s activities like silly little tv news clips that put science in front of people who wouldn’t otherwise see it, and activities like blogging that help people learn whether they have the inclination and aptitude to do larger-scale outreach and popularization..

By strongly discouraging young scientists from doing small-scale popularization (that is, by not including it as a positive factor in tenure and merit reviews), we cut some of them off from the opportunity to discover whether they would be good at the sort of outreach and popularization that is rewarded (albeit outside the academic system). Which leaves it for people who, for whatever reason, regard that sort of work as its own reward. Which is part of why there are relatively few scientists blogging, writing articles for the general press, and appearing in the media.

I don’t have a solution to propose, alas. I’m just sort of thinking out loud, in print. If you have brilliant suggestions to offer, though, please leave them in the comments. We could all use some brilliant suggestions right about now.