Scientists vs. the Scientific Community

This isn’t actually about a literal or metaphorical smackdown– it’s more about a distinction in language, related to a number of the comments that have been made regarding Unscientific America. (Yeah, I know. I’ll find something else to talk about soon.)

The issue is most clearly laid out by Janet, who writes:

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.

This is the most common immediate negative reaction to the suggestion that scientists should become more involved in anything: “I already have too much to do.” The problem here is a confusion between “scientists” in the sense of “the scientific community” and “scientists” in the sense of “you and your closest collaborators.” When Chris and Sheril suggest that scientists need to become more involved in the broad communication of science, and when I say the same sort of thing, we’re using the word in the former sense.

Of course, Janet being Janet, she also acknowledges this:

(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.)”

This is all absolutely correct. There are significant problems with broadening the roles that academic scientists can take on, mostly relating to the reward culture we currently have in academia. That does pose a significant obstacle to the suggestion that more scientists should do communication– the default method of accommodating new tasks is to add new items to the checklist of things that academics must do in order to get tenure, and that’s not really sustainable.

But here’s the thing: this is a problem that needs to be solved anyway. It’s just another aspect of the academic-culture problems that stand in the way of efforts to improve racial and gender diversity (“You want me to spend time doing outreach to minority students?” and “I can’t have a family, I need to get tenure”). It’s just another aspect of the problems that hold back “open science” initiatives (“I have to publish in high-impact journals or I won’t get tenure” or “I have to keep my data secret, or I won’t be able to publish in high-impact journals”). It’s just another aspect of the distortions of research culture that lead to a relative lack of people pursuing high-risk, high-reward problems, and an overabundance of relatively “safe” projects that will lead to immediate papers.

Academic culture as it currently exists poses major problems for people interested in a whole host of different reforms. They all have the same root cause, though, and they all ought to be pursued together. We need to re-shape the reward structure in academia not only because we ought to have more scientists doing outreach, but because we ought to have more diversity in science, and because we ought to have a more open publishing culture, and because we ought to have more people pursuing long-shot projects, and so on. If you fix the problem for one, you fix it for all of them.

(Pause here to acknowledge Mad Mike’s pointing out that not all scientists are academics. Which is another thing that we need to change about academic culture– the notion that the only acceptable goal of a scientific career is a tenure-track position at a major research university.)

It’s also worth explicitly stating what Janet has read into the book, though. Well, OK, I can’t speak for Chris and Sheril, but when I say that we as scientists need to do something, I do not mean to suggest that every single scientist needs to find a way to squeeze an hour worth of public outreach into their calendar. That would be crazy.

When I say that we as scientists need to do something, I am saying that the scientific community needs to do these things. The best way to do that is almost certainly to free up those scientists with an aptitude and an inclination to speak to a broad public to do that. Some people will be good at this, and they should be encouraged to run with that. Other scientists will not be good at outreach, or won’t be interested in doing outreach, and they can hunker down in their labs and offices and leave the media stuff to others.

The idea that every scientist needs to do public outreach is as crazy as the idea that every scientist needs to be working on quantum gravity, because it is the Most Fundamental and Important Problem EVAR!!!1!, or that the only real scientists are those who can do original work in both experiment and theory. We allow people to specialize in either experiment or theory, according to their talents, and we should treat outreach the same way.

But we should, as a community, recognize that speaking to a broad audience is a valuable activity for science as a whole. And we should, as a community, recognize and reward those members of the community who choose to focus their efforts in that direction.