Credit: Atlantic Photo Boston

Public engagement: Balancing altruism and self-interest

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA—87% of scientists believe they and their peers should take an active role in public policy debates, according to a Pew Research Center report presented by Lee Rainie of the Pew Internet and American Life Project during “Scientists Engaging with Reporters, the Public, and Social Media: Survey Findings,” a session yesterday at the annual meeting of AAAS, which publishes Science Careers. Yet, fewer than half of the respondents believe that getting their research covered by the news media or promoting their findings on social media matter for career advancement. These contrasting numbers suggest that, as the panelists here largely agreed, engaging with the public is important but offers little career-related benefit. Two of the panelists, though, believe this is changing.

The Pew report, which draws on survey responses from 3748 AAAS members based in the United States, also showed that perceptions differ by discipline—for example, 48% of earth scientists see news coverage as important to their careers, but only 35% of chemists do. Opinions also vary depending on how controversial a field is perceived to be: 51% of those who believe there is debate about their field think media coverage is important to their careers, while only 34% of those who believe their field is uncontroversial have similar views.

I consider it … my obligation to communicate what I know. It is my responsibility because I’ve had the privilege of being a scientist.

—Elizabeth Hadly

Respondents believe that social media holds even less value for career development than traditional news coverage: Only 22% think social media is important, compared to 43% for news coverage. The perceived importance of social media, though, correlates with age: 31% of respondents between the ages of 18 and 34 say social media is important for career advancement compared to just 20% of those between 50 and 64.

Biologist Elizabeth Hadly of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who presented at the session, said her experience supports the idea that public engagement provides little career benefit. Outreach efforts are not taken into account when researchers are considered for promotion or tenure, she said. “It’s not something that we’re rewarded for. I still encounter [scientists] who almost disdain you for talking to nonscientists, who think it’s … a waste of time talking to people outside your field.”

She noted, though, that such perceptions may be changing, and the report corroborates her insight. According to the 2014 Pew report, the 43% of respondents who believe that news coverage is important is up 6% from 2009. The 2009 survey did not ask about social media.

Dominique Brossard of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who also participated in the session, agreed that sentiments about outreach are changing. Brossard, a professor in the Department of Life Sciences Communication, said she is beginning to see some junior faculty include outreach activities in their tenure packages, and while the response to these efforts can vary depending on factors including discipline, the makeup of the committee, and the institution, “it’s regarded in a more positive light than it was a number of years ago. … Things are changing more slowly in some disciplines than others, but overall I think there is a trend.”

Brossard’s research suggests that interacting with the news media and using Twitter are associated with an increase in a researcher’s h-index, a way to quantify scholarly impact. Despite the study’s limitations—it does not demonstrate causation, it included only nanotechnology researchers, and the h-index is an imperfect metric, to name a few—Brossard believes her study “is showing a trend that’s at least worth highlighting for young researchers,” she told Science Careers.  (Other research suggests that Twitter engagement does not increase citations.)

Pre-tenure academic scientists must make sound decisions about how they spend limited time, whether on research, teaching, outreach, or other activities. Hadly, though, says her reasons for engaging with people outside her discipline are unrelated to career advancement. “I consider it … my obligation to communicate what I know,” she said. “It is my responsibility because I’ve had the privilege of being a scientist.”

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