Bill Nye, President Barack Obama, and Neil deGrasse Tyson

Credit: P.Souza / The White House

An argument for engagement

Earlier this year, I attended several scientific conferences on a covert mission. I was at these meetings to learn and to discuss my work, of course, but at the same time, I wanted to find out why so many scientists avoid engaging with the public about their research, and science in general. I ambushed scientists at happy hours, in networking lounges, and at other social events. Every chance I had, I asked, “Do you try to engage with a broad, nonscientific audience about your research and ideas?” The answer, overwhelmingly, was “no.”

Many of the scientists I talked to thought scientific communication and engagement were important. Because much research is funded with taxpayer dollars, many thought that it was valuable to inform people about how that money had been used. Many also believed that a higher baseline of scientific knowledge would improve the discourse about a number of politicized controversies, like climate change and evolution.

Blogging gives me the chance to develop and refine my ideas—and understand how other people think about them.

Even so, they typically didn’t try to engage. Common reasons included lack of confidence, concern for reputation, and a belief that it is not a good use of their time. Many academics haven’t received any training on how to communicate their research to the general public, and they feel inadequate about their authority to speak about topics outside their specific area of research because they believe they lack sufficient knowledge. Many also believed that scientists lose their impartiality if they advocate for a cause, and some feared political backlash, which seems a reasonable concern given efforts to discredit climate scientists through intimidation, subpoenaed emails, and threatened lawsuits. Finally, many academics are overworked as it is and don’t feel they have the time to spend on outreach, especially because it is not incentivized as part of their job.

Kevin Boehnke

Kevin Boehnke

Courtesy of Kevin Boehnke

With all of these barriers in place, is it wise for scientists to try to engage with broader audiences? After much reflection, I have decided that I want to try. Here’s why.

As a Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan School of Public Health in Ann Arbor, I study water quality and the transmission of pathogens in water. Protecting water quality is a complex and multidisciplinary problem that requires input and buy-in from many players, including scientists, policymakers, community leaders, and businesses. To have any chance at making an impact, scientists must communicate with all these people.

More broadly, I believe that I and other scientists have a right, and maybe even an obligation, to add our well-informed ideas to the many science-related public debates. They are happening regardless of our involvement, and adding an informed perspective improves the quality of the conversation, even if the topic is slightly outside our expertise. For example, I’m a microbiologist, and although I don’t study antibiotic resistance or know the most cutting-edge techniques in the field, I have a basic understanding of the phenomenon. I also know that using antibiotics to promote livestock growth increases antibiotic resistance, and I support regulations that would prevent this practice. My scientific knowledge also extends to other highly discussed topics, including germ theory, evolution, and vaccines.

To practice communicating about these and other issues, I co-founded a blog with some friends. It’s been a great outlet to try to explain science in a way that is broadly accessible, share our excitement about new discoveries, explore the controversies surrounding scientific topics, and discuss ways to improve science education. Although I’m still learning, blogging gives me the chance to develop and refine my ideas—and understand how other people think about them. I’ve also found that blogging helps me better understand my own research and how to think critically about questions outside of it. I can frame better questions, think of more potential confounders and alternative explanations, and research more efficiently.

This process of constantly developing and refining ideas and techniques is also a difficult but integral part of research. It is often frustrating (why won’t this damned PCR work?!), but it shapes scientists into better thinkers by forcing us to reevaluate our thought processes, pushing us to be more innovative and productive. In my mind, the same thinking should apply to efforts to engage with the public. Thus, I was surprised when one of the most consistent pieces of advice I got from my conversations was, “Don’t engage until you have a solid position. A tenured professorship should be sufficient.”

I know that this advice came from a well-meaning place, because it is conventional wisdom that us Ph.D. students should focus on our research and become topical experts, and that branching out can be dangerous to our career prospects. However, assuming optimal circumstances (and that we want to go into academia), tenure is at least a decade away for most graduate students. That’s a long time to wait. And if I don’t gain any outreach experience until then, I think I will be less inclined to try to engage when that time finally comes, because the stakes would be much higher. If, as a tenured professor, I said something to a media outlet that was incorrect or open to misinterpretation, the cost of public humiliation could be high. (But it doesn’t have to be. Read Neil deGrasse Tyson’s graceful response to his public mistake regarding Deflategate.) If, as a student writing for a blog, I make a mistake—which I have—my opinions carry less weight, and my reputation probably will not be made or broken based on what I write. And as I continue to practice, I hope my abilities and confidence will increase as my career advances and the stakes become progressively higher.

To others who are considering getting involved in scientific outreach, my advice is simple: Communicating scientific ideas is challenging. Try hard, and recognize that mistakes will be made. Evaluate why, make appropriate changes, and try some more.

That’s science.

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