Young Scientists Take to the Streets

Science is a part of society, and scientists have a responsibility to explain their activities to the public. So says David Bennett, a member of the advisory board of BIOPOP, and the other BIOPOP advisors. BIOPOP is an initiative of some young European biotechnology scientists that aims to meet what they consider the responsibility of scientists to increase public awareness of biotechnology and related science. Funded by the European Commission, the project puts forward an innovative model of communication that has young scientists as actors in public events.

Yet, BIOPOP's young scientists already have full-time jobs as Ph.D. student and postdocs. Activities like this outside the lab are likely to take away from their time at the bench. Is this a good thing for their careers? Science's Next Wave asked participating scientists, their advisors, and science employers, what effect, positive or negative, activities like BIOPOP are likely to have on a young scientist's future.

"I want the young scientists to come out of their lab," explains BIOPOP leader Francesco Lescai, President of the Associazione Nazionale Biotecnologi Italiani ( ANBI). Last year, ANBI and six partner organisations submitted a proposal to the European Commission that was funded under the Sixth Framework. More information about BIOPOP is available at the Web site.

Lescai and his colleagues are now setting up the organisation and trying to get young scientists on board. Lescai does not anticipate any difficulties. "That shouldn't be too hard," he says, "because most young scientists know they can benefit from it."

Young scientists will benefit directly, he explains, because they get training and experience in science communication. Team leaders also gain experience in project, people, and budget management.

Two aspects of BIOPOP make it especially appealing to young scientists, Lescai believes. Scientists-in-training realize that work like this will prepare them to deal with the public in their future careers as scientists. According to Lescai, future science will play a bigger role in society, and therefore scientists will have more contact with the public, so good preparation is essential. The other advantage is that participation in BIOPOP will look good on their CV. "Science itself is built up of communication," he says. "I think that future employers will see it as a plus."

Still, it takes a lot of time and effort to make this project a success, in addition to the participant's normal job responsibilities. Lescai manages to get the work done by using his time efficiently. "Sending e-mails while the PCR is running," he notes, "or while waiting on your experiments, helps a lot." Lescai also uses his personal time. "Most of the work is done in evenings and weekends," he says.

The Advisor's View

No doubt, BIOPOP can be beneficial if you're looking for a career in communications. But what if you intend to stay at the bench? BIOPOP advisor David Bennett, Task Group Secretary of the European Federation of Biotechnology ( EFB), believes that it is important for young scientists to take part in public communication, because young scientists are knowledgeable about societal developments, the interests of the (young) public, and youth cultures. "And they give a good image," says Bennett, "compared to the bald-headed men in white coats."

But the benefits of BIOPOP extend in both directions, Bennett insists. According to Bennett, such activities away from the bench should be rewarded. "I've been pushing for this," he says, as he would like to see the scientists be credited for their activities in annual assessments and grant and job application. He takes the Medical Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council in the U.K. as examples, where communicating research is a prerequisite for a grant. Scientists who have demonstrated successful communication on their CV are more successful in getting a (first) grant. "In case of applying for permanent positions," he says, "these features should also be taken into account."

The Rewards

Lescai raised the issue of young scientists at the Science and Society Forum on 9 to 11 March in Brussels, in the presence of most of Europe's stakeholders in science communications. This led to a discussion about whether young scientists should be rewarded for their activities and how that should be done.

Carl Madsen of the European intergovernmental organisation for astronomy agrees that young scientists should be rewarded for their away-from-the-bench activities. "Of course there is the reward in itself," he says, "since most young scientists indicate to enjoy public communication. But there should also be a more official reward." This could range from a pat on the back from the supervisor, to "actively supporting young scientists in their desire to take science to the public."

Professors and research group leaders, however, generally don't support the idea of having their young scientists spend expensive lab time participating in public activities. Nirmala Massin, Ph.D. student at the Laboratoire Biogéochimie et écologie des milieux continentaux and a participant of the Paris edition of La Fête de la Science--the French national scientific festival--sees that happening all the time.

"Some young scientists would love to go out and communicate, but are often held back by their supervisors." Massin is one of the few who has convinced her director that he could benefit from La Fête de la Science in other, less tangible ways. "In the end my whole research team joined the project, which made the team more of a unity," she says, "and the director was really happy."

Professor Frances Balkwill, head of the Translational Oncology Laboratory of Cancer Research UK and winner of the 2004 EMBO Award for Communication in the Life Sciences, encourages her students and researchers to work on science communication. Her group benefits from these activities in three ways. Balkwill believes that communicating outside the scientific world improves communication within her group. She also notices that the members of her staff who participate in public communication are more likely to think "out of the box."

Finally, it gives her staff members a higher public profile, and it could be a plus on their CVs. Yet, it's important, she notes, that students be careful not to turn into "media scientists." If your scientific achievements are good, having science communication projects on your CV can be a major plus, she says. If not, it can work against you. As Balkwill puts it, "you have to put your research first." Whether science communication activities help young scientists in their career thus largely depends on their scientific success: They will not make it into science with communication activities only.

Professor Michel Haring of the Swammerdam Institute for Life Sciences ( SILS) of the University of Amsterdam puts the scientific achievements at the first place when selecting candidates. He certainly sees public communication activities as valuable, because it shows that someone is really into his work. "It is not decisive," he adds, "but it is a positive factor."

So spending some spare time on BIOPOP doesn't seem a waste after all. It can help in giving your CV just that little extra something to make it stand out from the rest. Still, remember that your future is in science, and that you cannot do without substantial scientific achievements. Just do your time at the lab, and tell people about what you do whenever you can.

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