About the SA Blog Network

Guest Blog

Guest Blog

Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American
Guest Blog HomeAboutContact

Scientists: Do Outreach or Your Science Dies

Email   PrintPrint

Scientists, here’s the bottom line. If you don’t convince the public that your science matters, your funding will quickly vanish and so will your field. Put another way, the era of outreach being optional for scientists is now over.

Researchers have been able to cloister within an academic ivory tower – conducting their research without paying much attention to what’s going on in the wider world – only because there has been a relatively stable funding base for science. Governmental sources have been vital to that funding base, particularly for basic research where the government picks up most of the tab.

Unfortunately, the stability of that funding is now a thing of the past. Thanks largely to the federal budget sequester, research outlays by the government were slashed by over nine billion dollars in just this fiscal year. And political leaders have further changes in mind, such as potentially drastically shrinking the bounds of the kinds of research that the government will fund.

These tremors in the science funding landscape are just the beginning of what is to come. What is driving all of this is a two-front budgetary squeeze, the likes of which have never been seen in the history of the United States. In short, retirement and health care spending are eating the federal budget alive, leaving fewer and fewer dollars for everything else that the government buys (like research).

Americans are aging as a population, which means more and more are receiving retirement checks through Social Security. Social Security’s share of the federal budget has doubled since 1963: 11% of the budget then, 20-22% of the budget for the rest of this decade (budget figures in this post come from a 2012 Congressional Research Service report).

Federal dollars spent on health care have exploded even faster, not just because more and more Americans are eligible for Medicare and Medicaid, but also because the per-person costs for health care keep climbing. In 1970, 4.9% of the federal budget went to Medicare and Medicaid spending. By 2011, that share had more than quadrupled to 23.2%. And the numbers keep rising, with federal health care spending expected to eat just under a third of the budget (32.8%) within the next ten years.

Growth of mandatory spending (chiefly retirement and health care spending) in the federal budget (source: Congressional Research Service).

Growth of mandatory spending (chiefly retirement and health care spending) in the federal budget (source: Congressional Research Service).

To make matters worse, retirement and health care spending are on autopilot. For other parts of the budget – defense, national parks, research, etc. – the government decides every year how much to spend. Retirement and health care spending aren’t like that. They are considered mandatory spending and the amounts spent on them are essentially based on preassigned formulas that are extremely politically difficult to change. Mandatory spending (which mostly consists of health care and retirement spending) continues to ratchet upward and is projected to soak up well over sixty percent of the federal budget within the next ten years.

Everything else in the federal budget, from new aircraft carriers to food inspections to the National Science Foundation, is facing an ever-more dire squeeze. As a consequence, every program needs to fight like crazy to defend its place in the budget – or find itself out of the budget altogether.

A key part of this budget defense is making the case directly to the American people about why they should care about your program. Take the F-35 for example, a new fighter aircraft being developed for the military at the cost of billions of dollars a year. Even though the manufacturer Lockheed-Martin employs an army of lobbyists on Capitol Hill, the company still sees the need to convince the American people they ought to keep the F-35 funded.

The scientific community must also do the same, by convincing the public that it is worth spending tax dollars on research. Scientists: this isn’t someone else’s job – this is your job, starting immediately. If you personally hope to receive government research funds in the future, public engagement is now part of your job description. And if you and your colleagues don’t convincingly make the case to the public that your discipline should be funded, well then it won’t be. Without a public broadly supportive of funding science, it is all too easy for politicians looking for programs to cut to single out esoteric-sounding research programs as an excuse to further slash science funding.

How do we as scientists convince the public that our science is worth funding? The answer is simple: consistently engage people with our science. Almost all scientists care deeply about their research. All we need to do is to frequently share that passion with a broader audience, in any of a hundred ways. We can give public talks about our science. We can write blogs. We can put together science videos on YouTube. Honestly, it doesn’t really matter what method we use, so long as we connect to the public on a frequent basis with our science. And that consistency of engagement is key, because we can’t build a constituency for anything on a one-off basis.

All scientists must do much more right now to build a broad base of public support for science funding. If we don’t – if we close our eyes to the fact that the federal budget is in absolute crisis – we could easily see government support for research quickly fade to a shadow of what it is now. If research spending is crippled, it isn’t just our careers on the line. It’s the future of scientific innovation in this country and this world that are imperiled. We simply can’t let that happen. Let’s get to work.


On April 30th, COMPASS published a commentary in PLOS Biology on the journey from science outreach to meaningful engagement. This post is part of a series of reactions, reflections, and personal experiences we hope will expand the conversation. Read the summary post, or track the conversation by searching on Twitter for #reachingoutsci.


Jai Ranganathan About the Author: Dr. Jai Ranganathan is a conservation biologist and co-founder of SciFund Challenge. SciFund Challenge is a volunteer-run organization that seeks to close the gap between science and society, by training and encouraging scientists to connect to the public with their science. SciFund Challenge also engages the public with science through science crowdfunding. You can find out more at and by searching for #SciFund on Twitter. Follow on Twitter @jranganathan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Previous: Rub a Dub Dub, Is It Time to Eat Grubs? More
Guest Blog
Next: Power Plants

Comments 24 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. Scienceisnotagenda 1:11 am 06/5/2013

    I’ve worked in research for decades and the author is bang on. Too often it was considered a ‘side show’ to reach out to the community. A bit of energy devoted to getting people enthused can pay back in multiples. More importantly a few individuals might be inspired to carry on in what otherwise can be a forgotten field of research.

    Link to this
  2. 2. barn_the_bunny 7:40 am 06/5/2013

    you forgot to mention the fun outreach going on in podcasting! young scientists explaining complicated things!

    The titanium physicists podcast explains complicated theoretical physics to young people.

    the weekly weinersmith podcast talks to academics about their work.

    Science…sort of talks has scientists talking about science in the news.

    Astrarium has astronomers explaining astronomy

    podcasting is a wonderful medium because it really transmits the enthusiasm of the scientists! enthusiasm is contagious!

    Link to this
  3. 3. Doctor_Cinnamon 10:20 am 06/5/2013

    Scientists that argue against outreach usually point at lack of time and money: these are certainly true issues but they have to be put in context. Why should a scientist find time to do “another job” (outreach) when he/she already has one (doing research)? Isn’t it a problem of inclination first? Wouldn’t it be more effective to delegate outreach to people that are inclined for that and would like to do it full time?
    The best answer to the present state of things is a collective approach where scientists and outreach professionals collaborate because “united we stand, divided we fall”. For example, every particle physics group in the country should implement the QuarkNet set of activities (at least in part): it is like referring to scientific literature in a field, it is usable and of professional quality.
    Besides, an entire university can make of science communications a distinctive trait of its curriculum by means of cross-departmental and multi-disciplinary collaborations: a dance show designed around a scientific topic is an instance of subject contamination that could happen within the boundaries of existing departments budgets.
    I’ve written about these and other issues in an article available at and on my personal blog

    Link to this
  4. 4. LenTheTen 4:15 pm 06/5/2013

    I could not disagree more. We all can’t be Neil degrasse Tyson. We are too busy writing grants and trying to do the research. Furthermore, anyone who has watched Big Bang Theory knows that not all scientists are effective at communicating what they do and why it is important to non scientists. Instead, great research intuitions should be using some of that overhead to develop professional marketing campaigns touting the return on investment that US citizens enjoy from basic research funded by the US tax payers and performed at US universities and government labs. They need to take this article for example:, and make it sexy (the key point of the article being that over the past half century, more than half the growth of US GDP is due scientific discoveries, not bad considering that less than one percent of the federal budget goes to fund basic science research – before sequestration that is). They can start with the fact that the internet was not discovered by Google, Apple, Facebook, etc., but invented by taxpayer funded researchers.

    Link to this
  5. 5. dmk38 1:19 pm 06/6/2013

    This argument reflects two mistaken empirical premises & a related misunderstanding of political economy.

    Mistaken premise 1: The public doesn’t support federal support for scientific research.

    It does. By overwhelming majority. And across “party” lines, etc. Pew Research has found this in studies of public attitudes toward science.

    Mistaken premise 2: The public’s support for scientific research is consequential in politics.

    It isn’t. They have no idea what the level of support is. And the issue isn’t of particular importance to them. They (not more than a trifling %) would ever cast a vote for a member of Congress or for President based on this issue. There are 1 billion things that matter more to them, some for perfectly good reasons and others for not so good.

    Misunderstanding of political economy:

    Groups that are *particularly* interested in scientific funding will exert disproportionate influence on the level of federal support. This is just a general application of public choice theory; consider, e.g., that Cognress didn’t pass a “bkrd check” law for guns that was supported by 90% of the public but opposed by the NRA.

    Protecting federal funding for science depends on negotiating difficult issues of political economy…

    Or at least that’s what science — the science of public opinion & political science tell us.

    These sorts of things admit of empirical evidence as much as whether the universe is expanding or contracting, whether photosynthesis involves quantum mechanical dynamics, etc.

    Link to this
  6. 6. dmk38 2:00 pm 06/6/2013


    I think Jai Ranganathan is a great citizen scientist & SciFund Challenge a great organization. Scientists are citizens; and if they aren’t morally obliged to do anything other than what any other citizen does, those who *do* devote themselves to assuring govt’l support for science in the US are doing something virtuous & something necessary to promote the public good as well as the professional interest of scientists.

    The only point I want to raise is that focusing on generating a positive public attitude toward science has at best a very small role to play in this effort.

    Engaging the public is good in science for its own sake, but it would be an error, I think, to believe that doing that will make a material contribution to repelling the forces that threaten to stifle the vital contribution that federal funding has made to developing the institution of science in the US.

    There are lots of other things that can & must be done — things that scientists can support & that even involve making vivid the work that scientists do — to protect science funding.

    Outreach to the public should be done too — but not b/c it is a good “political tactic.” It should be done just b/c it is good.

    Link to this
  7. 7. kejames 11:22 am 06/7/2013

    I’ve been talking about this post on Twitter and Facebook. I thought I should come over here and say what I have to say, too. A scientist myself, I could hardly be more pro-outreach. I do outreach, all different kinds, online and off, I am an outreach cheerleader at my research institution and among my non-outreachy scientist friends, I have given talks and moderated sessions about outreach at conferences, and I am getting ready to launch a crowdfunding campaign. In other words, I am on board with outreach!

    Nevertheless this post and others like it really irk me. Being shouty at scientists, all scientists, personally, saying they must do this or that ‘or else’ is not helpful. Calls to action like this do not ring true in the real world of a scientific career. They miss, among other things:

    - that the currency of scientific careers is still grants and papers.
    - that there is an vast gulf between any one scientist’s outreach activities and their funding realities. Even if we could be sure outreach by scientists would lead to funding increases, which we aren’t, as dmk38 rightly points out above, we would still not be sure that the scientists who do the outreach are the very same ones who are supposedly going to get the supposed funding windfall that will result or at least not lose their funding. I suspect the opposite.
    - that sometimes for individuals doing more outreach means less funding/security, not more.
    - that not everyone is good at it or enjoys it.
    - that other people can and should be involved in helping scientists do outreach. I mean, there are whole careers just for this!
    - that there are different challenges, benefits and consequences associated with outreach at different science career stages.

    We need to have a realistic, constructive, nuanced discussion about scientists doing outreach, the sort of discussion happening on Jacqueline Gill’s Facebook post, or on Twitter (sorry, don’t have the time to Storify it just now), or in sessions at ScienceOnline, including recent ones moderated by Craig McClain and Miriam Goldstein in 2012, and by Miriam Goldstein, Matt Shipman and me this year. We need to talk about the challenges listed above and others, and come up with solutions and frameworks that will work in the real world.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Athena Andreadis 12:46 pm 06/7/2013

    I cannot agree strongly enough with the last two commenters. I’m a research scientist who is very strongly pro-outreach (I wrote an essay about it, The Double Helix, that won a national award; I also wrote a popular science book, To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek that used Star Trek to discuss real biology; and I’ve discussed the issue repeatedly online).

    Academic research scientists are asked to do a very large number of tasks, each requiring extensive yet disparate talents and skills: benchwork, writing papers, writing grants, managing grants, mentoring, teaching, reviewing others’ grants and manuscripts, committees, administration, outreach at several levels. But they still get paid a single salary, if that — which increasingly has come from grants because the universities, thinking the federal largesse would last for ever, sank their discretionary income into buildings and highly paid career administrators.

    In effect, grants are funding almost all the non-research activities — or the scientists exceed their already heavily laden time quota and essentially do volunteer work. From the universal experience of women with housework, everyone knows how much unpaid work is valued. Too much outreach counts against a scientist at grant, tenure and award time (especially for non-white non-males, though even Carl Sagan felt the sting of this). Outreach is only appreciated when it’s done by celebrity popularizers, many of them science journalists, who get paid (some heftily so) for the activity.

    Scientists were never popularizers from the dawn of time, nor were meant to be. This “argument” has been churned ad nauseam by people who believe that we must make science “exciting” — an argument never used for any other discipline or occupation. Bottom line: basic science is what translates into new drugs, therapies, crops, you name it. If the US, as a nation and a political entity, has chosen to choke off that pipeline, we’ll see the results soon enough in the society at large; we’re already seeing them in industry and medicine.

    Link to this
  9. 9. jai_ranganathan 1:17 pm 06/7/2013

    Jai Ranganathan here, author of this post. I wanted to respond to some of the points made by commenters.

    In all the criticisms that have been made of this post, not one person has been able to find fault with the post’s basic points. That is, retirement and health care spending are choking off all other government funding – including research spending. If current budgetary trends continue and nothing is done, then science spending by the government will be quickly squeezed to a fraction of what it is now.

    Can anyone on the planet disagree with this? Where do we go for grants, how do we conduct our research, if we do nothing and science spending is slashed further? This post may be “shouty” (as one commenter suggests), but if there is a fire in a theatre, it is the time to shout to warn those who are inside. And the fire has most definitely arrived for those who depend on government funds for their research.

    You don’t think outreach is one of the keys to turn this situation around? Fine. What is your solution? Because the scientific system as it is simply can’t go on (scientists being able to keep their head down, getting the government grants and entirely focussed on their own research). The budgetary squeeze ensures that.

    Is increased outreach the only thing needed to maintain public funding for science? Obviously not. But building public support for the necessity of funding science is an essential ingredient in the mix.

    Several commenters make the point that scientists’ lives are busy enough and other people should do the outreach. Who are these “other people” and where does the money come to pay them? The whole point of this post is that money is going to get only tighter for science. Just last month, NASA cut a ton of their outreach programs, due to budgetary pressures.

    Other commenters have suggested that many scientists aren’t good or trained in outreach. We don’t all have to be Neil DeGrasse Tyson, but we all should have at least a “white belt” in outreach. And there are so many easy ways to get that white belt. For example, we can attend a COMPASS outreach-training workshop. We can read Nancy Baron’s book “Escaping from the Ivory Tower”. We can take a SciFund Challenge outreach-training course. The possibilities go on and on.

    The point of an individual scientist’s outreach is not to maintain support for his or her own public funding. Rather, through individual outreach efforts, every scientist does his or her part to grow the overall level of public support for science funding.

    One commenter makes the point that there is a possible “tragedy of the commons” situation going on here. That is, those scientists who take the time to make the case to the taxpaying-public why science should be funded may have less time for their own research as a result. And those parasitic scientists who don’t do outreach, but are able to benefit from the maintenance of public science funding, will gain all of the rewards. All I can say is that, if we as a scientific community are so selfish as to not be able to work even slightly towards the common good, then maybe we deserve to have our funding slashed.

    Link to this
  10. 10. kejames 2:14 pm 06/7/2013

    Thanks for responding, Jai. The reason I didn’t find fault with your basic point that science spending is disappearing is that, well, I don’t find fault with that point. I find fault with your other basic point, the one about what to do about it, and the tone with which you made it.

    I think it’s pretty obvious I do think outreach is ‘one of the keys to turn this situation around’. Emphasis on ‘one’. But we need more than admonition, we need help! Help with our broken career system, help with outdated performance metrics, help with reviewers who see outreach as ‘weak’, help with communicating, help with measuring and assessing our outreach efforts and translating them to a future with better science funding prospects.

    You mention opportunities for outreach training. These are all good. But even if every scientist in the US went to a COMPASS workshop, the funding situation is not going to magically improve. Other things need to happen too. To leave those other things out of your post is an affront to those you are addressing, i.e. scientists.

    I agree with you that ‘the scientific system as it is simply can’t go on’ but I strongly disagree that the main feature/problem with this system is ‘scientists [keeping] their head down, getting the government grants and entirely focused on their own research)’. The main problem is huge and complex and the fact that some scientists have their heads in the sand is only a small part of it.

    You say in your comment that increased outreach is ‘obviously not’ the only thing needed. I agree with you that it is ‘an ingredient in the mix’ but wow, it would have been nice if you had said that in your post. Instead, you said ‘the answer is simple’ and ‘all we need to do is…’.

    You say, ‘The point of an individual scientist’s outreach is not to maintain support for his or her own public funding. Rather, through individual outreach efforts, every scientist does his or her part to grow the overall level of public support for science funding.’ On the whole, I think yes, that’s part of the aforementioned ‘mix’. But I also think there is a danger that people doing outreach might be ‘taking one for the team’ if grants continue to be doled out by people who are openly hostile towards outreach.

    Which brings me to my last point…

    Your use of the word ‘selfish’ in your final paragraph reinforces my perception of your original post as hostile towards scientists. If someone like me, who does outreach and is on board with outreach for many of the reasons you mention and more, finds your tone hostile, then maybe you’re not conveying the message you want to be conveying.

    Link to this
  11. 11. ShipLives 2:30 pm 06/7/2013

    I’m a proponent of scientists engaging in science communication, and I think training is key. But I also think it’s important that we not browbeat scientists about science communication. Educate scientists about scicomm? Yes. Incentivize scicomm? Yes. Encourage scientists to engage? Yes. But accusatory stances are, in my opinion, self-defeating. They alienate, rather than entice.

    For one thing, people who really do not want to do something are unlikely to do it well — with or without training. That includes scientists who really do not want to take part in science communication efforts.

    Therefore, we should focus on two other groups: scientists who *are* interested in science communication, and scientists who are on the fence — unclear as to whether they want to pursue science communication.

    For the latter group, we can focus on: A) selfish reasons for them to engage in scicomm (e.g., boosting citations, fulfilling “broader impacts” requirements at NSF, identifying collaborators) and B) pinpointing precisely what they *need* to be effective communicators.

    I’ve written about both of these things in multiple places, but here are two relevant links, for those who are curious.

    Selfish reasons:

    What scientists need for scicomm:

    Link to this
  12. 12. Athena Andreadis 3:07 pm 06/7/2013

    My earlier comment got caught in moderation limbo because it had links that documented my outreach efforts; it’s now cleared as #8.

    I’d like to add my voice to that of Karen James in pointing out that this article, like many of its kind, sounds hostile and veers from “we” (when it’s good) to “you” (when it’s bad). Use of expressions like “cloistered in the ivory tower” and “Let’s get to work” implies that research scientists spend their days painting their toenails safely insulated from the rest of the world. At the same time, I recognize that people tend to see things from their specific viewpoints, although that doesn’t excuse the “If you have a hammer everything looks like a nail” approach of this article.

    Link to this
  13. 13. John Bruno 3:57 pm 06/7/2013

    I also very much agree with the points above of dmk38, Karen James, Athena Andreadis and all the people debunking this dumb piece on facebook. Jai, you don’t understand the cause of the problem, your solution will not work and even if it did it isn’t realistic to ask academic scientists to do MORE outreach.

    >Actually no, health care spending is NOT the reason science spending has not been increasing as fast as we’d like in recent years.

    >The “other people” are professional lobbyists paid by a number of science organization to lobby for science funding.

    >Sorry, but no, writing blog posts that will be read by a few hundred other scientists and talking to third graders WILL NOT sway conservative republicans to increase the NSF budget or spur federal tax receipts. The outreach has to be targeted to the people that matter. Blogging will do as little to increase science funding as crowd-funding does.

    Finally, I took this as one more (in a tirelessly long line) of grouchy, aggressive “scientists are lazy bums and need to do more outreach” pieces. Until you walk in our shoes (get an academic job, run a lab for a few years, teach a regular lecture class, etc) STOP TELLING US WE NEED TO DO MORE OUTREACH!!!


    Link to this
  14. 14. DrRachaelF 6:24 pm 06/7/2013

    Yeah, here’s the thing – Karen is correct; your tone is “obviously this is the answer, and if you can’t/won’t do this, you’re a selfish part of the problem”.

    For reference, just ’cause I’m a scientist and I like data, here’s what I already do with my time:

    I teach at least five courses a year.
    I run a lab and supervise (currently) 16 research students and/or graduate students.
    This year, I wrote four grants (three were funded, one at each level – campus, university, and federal).
    I am an academic advisor.
    I am the chair of a university-level committee.
    I am on two department-level committees.
    I am working on our five-year program plan.
    I write letters of recommendation.
    I write manuscripts.
    I try desperately to keep up with the literature.
    I help students write fellowship proposals.
    I network to place students and colleagues in jobs.
    I edit my colleague’s manuscripts and grant proposals.

    Oh, and in my non-work life, I have a husband, two kids, am on the Board of Directors of my daughter’s preschool, and attend a book club all of once a month. I tweet, about science and not. And once in a blue moon, I write a blog post.

    But, hey, you’re right. In all my free time, I should do more scientific outreach. I’m sure none of the essential tasks I do would suffer for me being more stretched than I already am. And I will totally convince conservative Republicans in Congress that their anti-science attitude is wrong-headed by doing so.

    If we need to do more things, we need more people to do the things. There are people whose job it is to do outreach, and people whose calling it is (Hi again, Karen). The rest of us have our own non-trivial bits of work to do.

    Link to this
  15. 15. jai_ranganathan 8:02 pm 06/7/2013

    Jai here again, author of the post. Let me address some of the points that have come up in the comments after my last response.

    First off, I regret using the word “selfish” in my last comment. It was ill-considered and I shouldn’t have used it.

    Karen James: I know you and I respect you. You raise a key question in your comments, namely: “how do we incentivize outreach and provide outreach metrics for individual scientists?” I think that science crowdfunding can play a really big role here. Will the amounts raised by science crowdfunding ever be enough to take the place of big government grants? I think that’s pretty unlikely. But SciFund Challenge data (and data from all crowdfunding really) indicates that crowdfunding dollars really depend on the audience a scientist has coming in. The bigger the pre-existing audience, the more dollars can be raised. In this way, science crowdfunding can hopefully incentivize sustained outreach (since this is how you build an audience). It is for this reason, Karen, that I will be the first to promote your crowdfunding campaign, when it starts.

    John Bruno: I know you and respect you as well. I think it is undeniable that mandatory spending (mostly health care and retirement spending) is growing rapidly, relative to discretionary spending (which includes research spending). That doesn’t mean I am against federal dollars spent on health care and retirement spending. It just means that federal science dollars are going to be much harder to come by. As you suggest, effective lobbying is a key part of the solution in maintaining science funding. But so is connecting to the public with our message. And in fact, you show the way as to how this can be done, through such things as

    Athena Andreadis: I don’t know you, but your points are legitimate. You are absolutely right that outreach is not highly valued in the academy and also that too much outreach can count against an academic come hiring and promotion time. I feel that science crowdfunding can play a big role in changing the culture of academia towards outreach, since (as stated in the comments to Karen James) sustained outreach is directly connected to the sums raised by crowdfunding. How much is realistic? For scientists with significant audiences, I am guessing something in the range of ten to twenty-five thousand dollars is possible right now. Obviously, this doesn’t begin to replace a NSF or NIH grant, but it is hopefully enough to change the culture of academia to value outreach a bit more.

    Athena Andreadis, it is also certainly the case that scientists are having to run faster and faster (and work more and more hours), just to stay in place already. Where is the time to do yet another thing (outreach), when there isn’t time for the job-critical tasks already on the plate? A big part of the reason that the professional life of scientists is getting harder and harder is that grant funding is getting increasingly difficult to get, which is partially driven by the budget factors that are at the center of my post. If current budgetary trends continue, grant funding is only going to get more difficult to get, making it even more difficult (read: impossible) to run fast enough to even stay steady. To make matters from getting even worse, I argue that connecting to the public is a key part of the puzzle, in terms of sustaining public support for science.

    Lastly, Athena Andreadis, you make the point that scientists have never been the popularizers of science. Although there certainly have been many notable science popularizers who are also scientists, I agree that you are generally correct. However, the extremely difficult fiscal landscape that science faces, means that we are really in uncharted territory, in terms of how the science keeps getting funded. So, science (as a profession) may have to step into unfamiliar roles, to keep the ship afloat. Accentuating the need is that many allies have been decimated at this critical hour. Journalism as a whole – and science journalism in particular – is in an existential struggle for life, given the economic pressures facing the news business. Already-existing outreach programs are being cut. I certainly applaud you for all you have done for connecting the public to science. There just needs to be more people like you.

    Link to this
  16. 16. kejames 10:53 pm 06/7/2013

    Thanks for taking these comments on board and responding thoughtfully, Jai. Hugely appreciated.

    Link to this
  17. 17. kejames 10:54 pm 06/7/2013

    Also, thanks Rachael! Disclosure: Rachael and I were labmates in grad school. She’s ace (obviously).

    Link to this
  18. 18. ActiveScientist 1:57 am 06/8/2013

    This is a fantastic and important discussion. I have a few follow up questions for those of you who have been commenting.

    dmk38 – You make a good point about how little public opinion matters in political decision making (and therefore getting more public support of science will not necessarily increase funding). Is there anything we as scientists can do to influence policy decisions? What approaches are most effective?

    kejames – in your own experience with outreach, what has been the most effective? What approaches haven’t worked so well? Do non-scientists follow you on Twitter and show interest in your work? What benefits have you seen from reaching out? When you are vocal about outreach with your peers, how do they respond?

    Jai – thank you for writing this post as it is such an important topic and has generated this great discussion. I understand the passion behind your plea. Something clearly needs to change.

    To all – Why do you think there is an anti-outreach attitude among some scientists? And how can this be eroded?

    I am a research scientist and have just recently started to get involved in outreach. My outreach efforts have certainly made me a less productive scientist. At this point I feel like I am working two jobs and I am just scratching the surface of what I want to do. I empathize with scientists who say they do not have enough time for this. We are all overstretched as is.

    Perhaps the scientists who are engaged in outreach can help their peers also participate in a fast and easy way. What does that mean exactly? We could try to make changes at the institutional level, by encouraging universities to hire more science writers and PR employees. We could hire science communication inclined undergraduates to blog and Tweet about our labs. We could sit in on tenure decisions and be vocal about the metrics we value. We could write up documents describing a new system of metrics and share with our universities, have open discussions during faculty meetings, etc. Any other ideas?

    We discussed this exact topic at the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop, and almost all of the writers (including many scientists) there were opposed to the idea that scientists should be in charge of their own outreach. They cited the huge workload scientists already have, and how important their existing work is. In that setting my argument for scientists doing outreach was very similar to Jai’s – that the public funds our research and we need their support. After reading these comments, I think dmk38′s point is closer to the reality of what is going on, but I also agree with this statement:

    “Outreach to the public should be done too — but not b/c it is a good “political tactic.” It should be done just b/c it is good.”

    If there was a better network between scientists and science writers, that could lead to better outreach. I proposed Twitter as that link in a blog post today (as many before me have as well), but I don’t think most scientists will do even that. Maybe the next generation, who are in the habit of sharing.

    I was talking to a colleague about the Eisen brothers and their outreach efforts (PLoS, blogs, Twitter) and she seemed scared of the idea. She said she would never put data out into the world that had not gone through peer review. Interesting, because that wasn’t what I was talking about and sharing unpublished data is not a requirement of outreach. She seemed to have a fear of breaking down the boundary. I want to talk to more scientists to figure out what this is all about. Please share if you have insights.

    Thanks again to all for the thoughtful comments.


    Link to this
  19. 19. ruthnmackinnon 6:13 am 06/8/2013

    I’ve come to science outreach unexpectedly. Joined twitter while looking for something else. Stumbled on the SciFund Challenge (thanks Jai and co, it’s been a busy but great learning experience). Just finished that and find myself actually looking forward to blogging about my research. Which I’d never even thought of doing before. Yes, it will mean finding extra time but I don’t expect it will be too taxing because I’m passionate about it. I think making research accessible to the people who paid for it is a good thing.

    There was a comment that getting public support won’t influence political decision making. I disagree – in a democracy at least, public opinion does influence politicians.

    Last year the Australian government was threatening to cut health research funding. There was a huge public campaign, visible public support and the government backed down, at least for the time being. The type of message was along the lines of, “without such-and-such research funding , I would not have been cured of x,y,z”. Non-health research needs a different approach to outreach but it illustrates the point, I think.

    Link to this
  20. 20. dmk38 10:37 am 06/8/2013

    The discussion here is very rich, a testament to the importance of JR’s claims and his articulate and passionate presentation of them.

    Those who (like me) have followed the exchange here with interest & appreciation might also be interested in reflections Paul Shepson, whose lab at Purdue studies chemistry & climate

    I myself expressed skepticism above about “outreach” as a realistic *political strategy* for protecting funding for science (I have the same skepticism about science outreach as a political strategy for promoting engagement w/ climate science). I very much worry that such arguments perpetuate inattention to more fundamental political (broadly understood; social psychological too) influences that must be understood & managed–w/ the aid of forms of science (valid inference from valid observation) appropriate to them.

    Nevertheless, when I listen to a public spirited citizen scientist who is as gifted in communicating science as he or she is in doing it (this is rare; few of us are excellent at 1 thing, much less 2!) explain what, how & why he or she does to reveal the astonishing workings of nature, I do very much feel, “We must show people this! Show everyone! They’ll experience the value of this & thus *see* it!” I feel that way listening to Shepson, listening to Hayhoe, now listening to JR.

    I worry that *my own limits* in communicating obscure the gratitude and admiration I have for such citizen scientists when I feel impelled to say that relying on scientists to communicate as well as *do* their science is not the right way to address the myriad systemic difficulties that are conspiring to frustrate continuation of the historic pattern of reciprocal contributions that science & American democracy have made to one another.

    So I want to thank JR. While still saying that I think that it’s not right to believe that public science communicaction *by* scientists is something that we should expect to contribute materially to the problems being discussed, much less something scientists whose job is to *do* science are obliged to do as a form of *political action* (it is, of course, something that it is great for them to do, or anyone who is able to do it and moved to do it, for the sake of satisfying curious people!)

    Link to this
  21. 21. jai_ranganathan 10:44 am 06/8/2013

    Jai (the post author) again. One last point. I respectfully disagree with dmk38 and John Bruno on their assertion that public opinion plays no role in policy decisions. I can certainly understand where they are coming from, particularly given the recent failure of US gun control legislation despite a very supportive public. However, I think that the situation is not quite so bleak, at least as far as science spending is concerned. For example, research indicates that funding for NASA does broadly follow public opinion ( An obvious question is whether increased science outreach increases public support for science spending. On this question, the literature is silent, but I do believe that it is self-evidently true. Others may certainly disagree.

    Link to this
  22. 22. jai_ranganathan 11:12 am 06/8/2013

    As a last thing, I would like to thank the commenters for an excellent discussion. My hope, when I wrote this post, is that it would spark an exchange of ideas. Thanks to the considered and thoughtful responses of the commenters here (and on Twitter as well), I believe that my hope was fulfilled. I have certainly learned a great deal through this exchange. I have been reminded of the great number of scientists who are somehow managing to balance the seemingly-impossible task of maintaining a research career (itself an overwhelming job), while putting serious efforts into outreach (despite getting little to no professional credit for the latter). So, many thanks.

    Link to this
  23. 23. kejames 12:15 pm 06/8/2013


    “In your own experience with outreach, what has been the most effective? What approaches haven’t worked so well?” – There are anecdotes of course, but really I don’t know because I haven’t measured it with any kind of rigor, but that’s all about to change. I’m using tools available at as well as new ones in development to measure the effects of my citizen science project on participants (more on that here) and also have aspirations to bring some of these tools to the ScienceOnline community.

    “Do non-scientists follow you on Twitter and show interest in your work?” – I tweeted “I have a Q for non-scientists who follow me: I tweet about a lot of different things. Do you find my tweets about my work interesting? How?” Here are some of the responses:
    - @kateweb: Yes, because I get at least a vague* idea of what a working scientist actually does. (*my understanding, not your tweets)
    - @bluelionphotos: New to your feed – I’m a bio teacher who loves data on evolution/Darwin & connection for my kiddos
    - @friendsofdarwin: Of course they’re interesting: they’re about science! Give me an appreciation for the career I could have had, had I been cleverer.
    - @rmathematicus: They’re the reason I follow you
    - @algotruneman: You ask tough questions, like this one. Science is doing just that and seeking answers. Keep up the good work.
    - @henstridgesj Yes, they give me an insight into a career I started but gave up. And they’re interesting
    - @szvan Yes. I appreciate your passion for what you do.

    “What benefits have you seen from reaching out? When you are vocal about outreach with your peers, how do they respond?” – I write about this a bit here.

    In addition to answering your questions, I also wanted to say ‘+1′ to pretty much everything else you said in your comment. We discussed a lot of this in our science outreach sessions at ScienceOnline2013. See summaries of Session 1B and 2A, and archived video from Session 2A.

    Link to this
  24. 24. astromegan 1:06 pm 06/9/2013

    The irony of this blog and discussion is that there is at least one example of a science community that does a decent job at outreach: astronomy, and in particular NASA astronomy. But guess what? in the president’s budget for 2014, the Obama administration re-assigns outreach and education funding that direct involve scientists at NASA and other science agencies, and directs it to the department of education, NSF, and the Smithsonian. NASA even 20 years ago bought into the notion that the best outreach happens when scientists are personally involved and working side-by-side with master communicators and teachers. But the administration has told NASA to get out of that business, and it’s not just the sequestration, that’s their long-term planning — see the FY2014 budget.
    Does that fire you up? It should, if you think scientists should be involved in science outreach. As scientists we can contribute, but for effective, coherent, and quantifiable effort, we need to be working with teams of passionate and professional outreach experts; and that means paying scientists for their contributions as well. It’s really not a big expense item in these science programs — a few % of the Hubble budget goes to (well, it went to) an extremely well-done outreach program.

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Scientific American MIND iPad

Give a Gift & Get a Gift - Free!

Give a 1 year subscription as low as $14.99

Subscribe Now >>


Email this Article