The art of science and the science of art.

Communicating Science: What s Your Problem?


After reading Scicurious' and Kate Clancy’s posts on science outreach and what a drag it is on already overworked and underpaid scientists, I feel like climbing to the top of the highest mountain in Whoville and exclaiming, “We are here! We are here! We are here! We are here!”

For those of you who missed their posts or are fuzzy on the details, I will sum up:

Your Problem

You’re a scientist. Your list of priorities is a mile long and science outreach ranks somewhere near the 568th slot for a lot of reasons. Maybe it’s not your forte. Maybe you secretly like it but feel like you’re wasting your time. Or maybe you think it’s worthwhile but your colleagues (who are holding tenure over your head) think you’re wasting your time. Outreach? Buh-bye.

Your Solutions

According to Sci, scientists need an attitude change regarding the value of science outreach and communication. Amen, sistah. And Kate rightly points out that you don’t have to add eight more hours to your week to throw scraps to your little social media monsters, you just need to work outreach into your grand vision and stand by its importance in your career. Right-o.

Our Solution (no bias here, but I think it’s quite genius)

In addition to the thoughtful and practical suggestions both Kate and Sci mentioned, I would humbly suggest reaching out to science outreach professionals. Scientists on the whole are intensely capable, ruthless do-it-yourselfers. The nature of scientific inquiry requires a doggedness and self-reliance that attracts independent thinkers. But as Kate and Sci deftly point out, scientists are human, and if they want a semblance of balance in their lives and careers, they can’t do everything, at least not well. (cue Superman theme song...)

Dun-duh-nuh-NUH!!!!!! ENTER: The science communicators! (“We are here! We are here!”)

Recognize the importance of outreach (after all, funding is, like it or not, tied to public support of your work which is ultimately tied to their understanding of what you do) and recognize that although you may not enjoy doing it, there are plenty of capable, science-trained communicators who would jump at the chance to think creatively about how to make your work accessible to a variety of audiences. So rather than resign yourself to the ugly fact that you will have to reorganize your priorities to include blogging (groan…) and tweeting (argh!) and publishing for the public as well as your peers (honestly, do I have to?!), why not spend a little time allocating a budget that will help accomplish those things without taxing your time? I know funds are tight, but many grants require a public outreach component and actually evaluate proposals in part, based on their efforts to this effect. (See NSF's Review Criteria for funding: "What are the broader impacts of the proposed activity?") So write us in! Plan an outreach budget from the get-go. Why not?

Our Problem

Ok, ok. Now, admittedly, it’s not all the scientists’ fault. I call myself a science illustrator. And you are undoubtedly reading this and asking yourself, “Who is this mega-chump? I don’t need illustrations.” Science illustrators used to be fixtures in every museum and paleontology department in the country, as indispensable as the curators of the collections. But as technology has changed and our skills have expanded, our titles no longer reflect the variety of services we offer. Many of us have learned web design, 3D modeling, the fine art of science writing, photography and other lab-specific specialized techniques. Most of us share an intense interest in science, an ability to communicate it to non-scientists, and a strong distaste for the shark tank that is grant-writing, paper-publishing, and jockeying for a handful of academic jobs. More than just science illustrators, we are science communicators – passionate about the science and equipped with the tools to reach out beyond the Ivory Tower.

So hit us up some time for collaborations. It'll be worth your while. And to prove it to you, my next post will provide an example of how thinking about science communication from the get-go can influence your research and take it in unexpected and exciting directions. Boom.

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

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