There are many ways to be a publicly engaged scientist

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I want to talk about the Who and the How of public engagement.

We should be bringing science to the table with people who aren’t in the market for science. A lot of outreach is preaching to the converted, and that is a valuable form of service. But we also have the ability — and perhaps an obligation — to make science a part of everyday life for a society that just doesn’t think about science on a regular basis.

There are a lot of us scientists out there. Almost everybody knows at least one scientist to some extent, but they might not know it. That’s because a lot of us are reluctant to talk about science among non-scientists, and we often construe an overly narrow definition of “scientist.”

If we defer the public-face-of-science duties to a small number of our enthusiastic colleagues, we are doing a disservice. When a small fraction of the scientists act as prophets for science, this actually makes science look less mainstream than it really is. We are much, much more than Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, and Brian Cox. We also are Katharine Hayhoe, Hope Jahren, and Emily Graslie. But we’re also more than them, too. We are someone’s neighbor, and a volunteer at the food bank, and a person in line at the grocery store, and someone chatting with the dental hygienist. If every scientist used their own voice outside the lab and the classroom, folks will look around and see science as part of our daily lives.

Public engagement doesn’t need to be stressful. It doesn’t need to put you in the spotlight or at risk, and it needn’t suck up too much of your time. There are so many ways you can engage with the public. I realize this can’t be a complete list, but let me give you some ideas.

Speaking to local groups

As a museum educator, my spouse has been regularly asked to give public talks by a wide range of community organizations. They wanted to know about the cool stuff that was happening in the museums. These were places like retirement communities, the Rotary Club, or the Toastmasters. Places with curious folks who want to show up to learn. By request, I’ve spoken a few times for my university’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, an organization designed to support retired folks. But we don’t have to wait for them to call us. Find a retirement community nearby, and ask if they have a series for visiting speakers, and if they’d like you to come? I doubt they’ll say no. You can literally talk about anything you want on these occasions, as long as you find it interesting. Talking to the Osher people, I’ve explained how social insect colonies work, the way we discovered how carbon emissions are causing climate change, and the natural history of tropical rainforests. I plan a short talk because I always get overwhelmed with a series of fascinating (and sometimes unanswerable in a good way) questions. Whatever you do, you can find an angle that can be interesting to the general audience.

Public K-12 schools

There are so many ways that you can reach out to children and their families through their schools. In most elementary classrooms, it’s wonderful for kids if you just show up and answer questions about being a scientist. To you, it’s an everyday thing. But to a lot of kids, if your actual job is to do science, that’s amazing to them. Don’t underestimate the power of your own identity as a scientist.

Just visiting classrooms can be very powerful, even if it’s just to chat or make a short demonstration. If you offer it to teachers, they’ll probably be super glad to host you. On one occasion, I visited my kid’s elementary school one afternoon with a decent dissecting microscope and a sweep net. We went outside to the moribund school garden and gave each of the plants a few whacks with the net, and brought it back into the classroom. Then, under the scope, kids got to see all kinds of critters in different shapes and sizes walking around. There was a world of biodiversity just outside their classroom where they didn’t notice it, and for some kids, it was a revelation. Another time, I once went to the science night for this school and ran a station where we dissected a fetal pig.

Years later, these kids are now about to enter high school. And some of them are still excited about the bugs or the guts of the pig. It wasn’t so much the bugs or the pig. It because I was a science professor and I came to their school to share science with them. These kids know a research scientist. And this weekend, when I volunteering at the ticket desk of the holiday music show, these kids knew that I was there, just a normal guy, who is a scientist. Scientists are normal people. That is an important thing.

Oftentimes, schools will reach out to you because they want you for some kind of special event, like judging a science fair, or a science night, or some type of career day. I guess you could participate in those, but if you choose to visit some classes and bring your own story, you’re likely to have a much bigger impact.

I would like to point out that high school science teachers are some of our most important scientists. Our society sometimes doesn’t even view these folks as legitimate scientists, and we are complicit. Our high school science teachers have (typically) earned a university degree in a scientific discipline. When they finish college, they are junior scientists. When they enter classrooms, they remain scientists, and we need to see them that way. For us, for their students, and for the community-at-large.

Everyday conversation

I used to avoid mentioning what I do in social settings, because I didn’t feel like getting into the same conversation over and over again. There are a lot of misconceptions about what professors and scientists and academia, and I didn’t want to spend my time just explaining this stuff when people make false assumptions.

But I’ve changed my tune in recent years. I’ve found I can steer the conversation by being a lot more specific, and what I feel like talking about. I won’t just say, “I’m a biologist,” or “I’m a professor.” I’m more apt to volunteer, “I’m a scientist, I’m working on understanding how animals are responding to climate change,” or “I’m at the university, this semester I’m teaching a course in biostatistics.”

When traveling, sometimes fellow travelers like to chat about where they’re going and why. I’m not necessarily chatty in this way. But if it comes up, I won’t just say, “for business,” but I’ll explain what I’m up to. “I’m heading to a field station to do research on climate change in the rainforest,” or “I’m going to give a talk about ants at the university,” or “I have a meeting at the National Science Foundation,” or whatever. More often than not, they’ll be interested in the kind of science that I’m doing, and ask a whole bunch of questions. I think that’s a win.

Writing

Newspapers aren’t what they used to be, but they still matter. Even if they don’t publish a letter-to-the-editor, a short letter is like a vote to the editorial section. If you are writing about a current event that is relevant to your scientific expertise, it is going to carry more weight. The same is true for op-ed pieces. If you write a piece of several hundred words and send it to the paper, they might publish it. There are lots of guides out there on writing effective op-ed pieces. We don’t see enough opinions about policy from scientific experts in the paper, and the only way that’s going to change is when we as scientists write more of these opinion pieces.

I wouldn’t recommend starting up a blog unless you have made a commitment to feed it regularly. Sometimes amazing pieces of writing on less visible blogs take off, but more often they just get overlooked, which is a bummer. It takes a while to build your own platform in this way. But some well-read blogs do take guest posts, it can’t hurt to ask. (I generally don’t run guest posts here but it has happened when someone pitches something that I think is a great fit for the site. Also since the site doesn’t have have a revenue stream, I feel weird having people write for free, and so I don’t ever solicit specific pieces.) I think blogs also tend to preach to the converted. I’m not writing here for the general public, though they’re welcome to read it of course. The intended audience is other scientists. And blogs tend to have that kind of audience, so you’re not doing great outreach in that way. (And I think a lot of science communication has this huge shortcoming, which is not easy to get around.)

Social media

Social media is not a monolith. Each medium has its own dynamics. I’ll talk about Twitter and Facebook.

Twitter is a great way to interact among scientists, but unless you’re a big time scientific celebrity (and I mean real-famous, not twitter-famous), then I don’t think this is a huge way to reach new audiences. I think there are some exceptions to reach a public outside one’s twitter bubble. For example, folks like David Steen and Small Pond’s own Catherine Scott spend time interacting with folks who fear and misidentify their focal organisms. If someone posts on twitter how they’re afraid of a snake or spider, then a friendly interaction with an expert can have a positive effect — if only on the many bystanders of the conversation. The other thing that twitter can do is increases your exposure to journalists, because twitter now serves as a wire service as well as a database of expertise. Every once in a while, I end up being the commentary guy about a new paper involving ants, and that’s entirely because of twitter. I think the more voices we have in the public arena, the more robust we are for the public.

Facebook can be used for science without arguing. You can put a positive and personal face on science that a lot of people might not otherwise get in their lives. A good while ago, I decided that Facebook was going to be (primarily) a professional platform rather than a personal one. I can make a public post about science or being a scientist, Though few folks will ‘share’ it, if they like or comments, then their friends who I don’t know will see it. This actually can have a lot of power. If we as scientists don’t talk our science, then we are missing out on a huge outreach opportunity. You might wonder, but what if my creationist uncle some antivax rando leaves a comment? Well, it’s your own post, so you can just delete it. You run your own page and that’s entirely your right. Or if you have the patience, you could choose to engage politely — though you won’t change their minds, non-commenting bystanders may benefit from seeing rational engagement.

 Academic websites

Before I did any social media stuff or blogging, I would once in a while look at the analytics of my lab website and I was relatively amazed at how many hits came in, and the search terms that brought people there. I don’t know the sociology of this, but I bet people google one another a lot. Your cousin’s cousin who you just met over the holidays, or the parent of one of your kid’s friends, or your accountant looking for your email address. Your lab website probably will pop up very high. And then people will look it over, even if they have nothing to do with your science. I think it’s a great idea that all of our academic websites have a readily available light snack of information that lets people know what we do, designed for non-scientists. (I don’t really meet that expectation, but I’m doing a redesign right now, and that will be part of it.)

Don’t “just do it”

Once in a while I’ve heard the sentiment, “Don’t fuss about how great it is, because just going to the effort is what counts.” I disagree with that idea. I think it’s important to focus on quality over frequency. In a heavily saturated media environment, quality stands out. It’s better to give one amazing talk than ten mediocre talks. One well-written op-ed piece can catch huge audiences, but badly written ones will go nowhere. And if you have an Instagram page without gorgeous photos, then you won’t land many followers and you won’t have much of an audience. If you’re working with school kids, make sure you’re prepared. You can wow kindergarteners by just showing up as a Real Scientist, but the older the kids get, the more you have to be prepared to not waste their time.

I think most of us scientists are focused on doing their job well, by meeting the expectations of their employers. In universities, that’s research, teaching and service. It might be worth having a conversation with chairs, deans and provosts, about what “service” looks like. What kinds of things would look good under that category in your file? That’s a good question to ask.

Any ideas, suggestions, or modifications? Are there other things you do that are part of your own outreach efforts?

4 thoughts on “There are many ways to be a publicly engaged scientist

  1. Everyday conversation is a really great one that can have unexpected (positive) consequences! I’ve been invited to come into a high school careers class by a teacher I happened to be chatting with at a party who asked me what I do. Turned out they had a student in their class who was really into entomology and they were really excited to actually meet an entomologist they could invite to talk to the class. Also, one time last summer as we were driving to our field site, we were stopped by a police officer. He asked where we were going, and we gave a slightly longer than strictly necessary reply about how we were on our way to work. We explained that we were on our way to the beach to study the mating interactions of nocturnal black widows, which happen to be extremely abundant at that beach. The officer was really interested and asked a bunch of questions, and we invited him to come along and see the spiders. He ended up following us to the beach (just down the road) and we spent about 15 minutes talking to him about our work and showing him some of the spiders we were studying. He said he always likes to report back to his kids about the interesting things he learns while on duty, and I figure there’s now at least a few more folks who know a little more about spiders and what scientists do! These are just two examples, but I can think of many more great conversations I’ve had with folks in all kinds of contexts where I’ve gotten the opportunity to do impromptu science communication, and I agree with Terry that it’s always a small but important win when you can engage with a stranger even for a few minutes about science.

    I should note that I’m not a particularly social person (in fact I’m a rather socially anxious introvert), so I don’t tend to seek out conversations with strangers. But when I’m in a situation where I am forced to talk to someone, or they start talking to me, my work is the subject I’m most comfortable talking about, so I’m happy to spend time chatting about it.

  2. The message of quality over quantity was definitely a theme of Scicomm Camp this past November. Though that can deter people from even trying/starting, another way to go about it is to start where you are (as we all have to) and try to do better than you did the last time. I think I’m a much better blogger than when I first started, though my most popular post ever was still an early one.

    And I put a lot more time and research into my posts now as well.

    I agree blogging tends to speak to those already enthusiastic about science, but at the same time, it’s nice to hear that people run across my blog from time to time as students and get something out of it.

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