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. Continue reading

NSF Graduate Fellowships are a part of the problem

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I started this morning with tremendous news: a student of mine, who left my lab for a PhD program last year, let me know that his NSF Graduate Research Fellowship was funded!

I had two other former students who put in applications. I downloaded the big list from NSF, and — alas — they did not have the same fortune. So, I was 33% happy. Continue reading

Scientists know how to communicate with the public

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I bet that most of us are steady consumers of science designed for the public. Books, magazines, newspaper, museum exhibits, radio, the occasional movie. The people who bring science to the masses are “science communicators.” (The phrase “science communication” is a newish one, and arguably better than “science writing,” as a variety of media involve more than just writing.)

Nearly everything I’ve seen in science communication shares a common denominator: scientists. Science communication doesn’t amount to much without researchers. Science is a human endeavor, and it’s rarely possible to tell a compelling story without directly involving the people who did the science. As restaurant servers bring food to the table and cooks typically stay in the kitchen, science communicators bring the work of scientists to the public while scientists typically focus on publishing scientific papers.

I interact with practitioners of this craft on the uncommon occasions when my research gets notice beyond the scientific community. (My university doesn’t send out press releases when my cooler papers come out, so the communicators need to find me.)

When I listen to what science communicators have said to us scientists, there are two items that are a heavy and steady drumbeat:

  1. It the duty of scientists to some of our time doing science communication, and it’s also in our interests.

  2. Most scientists don’t yet know how to communicate with the public.

I’m not so sure about #1. I have decided the second one is off mark, or at least so overgeneralized that it’s either wrong or useless.

It may or may not be our duty to share science with the public. (Yes, I know the arguments, reviewed here, for example.) Regardless, the last interest group that I’d look to for impartial advice on this matter would be science communicators. This would be like learning about the need for propane grilling from a propane grilling salesperson. It would be like learning about K-12 energy education from a workshop funded by a petroleum company (sadly, this is happening this week in my city). Of course science communicators think that science communication is important!

For most scientists, the division of labor between cooks and servers is just fine. (Of course there is nothing about being a technical scientist that disqualifies someone from being an effective public communicator.) There are many important things in this world, and some of us choose other things. (This next month, for what it’s worth, I’m talking to three community organizations, volunteering for an all-day science non-fair, and writing a blog post about my lab’s latest paper.) My funding agency places science communication as one potential component of broader effects, and I’m definitely listening to them. Scientists, if we want to engage the broader public, that’s great! But it would be disingenuous to tell you that it’s your duty. We all owe many things to society, and I’m cool with it if you choose, or don’t choose, to put science communication on your plate. I’m not going to be that person who is telling you what your duties are with respect to your own career. It’s up to us to forge our own trajectories and priorities.

So we all agree that scientists that don’t spend time on science communication either are, or are not, selfish bastards.

But, is it really true that most of us scientists aren’t capable of sharing our science effectively? I call BS on this canard.

If there happens to be a stray professional science communicator reading this, I imagine that I just induced a few chuckles and a shake of the head. Let me write some more to clarify.

Most of us are wholly capable of sharing our science with the public in an understandable and even interesting fashion. However, that doesn’t mean that, when interacting with the media, that we are always willing to play along. We might not want to provide the sound bite you’re looking for. We might be resisting a brief interpretation because we don’t have enough confidence that the science would end up correct in the final product. Nearly every time some scientific finding is presented to the public, it happens along with some form of a generalization. If you’re familiar with the genre of peer reviewing, you’ll know that scientists typically disdain generalizations.

How is it that we can resist the digestion of our work for public consumption? When someone claims that one of us “doesn’t know how to communicate with the public,” I propose that this overgeneralized diagnosis can almost always be broken down into two distinct categories which might apply.

  1. We don’t want to discuss our science in broad terms for the public because we feel that we are unqualified for the task. While the popular image of the arrogant know-it-all scientist plays well, most of us are driven by the fact that we don’t understand enough about our fields of expertise. We are resistant to analogies or general statements of findings in lay terminology because it involves a generalization from our very specific findings that may be unwarranted. And, if it is warranted, then it falls outside our expertise to comment on such a broad topic. While our experiments were designed to advance knowledge on some general topic, we feel that it is not up to us to make the decision that our findings are informative on that general topic in a way to be digested outside the scientific community.
  2. We actually aren’t doing an experiment that has any general relevance to the public at large. We actually are working on minutia that will not have any broad relationship to the scientific endeavor at large. We are having trouble making a generalization about its scientific importance because it lacks a broad scientific importance.

The prescription for diagnosis #1 is for us to become more arrogant and think that we are qualified to speak with the media about broader issues in science. For us to think that, as scientists sensu lato, we are able to speak broadly about scientific issues. Just as we teach about all kinds of scientific topics in the university classroom, we can interact with the media in the same way. And this is the kind of stuff that scientists who communicate with the public do all the time. They often talk about things outside the realm of their research training and expertise and get away with it. If we’re going to be doing science communication as practicing scientists, then we need to own the fact that we can talk about a whole bunch of scientific topics even though we’re not top experts in a subfield. For example, Richard Feynman once wrote a book chapter about ants. (I thought it was horrible way to illustrate his main point about doing amateur science, actually.)

The prescription for diagnosis #2 is to be a better scientist. If you’re conducting an experiment that, at its roots, lacks a purpose that can be explained to a general audience, then what is the science really work? I can explain that I work on really obscure stuff (the community ecology of litter-dwelling ants, how odors affect nest movements of ants, and how is it that some colonies of ants control the production of different kinds of ants, and how much sunlight and leaf litter ants like, for starters). But I’m working on this obscure stuff to build to a generalized understanding of biodiversity, the role of predators in the evolution of defensive behavior, how ecology and evolution result in optimized allocation patterns, and responses to climate change. I am sometimes reluctant to claim that my results can be generalized to entire fields (I need to get more arrogant in that respect), but I recognize the fact that my work is designed to ask these broad questions. If you don’t have these broad questions in mind while running the experiment, I recommend a sabbatical and a visit to the drawing board. I don’t know how often this phenomenon happens, but I have met some scientists who, when asked for the broadest possible application of their work, can only talk about the effect on a subfield of a subfield that would only influence a few people. If a project, at its greatest success, can only influence a few other scientists in the whole world, then, well, you get the idea.

Yes, scientists are good communicators. And we know how to talk to the public. We just might not think we’re the right people for the job, or that our science isn’t built for the task.

A little literature on how pseudonymity may alter reach or impact

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Recently, I wondered in a post whether the vagueness of the identity of an author affects the dissemination and acceptance of the author’s ideas.

It doesn’t matter to me whether someone chooses to write under a pseudonym. Nevertheless, is true that some audiences receive messages with greater skepticism — or more credulity — if the creators don’t reveal their identity. This fact was rapidly confirmed, by responses from those with pseudonymous blogging experience. There were comments and posts, reporting that some people are fed up with people in power (tenured white men) claiming that pseudonymous blogs are lame.

Meanwhile, the specific idea that I was addressing in the post was mostly overlooked. While some people rebutted an argument I never made (about the choice to use a pseudonym), only a couple comments addressed my question with substance, and I’m still interested in the topic. What are the consequences of pseudonymity for the impact of a message, and what factors shape that relationship? I found that the answer isn’t readily available, but here is some of what I’ve found.

For starters, here are some examples that I didn’t bring up in my post, because I was mostly focused on Banksy. I was surprised that nobody in the comments pointed out that the first t-test was published by an initially pseudonymous author, “Student.” Clearly, that was a success.

In the realm of politics, I’ve always been curious how the authors of the Federalist Papers thought about how their (then) anonymity affected the influence of their writing, and apparently it’s debatable about whether they actually had an influence on how ratification happened. And, I wonder how sales of Primary Colors would have been different (higher or lower?) if Joe Klein’s identity was never concealed, instead of being revealed six months after publication.

Clearly, whether or not a message connects to a serious cause of a disenfranchised group matters. I would have thought that there would be more scholarship on this, but then again I probably have lost my touch at searching the literature outside the sciences. I found an interesting article (“How I Look”: Fanny Fern and the Strategy of Pseudonymity) about Fanny Fern, whose use of a pseudonym was tied to gender-based discrimination. (Note that the guy who wrote this article is a white dude.) It remains unclear whether her popularity would have been different if she had used her own name, and grounds for speculation.

What about what happens on online communities? They do function better when members are pseudonymous. This wasn’t a surprise to me, but might be to those who have claimed say that pseudonyms are used to bully others. Here are two articles on the topic:

Anonymously productive and socially engaged while learning at work: Quickie summary: Having a pseudonym results in more collaboration, and more chattiness.

Impact of Anonymity (Unlinkability, Pseudonymity, Unobservability) on Information Sharing Quickie summary: Having a pseudonym results in more and better sharing of information online. Does this mean that they have a bigger effect offline? Unclear, and grounds for speculation.

Let’s take a look at when speaking out on an issue really matters: whistleblowing. One commenter on my earlier post explained how protecting oneself from reprisals was important in her line of work. I wanted to find out whether whistleblowing was more likely to lead to action, based on whether or not the whistleblower was anonymous. I couldn’t find that much on this, based on a moderately cursory search, but the one thing I did find clearly indicated that when one’s identity is hidden then a whistleblowing alert is far less likely to result in any action than when the whistleblowers put themselves on the line by including their identity.

Clearly, whistleblowers have great reasons for protecting themselves by hiding their identities. However, this concealment of their identity unfortunately also limits the effectiveness of their own whistleblowing actions. This is the kind of phenomenon I had in mind while writing my original post. I don’t want to generalize from it, but I wanted to share it with readers because this is the kind of information I was interested in when I posted about it earlier.

On pseudonymity and making a difference in the world (updated)

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New York City

New York City

My favorite pseudonymous person out there, without a doubt, is Banksy.

If you aren’t familiar with Banksy, check out some of his work. It’s spectacular. I’m not a professional art critic so I won’t say more about why this body of work rocks. Banksy’s work can speak for itself.

Because of his primary medium – public structures – people who own these structures are making huge profits by selling his work to private individuals though he designed it to be seen in public.

I don’t think he imagined several years ago, that a public wall would be removed from a structure so that his stencil graffiti would be sold at auction as fine art. I think it’s kind of awesome – a work of art highlighting the profiteering nature of humanity – that graffiti can become so valuable so quickly. The irony is delicious, that graffiti is undesirable by a property owner, unless it can be sold.

Banksy’s work is, arguably, a victim of its success, in that it is taken from the public after it is made.

The art of Banksy features a set of criticisms that are best seen broadly by the public. It is successful as social commentary, and the whole point of it, I would guess, is that they get seen by people.

If Banksy were not pseudonymous, he could create all kinds of public art, that would be far more likely to stay intact. But that’s not the way he rolls. In my opinion, part of the beauty of the work is the the lack of clarity in its origin, and that Banksy creates wealth out of a patch of wall that otherwise would be overlooked.

Since we don’t know who Banksy is, it’s easier for me to imagine that he is speaking for many of us. On the other hand, because we don’t know who Banksy is, it’s been said that he lacks credibility. I don’t think that’s true, but to many, without an identity his work is always going to have the same credibility of all other graffiti artists who are, technically, tagging illegally. I think his credibility comes from the great art itself, but that’s not a universally held notion.

I think there is a ceiling to how much difference Banksy can make in the world, because of his pseudonymity. I don’t think the social impact of something like Picasso’s Guernica could be matched by any single work by Banksy because the origin of the message matters along with the artist itself. We all might like to say that a novel, a painting, or a scientific paper can and should be seen on its own without looking at the creator. But, really, who the creator is matters, a lot. We know Banksy by his work, that’s not quite the same. The veil matters. People will think that he doesn’t have any skin in the game. In Banksy’s case, the veil is part of the art itself.

Closer to my own realm, some of the louder voices on the internet about life in science come from a cadre of pseudonymous science bloggers.

They don’t blog about their own science, because, well, then the veil would be lifted from the pseudonym. There are many real concerns that the pseudonymous science bloggers have, about life balance, gender equity, federal funding policies, research transparency, academic misconduct, and other stuff, including shoes.

This might be obvious, it wasn’t initially to me: a pseudonym makes a blog more personal.

This week, one topic that’s come up among pseudonymous bloggers is the fact that things are a lot harder for women in science compared to men, especially for those who have kids. These pseudonymous people seem to want change in culture and policies, in the direction of equity. There are some interesting discussions, and a lot of great ideas. But, even though the pseudonymous blogs are aimed at the public, it’s all very much a private endeavor. Because the pseudonymous people are not known, at least formally, then there is a low ceiling on impact. (Of course, I bet that these pseudonymous blogs are far more widely read than this site, so I’m not arguing that I’m having more of an impact.) For example, the impact of the well-known blog Pharyngula is much greater (and mostly negative, I think) because its creator is not pseudonymous. Putting a face and name — and a public home address to boot — for the author of that blog makes both him and his words more credible.

So, what really is the point of all of discussions on pseudonymous science blogs? I honestly don’t know. I imagine it’s for the entertainment of those running the sites, to form an internal community, and to influence the lives of those who follow these sites and are interested in the experiences of these pseudonymous individuals. But I could be wrong. I suspect the veil of pseudonymity really limits what a blog can do more than the identity of the author limits the reach of a blog.

Anybody can have a site, and write whatever they want in it, and communicate with others however they want. I’m just trying to make sense of both motivations and outcomes, and I’m still confused. In the meantime, there is a clear asymmetry between what can and does happen between pseudonymous sites and those with unveiled faces.

When I started this site, I thought the distinction between the two was minor, but over time the risks and opportunities from being overtly public are more known. I’m still in the not-making-much-difference-in-the-world phase, but, well, there’s lots of time.

UPDATE: While it wasn’t intended in any way, some pseudonymous bloggers — whose work I respect — are reading this post as a dig against pseudonymous blogs. I don’t know how broad this perception is, but since I’m a regular reader — and fan — of some pseudonymous blogs I’d like to clarify that I don’t have any negative thoughts about pseudonymous blogs, and I don’t question the validity of pseudonymous blogs.

As to the specific questions I asked, there is now some good discussion about them. These questions are, apparently, old hat to pseudonymous bloggers but not yet to myself. Considering that a pseudonymous blog is what got me started in the first place, I am familiar with the genre, but not the specific motivations of the authors. What I didn’t know is — in addition to those who have quite legitimate concerns about physical safety — the relationship between a concealed identity and the ability to affect the cause that is the reason for the identity to be concealed. Folks have made some strong arguments that a pseudonymous author can affect their cause in the non-blogging world just as as well as one who uses their real identity. There are lots of great viewpoints.

When I write “I honestly don’t know” or “I’m confused,” about a topic, then that is the truth. It isn’t concern trolling, These words represent my ability to profess not understanding something. To their credit, experienced bloggers have rolled in and helped create understanding, in the comments (which are worth reading) and other posts (which can be found in the comments).

Pseudonymous bloggers have been writing for years under their assumed identities, and think about their reasons and the consequences every day, I would think. Those issues are not something I think about every day. So if I write a blog post, open to comments, about something which I’m wondering, I do appreciate it when I have constructive and informative comments, which I have received. Thanks to all of you for those.

Broader impacts ≠ reaching underrepresented groups

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When the National Science Foundation introduced the required “Broader Impacts” criterion, it took more than a little bit of explaining at the outset.

Several years later, most of us understand what a “broader impact” is: In some shape or form, the funded project affects society beyond the scientific findings. There are a lot of ways to approach broader impacts. How do we go about deciding which way to fulfill the broader impacts requirement?

Earlier this year, Nadkarni and Stasch answered this question quantitatively, by evaluating the broader impacts included in nine years of funded proposals within the Ecosystem Studies program. There were some interesting finds, but there is one that I want to single out in particular.

Only 11% of the broader impacts in these proposals specifically targeted groups underrepresented in the sciences.

That’s right, only 11% of the proposals had broader impacts targeting underrepresented groups.

When I think “broader impacts,” I first, and foremost, think of providing training and mentorship opportunities to students from underrepresented groups. I also think of outreach efforts targeting underrepresented populations.

That seems to be a relatively rare priority.

It doesn’t seem to be a big stretch to say that one of the major factors imperiling the future of scientific progress in the USA is that massive sections of our population – and the ones that are growing more quickly – are not interested in, or prepared for, careers in science. If you read every other piece of policy paperwork about science education, you’ll see that the country needs to open the pathway for careers in science to Latino and African-American students. It matters, big time.

But nobody’s doing it in their broader impacts. Doesn’t that strike you as odd?

There are so many possible reasons for this phenomenon, and I don’t want to speculate ad nauseum. Here’s one possibility, though: when people think “broader impacts” they actually do first think about targeting “underrepresented groups.” However, they don’t have a simple or effective route to do so.

How do you reach students from disadvantaged and underrepresented groups? You start with students who are in disadvantaged and underrepresented institutions. Which means that the people who are getting all of these grants funded to implement broader impacts, if not at a disadvantaged institution, should start reaching out.

Are you one of those who haven’t included underrepresented groups in your broader impacts? If so, could you leave a comment about what kinds of things could smooth the path? What do you think that NSF, and we as a community, could do to help researchers at institutions with lots of NSF grants (and relatively few disadvantaged underrepresented students) reach out to underrepresented groups?

Reference:

Nalini M Nadkarni and Amy E Stasch 2013. How broad are our broader impacts? An analysis of the National Science Foundation’s Ecosystem Studies Program and the Broader Impacts requirement. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 11: 13–19.