A recent conversation on twitter with AstroKatie started me thinking about how seriously employers take public outreach, and how seriously funding agencies take it. She questioned whether including her outreach work on her webpage might not be taken seriously, but included it regardless.
When I talk about public outreach here, I’m not talking about publicising your own research; you’re expected to do that when possible. What I’m referring to is answering questions from the media about other people’s research, answering questions from the general public, doing school visits, giving public lectures, using social media, etc. These are things that can educate and inspire people about science, but will they help land you your next job? Sadly, I’m not so sure.
I’m lucky enough that my organisation values the contribution that I and others make in the sphere of public outreach. I’m not convinced it was always the case, but in recent years there has been a noticeable improvement in the situation. Just last week, we sat down and started to discuss the development of a social media strategy; this was unthinkable even a year ago. We are supported to take part in things like Scientists in Schools, Fresh Science, Science Meets Parliament, I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here! among the many different schemes that exist. But what about at other workplaces?
In astronomy, most observatories have someone (or a team of someones) dedicated to public outreach in some way. Generally the people involved have some sort of background in astronomy; they may be PhD astronomers, but not necessarily. Universities have a press office, and occasionally an outreach officer attached to a department (but only if there is a critical mass of researchers). Most research astronomers do some form of outreach themselves, especially with visits to amateur astronomy clubs and societies. The question is: when you apply for a job, or for grant funding, how valuable is this for your prospects?
My hunch is that it’s not taken that seriously, and is therefore not that valuable. I’m happy to be corrected, but I’ve heard enough anecdotes and experienced enough over the years that the perception is strong.
Let’s take a look at Australian Research Council grants, for example. One of the selection criteria for this year’s Future Fellowship scheme – worth 10% – is “Collaboration/Outreach”. The question you have to consider here is: “are there adequate strategies to encourage dissemination, commercialisation, if appropriate; and promotion of research outcomes?” (This is horribly worded in my opinion… adequate strategies to encourage dissemination?? Blergh!) This is where you say how you will disseminate or promote your research; from what I can tell it has little to do with what you’ve done before. The other ARC schemes include the same basic wording.
Now, I realise that the ARC funds research, not public outreach. Surely though the two things are not independent? If I want to understand the latest results in marine biology research, I want to hear the opinions of a working marine biologist. By why would that marine biologist give their time on a regular basis if they get no credit from their employers or funding agencies? Surely we should be encouraging this effort to popularise science by at least recognising it.
On the job front, how often have you read “must have excellent oral and written communication skills” in a list of selection criteria? Just about every job these days asks this of applicants, so one can only assume that everyone now has excellent oral and written communication skills! Sadly, this is not the case… so what is being measured here? Is all you need to do publish papers and give talks at conferences to satisfy this criterion? My feeling (granted, it’s a feeling only) is that outreach activities don’t count for much. The one selection panel I’ve been on didn’t consider communication skills in discussions of the candidates, even though it was a criterion.
Public outreach is valuable of course, for many reasons. We do it because we enjoy it, because we feel that science should be accessible, and because the public are interested. People are interested in science; not just in controversial topics like climate change and nanotechnology. They want to know what all this stuff we’re doing means, and they appreciate someone with authority who tells them in language they can understand. They take us seriously. In a time when we are worried about science literacy in society, perhaps it’s time we took outreach more seriously.