While I had a completely different post already 60% written for this week’s column, I was struck by a few recent posts about various ways to promote science, which I will outline here. In a sincere defense of the Science Cheerleaders project (see video below), Andrea Kuszewski makes a fascinating analogy about the OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) nature of science. She tells a story from her work as a behavioral therapist about an autistic child who is obsessed a peach colored crayon. Do you take away the crayon, thereby not treating the behavior, or make it completely accessible and
“… force him to deal with the discomfort of changing his maladaptive ways surrounding that peach crayon, because really—life is full of peach crayons, and he’d better learn to deal with the reality of those crayons now, because the world will not stop producing peach crayons just to keep his behavior in check.”
Science needs a reality check too. It has tried to exist in an academic vacuum for much of its existence. The OCD nature science needs behavioral therapy, to be forced to confront its discomfort of engaging with non-scientists. Science also needs to acknowledge that there is value in this engagement. That it is not only the public that benefits from engagement (i.e. science literacy/appreciation), but science benefits just as much. Very few academic institutions wholly recognize this and science’s ability to track the spread of basic concepts and technological advances reflects this.
The Cult of Science
Part of the problem is the rituals associated with entering the sacred temple of sciencehood. Stephen Benedict-Mason described in How to Start a Cult 7 simple steps for organizing a body of believers:
- Create your own reality – Entrants are encouraged to spend 12-16 hours a day, 8 days a week in a lab surrounded only by their scientific peers, their experiments and their books. Sure I know we need to be consumed by our thirst for knowledge, but this disengages entrants from the outside world and promotes isolation and self-censorship, the latter leading to repressed feelings that can completely change personalities.
- Institute a leader who holds the keys to paradise – The graduate advisor, department head or tenure committee hold your life in their hands. You let them because it what people do when in our positions. We all bow to authority when it suits us.
- Make increasing demands – It should be no secret that responsibilities increase exponentially with time spent in science, to the point where you are not even sure you are actually doing science anymore
- Turn out stories about the greatness of the leader – Science is full of icons, prophets and God-like brilliant minds. Students and junior faculty stoke the egos of the predecessors, and of course they top dogs stroke their own egos, and we eagerly listen.
- Use converts to bring in more converts – Basically what I do! The most devoted in the Cult of Science become its proselytizers and seek to recruit as many new devotees as possible through teaching, mentoring and outreach activities.
- Keep everybody busy – An idle mind is the playground of the devil! Keep your converts mind occupied with half-day lab meetings, endless seminars, classes, excessive side projects, discussion/reading groups, menial lab tasks…
- Lastly, keep your devotees eyes on the prize – There’s a tenure track job out with your name on it! Or, at least a fifth postdoc.
Now, I’ll concede that all institutions follow a pattern of cult. Cult is, after all, shortened from Culture. Each clique has a defined set of characteristics that sets it apart from all the cliques. Science is no different. This is not a criticism, but a statement of fact. I am proud member and evangelist of this cult. I believe it to be the One True PathTM. Though Science is a way of life for myself and the thousands that partake in this cult’s rituals – cults, almost by definition, exclude others who do not identify with being a member of said cult.
Science Communication – A Pluralist Approach
My long rant on the cult of science hopefully set the stage for what I feel is the most pressing issue of our times, as it relates to science communication anyways. I don’t think people mean to do it, but when they argue over a certain outreach initiative they seem to treat it as if it were the only option on the table. In other words, some people instinctively disagree with an idea without recognizing its utility to sectors of society that are not them. The long, mostly thoughtful, discussion at Rogue Neuron about sexuality and science in terms of Science Cheerleaders is a case point.
Additionally, a separate discussion about another initiative at making science look cool, spearheaded in part by Chris Mooney, is Rockstars of Science. This idea is simple, pair up famous researchers with famous rockstars in order to make the scientists look cool. There is much discussion on the internet about the value of this initiative. Who is the audience? Why are they posed awkwardly? Does the image portrayed reflect upon the cult nature of science? The list goes on and there is much support for it too, just google Rockstars of Science. I just want you to recognize that it is there and follow the links for good discussions on the initiative.
What Science Cheerleaders and Rockstars of Science do share however is their marketing to a specific niche. In each case there are naysayers who grumble and supporters who defend. They are each attempting to display the field and its cultists to a crowd that would have little exposure to it in the first place. While disagreement can be instructive as long as it’s constructive, flat out rejecting each initiative fails to recognize that is may be worthwhile, just not to you personally. The little girl at the end of the Science Cheerleader’s promo above was very clearly stoked about it and wants to be doctor. That is a win in my book! Even if she is 1 in 1000 affected by the program, that is at least 3,000 inspired children in the USA. Likewise for Rockstars of Science, which probably reaches another sector of the public unaffected by Science Cheerleaders. I think a couple tens of thousands of inspired youth is worth the time and effort of these initiatives. Now, what if we consider other initiatives that aren’t in the science blogger’s eye? There are hundreds of after-school programs, community efforts, individuals acting alone, small scale local efforts, large scale national efforts and much more. I don’t have the data, but I would be willing to opine the combined effort has great potential.
We cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach to science communication. Our society prides itself on individualism too much. Every person has his or her own trigger. Furthermore, we must accept that science isn’t for everyone, but strive to not just promote diversity for careers in science, but science appreciation. A society that learns science is a process for understanding the world around them will likely make better decisions about their own lives, but also regarding major issues on a national level such as climate change, evolution, stem cell research, etc. The common thread that binds science communication is tearing down stereotypes that work as a barrier to appreciating science as a process and a way of life. We need more than one way to do this and should consider each initiative as an important component in our overall toolkit.
Quantifying Outreach Impact
Everything above was one long-winded introduction to get to what I really want to discuss. This was driven home after reading on Neurodojo this morning Zen’s reaction to a comment at Some Lies (make sure to follow the conversation down) where a postdoc relayed how he was “unambiguously” encouraged by senior faculty to “cut the shit” (he was blogging for a large, respected scientific Society) and “focus on the only thing that matters” (I’ll give you two guesses on what that is). Cult items 2, 3, 6, and 7 were employed here at the very least. Zen was dismayed by this,
I cannot begin to describe how much this anecdotes upsets me. It’s an unwelcome reminder that I am a participant in a corrupt system.
Yes, corrupt. I can’t think of a better description of a system that not only allows, and seems to encourage this sort of utter disdain for everything else but the narrowest of research goals. It’s the same myopia that seems to infect Scott Kern.
Dave Bridges commented on that post on what I believe to be the heart of the matter. We’ve been discussing justifying our passion for communication for years online, in print and at venues like Science Online. We really need some concrete quantification of impact from outreach activities. It can’t be measured by dollars since by its very nature outreach spends money to create somewhat intangible benefits. As much as they like to think of themselves as pillars of higher learning, universities are essentially a for-profit institution. They need money to pay staff and overhead, increased enrollment and grow, grow, grow.
How do we as people interested in science outreach justify our time? Below is a list of a few things that may help and lets see if we can make it more comprehensive. While I do not think we could hope to come up with a serious metric or index, á la impact factor, we do need a concrete set of accomplishments that can be presented to any workplace – university, government agency, institute – that they care about. What exactly do universities care about that is not money?
1) Prestige, occasionally publishing popular articles (i.e. nat geo, discover, am sci, sci am, etc.), getting recognized in awards or other honoraria.
2) Press coverage of research with the institution’s name on it
3) Recognition by “esteemed” colleagues within and outside of your institution/workplace
4) Most universities do actually have some sort of mandate to impact the local community in some way. This is where hard metrics for websites (page views, link-ins, unique visitors, geographic reach, positive feedback such as quotes from grade school instructors and students who found your site useful and inspirational) and in-real-life efforts (number students attending seminars at grade schools, lab tours) come in handy.
5) The reach of the university. Do its faculty impact minorities, surrounding rural communities, poor people?
6) Mentoring. How many high school students, undergrads worked with a faculty member? How many were minorities, learning disabled, economically disadvantaged, etc.?
These activities have little to no monetary value, and it may in fact cost the school a little, but have visible benefits on the University as a whole. While the NIH currently does not have an broader impacts requirement, the NSF does in fact require thoughtful ideas on how the proposed research will broadly impact society. My understanding from people in the know is that it is taken very seriously too. Framing the quantification of outreach in terms of how good you are making your institution appear can have a real positive impact on your dossier, but sadly, it always depends on how the Cult leadership at your institution feels about it. I’m not sure how we can escape this mentality, but little by little if everyone chips in we slowly start to tear down this wall.