11 February 2019

A global survey of astronomers shows that they are intensely involved in public outreach, much more so than other scientists. And, astronomers engage with the public in most cases simply because they love doing it. This research by Martin Bauer and Marta Entradas, both at the London School of Economics, was published in Nature Astronomy recently.

Marina Joubert, senior researcher at CREST, reflects on this research and its implications for further research in South Africa – see Beyond the Sagan effect.

Scientists play a vital role in making advances in research more visible, relevant and accessible to public audiences. Therefore, understanding why they do (or don’t) get involved in public outreach could have important implications for policies and support measures designed to increase the scope and intensity of their involvement.

Noting that astronomy is the oldest science and that it has a long track record of reaching out to millions of people around the world, this research set out to understand why and how astronomers reach out to public audiences and how these outreach activities differ across genders, age brackets and regions of the world.

For scientists, public visibility can be a pathway to increased funding, academic impact and policy influence. These days, science policymakers and funders increasingly expect (even demand) of scientists to participate in public outreach. On the other hand, outreach activities are time-consuming and may even have negative career consequences. It can be a tricky balancing act and, not surprisingly, some scientists shy away from public engagement, while others embrace opportunities for public dialogue. The question is, what makes the difference between those who prefer to keep a low public profile and those who are keen to talk to journalists, school groups and the general public?

The high outreach activity of some astronomers in countries like Chile and South Africa probably stems from the outreach programmes linked to large astronomical infrastructure projects like the ESO and the SKA, or could be linked to local organisations involved in astronomical development and strong engagement culture.