August 2016

Marina Joubert, CREST, Stellenbosch University

Note: A shorter version of this article was published on “The Conversation”.

Academic life is a juggling act. It involves research, teaching, applying for grants, writing scientific articles and peer reviewing others’ work. There’s also student supervision and administration. These days, academics face an extra demand: to make their work more visible and accessible to the public and policymakers. But what’s in it for these time-stressed, busy scientists?

“Science can be very lonely,” admits distinguished Swedish astrophysicist Professor Bengt Gustafsson. We were chatting after he’d delivered a talk at Stellenbosch University and I asked what motivated him to make time for public engagement. He replied: “Occasions like these where I can share my work with people, especially children, keep me going. It gives meaning to my work and even sparks new ideas for my research.”

Gustafsson’s attitude is echoed in a [report] from the UK titled “What’s in it for me? The benefits of public engagement for researchers.” It emphasises how public engagement can open up fresh perspectives on research and encourage more people to embark on scientific careers.

But these intrinsic rewards aren’t enough to convince many researchers that public engagement is worth their while. Luckily the evidence is mounting to show them how it can be done and why it’s time very well spent.

Professional rewards

Scientific articles in accredited journals, book chapters, whole books and monographs all add to a research’s professional reputation. These achievements count towards promotions. In South Africa, they also bring significant financial reward from the Department of Higher Education and Training.

But where are the rewards for writing a popular article, doing a radio interview, speaking at a [science café] or tweeting about your research findings?

Science communicator Matt Shipman has offered [some answers] to this question. He argues that public communication helps scientists to attract top students, impress their funders, network with other researchers, form new collaborations and draw interest from industry and government.

His stance is bolstered by peer-reviewed evidence. A group of US social scientists has [demonstrated] a link between “h-index” — a measure of the quality and influence of a researcher’s work — and whether the researchers in question interacted with journalists and were mentioned on Twitter.

“Doing both — traditional media and social media — is more powerful in boosting citations than doing just one of the two,” [Dominique Brossard], University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor of Life Sciences Communication, told me. She took part in the research project. “Instead of thinking of time spent on social media as a distraction, researchers should see it as a way of making their work more accessible to broad audiences.”

Professor Conrad Matthee, an evolutionary genetics researcher at Stellenbosch University, has seen for himself how media visibility can boost reach within the scientific community.

He was the corresponding author of a recent research paper that estimated white shark numbers along the South African coast based on dorsal fin photos and genetic data. The research was featured on global media channels, including CNN and the BBC — and the number of downloads of the original paper skyrocketed. “This proves that getting media exposure for research is a sure-fire way of getting other scientists to take note of your work,” he said during an interview with me.

Universities also crave publicity for their academics’ work. “Our research needs to be visible. This is absolutely critical for ensuring sponsorship and sustaining support from government and industry partners,” says Dr Therina Theron, research director at Stellenbosch University.

If professional rewards aren’t enough to convince researchers about public engagement, there are other factors to consider.

What about the moral imperative?

Researchers have privileged access to new evidence that can underpin informed decision-making. It is often argued that scientists have a duty and even a moral obligation to be heard in public debates and to influence public policy. If scientists keep quiet, these public debates may be dominated by people with questionable credibility and doubtful agendas.

Andrew Wright, an environmental scientist at George Mason University, has [called] advocacy “an almost inescapable part of modern science”. He argues that scientists have a societal obligation to deliver credible information to those who can use it. Failing to do so, he suggests, leaves scientists at risk of becoming irrelevant.

Accountability is another principle reason for researchers to share their work with the public. After all, the bulk of research in public universities and science councils is funded by taxpayers. Scientists have a responsibility to tell the public what they are doing with its money.

Dr David Eagleman, the director of Texas’ Baylor College of Medicine’s Initiative on Neuroscience and Law, has written a [manifesto] called “Why Public Dissemination of Science Matters”. In it, he stresses scientists’ responsibility to inspire critical thinking. He also says that although most scientists may not be specifically trained to communicate to the public, they have what it takes.

You have been trained to think with rigor, to integrate large bodies of data, to weigh evidence, to value intellectual humility, to retain nuance when speaking about complex issues, and to write precisely what you mean to say. So speak up. The future needs your voice.

Getting started

Scientists who are up for the challenge will find that there are many spaces in which to start sharing their research with the public. These include:

  • Researchers can use social media throughout the research cycle to bolster collaboration and make new findings available to broad audiences, including science journalists – see: “How to use social media for science”;
  •  “The role of Twitter in the life cycle of a scientific publication”; “Seven reasons why blogging can make you a better academic writer” and “How to use Instagram for research communication”
  • Videos drive traffic and shares on social media, and therefore platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo cannot be ignored – see, for example “How YouTube is popularising science”
  • Platforms such as “The Conversation” and “Kudos” offer tailor-made solutions and help for scientists to share their research and track their engagement.

When scientists tell me they can’t afford the time to work on their communication skills, I tell them “they cannot afford not to” wrote Nancy Baron, director of science outreach at COMPASS in Nature. “Being a good communicator is not a trade-off. It makes you a better scientist.”

Planning communication into your research, and making it part of your research identity, will not (necessarily) deliver overnight fame and fortune – but it has the potential to connect you to new audiences and add value, meaning, reach and impact to your work. It is a way to see how your science makes a difference to real people.