This past summer, I taught a conservation-themed day camp for 9-13 year olds. For each day of the camp, I invited a different biologist to visit the class and tell the students about their research and career paths. They weren’t long visits—perhaps 20 minutes of presentation and half an hour of conversation with the kids. Nothing that can’t be added on occasion to even the busiest researcher’s schedule.
Still, the experience very distinctly left a mark on the kids. The scientists’ research topics later appeared unprompted in the children’s art work and their free time conversations. One girl even approached me with her observation of common experiences the researchers had all shared from when they were her age (“All of them in their presentations talked about playing in creeks as a kid, like me!”). Meeting a scientist each day of the camp had been impactful for them. They weren’t just reading about a faceless researcher online or watching a TV news clip about a latest study. Local scientists had made time to talk to them. That mattered.
Why is this such a big deal?
My career is focused on science outreach and science communication. Understanding the gap between the scientific community and the general public is something that has been on my mind for years (a preoccupation that sometimes manifests itself in…“novel” ways).
In a 2017 survey of 1000 Americans, 81% of those polled could not name a single living scientist. Of those who could name someone, the top answers were Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, Jane Goodall, Bill Nye, and Michio Kaku.
If you are anything like me, you read that result with brows furrowed, utterly convinced that that 81% is not mathematically possible—and it shouldn’t be. A 2014 report presented to Congress stated there were 6.2 million scientists in U.S., including biologists, engineers, geologists, chemists, and wide variety of other fields. Let’s go on a social media limb and note that the average adult Facebook user has 338 friends and acquaintances in their social network. With those numbers in mind, and given a population of roughly 325 million Americans, it is highly unlikely that a majority of Americans actually do not personally know a scientist or cannot name a scientist. More than likely, many folks are simply not making the connection that neighbors Professor Sally and Field Researcher Joe are, in fact, scientists.
However, whether or not the average American genuinely does or does not know a scientist, the survey results leave us with one startling but important fact: a large percentage of Americans do not have a relatable face or acquaintance to pair with the word “scientist.” This is incredibly dangerous for science as a broad discipline. It means “scientists” are The Unknown. And precious little frightens humans more than The Unknown.
How did scientists become so isolated?
Certain professions automatically carry with them some element of public engagement. Teachers, baristas, medical doctors, grocers, librarians, artists—we see these people at work on a regular basis. We can form in our minds what they do and what they look like; and depending on the size of the community, there’s a good chance you know these some of these folks either personally or from regular patronage (for example, the baristas at my favorite coffee shop when I was in graduate school—angels in green aprons.) Those nebulous “scientists” on the other hand, what do they look like? If someone is not in the research community, what representation do we give the outside? Well, if children’s drawings are any indication, the stereotypical image (though shifting now) has long been an older man, perhaps some out of control hair, and a white coat (Farland-Smith et al. 2014). The outside pictures an archetype, not a real person.
In a way, we in the scientific community also shoulder some of the responsibility for this gap. Outreach hasn’t always been seen as a noble effort. Carl Sagan was mocked in his day for being a science “popularizer,” in spite of the fact that he continued to publish at an impressive rate. Even today, I regularly receive feedback from science graduate students that they don’t have time for a few hours of outreach on a single Saturday afternoon or that their advisors would prefer they didn’t bother with time-wasting outreach and science communication training.
But we’re busy!
A 2012 survey of biologists and physicists found that time was the single largest roadblock that researchers felt stood in their way of meaningful outreach. The scientists didn’t have time. In our vicious publish-or-perish cycle, this makes sense, of course. Between grading, grant writing, publishing, more grading, grant writing, publishing, and maybe some bench work on a lucky day, most PI’s are inundated with the task of just barely keeping their labs afloat.
Aside from time, one of the next most common reasons researchers did not engage in outreach was that they received little institutional support to do so. Promotional decisions, like tenure, are based on publications and grants. Outreach might be a box to check, but there is no incentive or true support for it.
This is not a sustainable business model, however. Let’s look at NSF or NIH funding. Federal research grants come from the federal government, and the federal government is (in theory) a reflection of what the majority of voters want. In a society that prizes science literacy and the advancement of knowledge and technology, science as a field can flourish. However, in a society where political pundits and talk show hosts determine the public image of a scientist (rather than scientists themselves shaping that public image) we are left with the potential for a frightening gap between reality and what the public imagines. That gap is the crux of this unsustainable business model: the public cannot support scientists if they don’t know or trust scientists.
What can we do?
There needs to be a shift in academic culture – a change that prizes public engagement and authentic science outreach just as much as another paper on the CV. Outreach should be an expected part of being a scientist, like reviewing a paper for a journal or serving on a departmental committee. Maybe this means slightly slowing the rate of academic publications, but imagine how public perception of science would change if meeting local scientists at community events was regular and expected! Imagine how many conspiracy theories would be groundless—it is so much harder to say that the vaccine researcher you have met personally is a big pharma shill.
So what can you do as an individual scientist? You have many options!
First and foremost, take a science communication seminar, workshop, or course. Without training, it’s often difficult to identify jargon or plan for different audiences. Formal training will help you distill the highlights of your message and make that message accessible to whatever audience you are meeting.
Next, you will want to get involved in outreach somehow. If your university doesn’t have a formal avenue for outreach, try a quick Google search of museums, gardens, zoos, or libraries in your area that offer “Meet a Scientist” events. Get involved in established outreach efforts with your colleagues, and if none exist, create your own. Gather grad students and faculty, and offer to visit elementary schools, libraries, or YMCA/YWCA programs. Also, if you took a science communication workshop, the organizers often will know of opportunities or have contacts in your area to help you get involved.
Moral of the story
Bottom line: scientists need to be visible faces in their communities. They need to build relationships in their communities. They need to share their work, and they need to listen to and understand their community members. It’s important for us now, but it’s absolutely vital for the future.