Bringing Communication Back Into Science: Incentivizing #scicomm Efforts for Early Career Scientists

August 22, 2018 | 9:35 am
Laura Hamilton
Stephanie Hamilton
Physics graduate student and NSF graduate fellow, University of Michigan

About 10% of STEM PhD students ultimately go on to secure a coveted tenured position at a university. That is a discouraging statistic for those keen on an academic career track, especially considering that the overall number of new PhDs per year far outpaces the number of new faculty jobs per year.

Of course, that percentage may vary by specific discipline or sub-field, but the overall sentiment is the same no matter where you look — staying on the academic track has become the “alternate career.” Yet, landing one of these coveted faculty positions remains the pinnacle of success to many academics, so young scientists increasingly feel pressure to spend a majority of their time writing papers to be competitive for tenure-track positions. They might not even land that job when all is said and done anyway.

Worse, more time writing papers means less time for other enjoyable activities, such as education and outreach, that would benefit the general public as a whole. The net result is that the general public often learns of new scientific information through a complicated reporting path that can grossly distort the original message, just like in a game of “Telephone.”

From correlation to doomsday

Imagine this: your research group discovers a new, small object orbiting the Sun many times farther away than Neptune. You know it won’t affect the lives of hardly anyone, except maybe your collaborator down the hall who works on similar topics. But the properties of this new object are weirdly similar to a small collection of other known objects that might suggest a new undiscovered planet in the distant solar system.

News of your discovery is picked up first by your institution and then by other news outlets. You enjoy your time in the spotlight as people talk about your new discovery. Most outlets get most of the facts right. However, the concept of new and undiscovered planets in our solar system is not a new one, and a few outlets conflate this latest proposed planet with Planet X or Nibiru. Next thing you know, there’s a video on the internet claiming your new object is actually Planet X or Nibiru and is going to hit the Earth and destroy all civilization. It even goes so far as to accuse NASA of covering up the impending apocalypse.

The scenario just described is a true story that recently happened to my research group. While the video in question is admittedly a conspiracy video likely followed by believers of conspiracy theories, the sentiment of this story is all too familiar to many researchers. Too often, scientific results are subject to a game of Telephone that distort the original result beyond recognition. These distorted results then can influence the beliefs of the public or even make their way into misled governmental policy decisions. A much better scenario would be bypassing Telephone altogether, allowing the scientists themselves to share their work directly with the public.

Research vs. outreach, or research + outreach?

While the idea of having the scientists themselves share their results seems excellent in theory, the current cut-throat and competitive nature of academia renders that infeasible. The end result is that many scientists, who are frequently early career scientists, often yearn to do outreach work and acknowledge its importance, but they don’t have time to spare away from their research.

I’ve seen this exact phenomenon at play in my collaboration, the Dark Energy Survey, where I have been both very active in outreach efforts and chair of the Early Career Scientists Committee. With terabytes upon terabytes of beautiful images of the Southern Hemisphere sky, the science communication possibilities are practically endless. But the person-power available to make those scicomm possibilities a reality is painfully limited. A large part of the problem is simply that there are no incentives or rewards for doing outreach work. In fact, scientists who prioritize outreach are often punished for doing so in the form of one or two fewer papers to their names.

We need to reevaluate our priorities. Passion for outreach and science communication definitely exists, but the incentives don’t. In an era where young scientists need to publish more frequently to stay competitive for those coveted tenure-track faculty positions, there’s not much time for other things, including science outreach and communication. Publishing one more peer-reviewed paper won’t convince your uncle to pay taxes to fund basic science or your senator to vote “No” on that bill with detrimental consequences for your field — but science communication will.

Stephanie Hamilton is a physics graduate student and NSF graduate fellow at the University of Michigan. For her research, she studies the orbits of the small bodies beyond Neptune in order learn more about the Solar System's formation and evolution. As an additional perk, she gets to discover many more of these small bodies using a fancy new camera developed by the Dark Energy Survey Collaboration. When she gets a spare minute in the midst of hectic grad school life, she likes to read sci-fi books, binge TV shows, write about her travels or new science results, or force her cat to cuddle with her. Find her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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