Make Public Engagement a Professional Priority

September 7, 2017
Priya Shukla at the Taste of Science Festival SF.
Priya Shukla
Ocean and climate scientist, Bodega Ocean Acidification Research

During graduate school, I believed my responsibility as a scientist during outreach events was to share my work with as many non-scientists as possible. I assumed that my extroverted personality, boundless enthusiasm, and booming voice guaranteed my success at public outreach. I never considered improving or diversifying my communication skills, nor did I value the unique perspective that I might bring to science.

Like so many others, it wasn’t until the November 2016 election that I considered how I, the daughter of Indian immigrants from landlocked villages and modest means, came to study oceans and climate change. From this foundation, I gradually developed and now execute two public engagement aims that often intersect:

1. How the observations I make in the lab and field percolate into the communities around me.

2. The concerns facing marginalized communities, especially within science.

These efforts do not always take the same form, nor are they easy to pursue—certain issues can be especially difficult to write about—but I see that sharing painful stories about minority scientists increases the scientific community’s capacity for empathy, and communicating stories of innovation and progress in the battle against climate change imbues optimism and facilitates action.

Outside of my current position as a technician at UC Davis’ Bodega Marine Laboratory, I work with a local organization dedicated to raising awareness about climate change and a national organization committed to talking about the issues confronting self-identifying women scientists. I also serve on the digital advisory board of a regional publication that is seeking to add diverse voices to conversations about natural science.

Public engagement is a scientist’s implicit responsibility and can be beneficial for the public and scientist alike

Public engagement is often seen as a low priority for academic scientists. Many scientists do not feel compelled to take their research outside of academia. Common justifications include that developing resources for public engagement siphons time and energy from research, misrepresentation in the media could damage reputations, or institutions lack incentives for engagement. While these concerns are understandable, reserving our findings for our colleagues limits the impact of our work.

As scientists, we strive for intellectual products that improve and enhance our understanding of the world around us. Tools for effectively communicating to technical and lay audiences are not in opposition, nor are they as disparate as many may think; thoughtful, clear, and succinct communication tools are ubiquitously useful. By carefully considering audiences beyond our target journals and scientific societies, we create opportunities to develop unique collaborations that can result in the co-production of knowledge.

Effective public engagement is manifold, but requires experimentation

In this era of technology and social media, successful public engagement does not necessarily require face time (although you can use FaceTime or Skype A Scientist). Public outreach often encompasses classroom visits, laboratory open house events, and public talks/demonstrations. While personal interactions are inarguably priceless, these activities are generally eschewed in favor of research due to their high time commitment. This is where digital media can intervene.

During the era of MySpace, Friendster, and LiveJournal the concept of ‘blogging’ emerged—an opportunity for anyone with an opinion and keyboard to share their opinions. While these ancestral social media sites have faded, blogging has been transformed into an opportunity to use our voices (and fingers!) to reach new audiences. Websites like Medium and WordPress make blogging accessible, and many website building/hosting services seamlessly integrate blogging into their schemata. The time commitment is dictated by the blogger and the topics that they choose to communicate. Many academics will admit to initiating and abandoning their blogs for this very reason, myself included.

Conversely, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—among many, many others—provide approachable, yet professional interfaces for casual and concise communication. While a short orientation may be required to acquaint yourself with these platforms, their rewards are bountiful. Through Twitter alone, my professional network has expanded geographically as well as across disciplines and industries (a Twitter interaction instigated this very blog post!). While I maintain a blog series with pie-in-the-sky long-term goals, I find that ephemeral, short-term social media interactions can sometimes be more professionally productive per unit of effort and therefore serve as an excellent gateway into public engagement.

Identify what motivates you to speak up and connect with your community

The November 2016 election was my catalyst for public engagement, but has not been my sole motivator going forward. Specifically, blogging has been an incredible learning experience for me, providing insight on the complexity of people, and the pressure that academia puts on those who don’t conform to its rigid framework.

Public engagement is not a part of my formal job description, but it is something that I make time for outside of my 40-hour work week. As scientists, we are driven by questions and certainly find our own work compelling. But we must unravel these complex questions and stories and find the thread that links us with our communities.

Priya Shukla is an ocean and climate scientist with the Bodega Ocean Acidification Research (BOAR) group based at UC Davis’ Bodega Marine Laboratory. She received her undergraduate degree in Environmental Science and Management at UC Davis and earned her Master’s in Ecology from San Diego State University. Priya uses science communication to bridge issues concerning social justice, rapid environmental change, and the scientific community. 

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