Who Should Talk About Science?

The administration and academic leadership of colleges and universities need to communicate far more effectively about science and its importance to the world outside academe, argues Jiri Hulcr.

June 2, 2016

Many brilliant products of research end up feared and rejected by the mainstream society. Technologies such as vaccinations, genetics in agriculture or animal models in medicine can save lives, feed the world and preserve the planet but are distrusted by the majority of nonacademic Americans. How should science regain the trust of consumers? Probably not by doing more research. Instead, scientists are increasingly urged to come out from their academic ivory tower and become better communicators.

But is it fair to expect that scientists will do much of this communicating? Few hard-core researchers are gifted communicators. The minds that discover new drugs or new particles do so with an enormous amount of focus, and it may be counterproductive to demand from them additional, completely different types of creativity.

Instead, the academic leadership and administration of higher education institutions need to embrace science communication as a key pillar of their existence and enter the world of media. Most of society -- political candidates and parties, the corporate sector, nonprofits, even religions -- now engage in aggressive and technologically innovative campaigns in the struggle for influence. But not universities. Instead, scientific and educational institutions still appear reluctant to harness their accumulated intellectual, literary and technological capacity.

Yet there are enormous benefits to be reaped, financial as well as political, if higher education manages to enter mass media. For the national academy, communicating the importance of science is no longer a noble pursuit but a matter of survival. Here I offer for debate a few strategies for how science communication can be functionally institutionalized. Academic leadership should:

Measure and reward the impact of individual faculty members’ outreach. Not every scientist needs to know how to use Twitter. But for those who do choose to distribute their knowledge by means less obtuse than research articles, a system should be in place that objectively assesses their efforts and rewards demonstrable outcomes. Such rewards are commonplace for exceptional research, teaching or extension. That they do not exist for science communication is not by design, but out of inertia. Current tenure metrics still value a cryptic research publication that is never cited more than a blog post that influences thousands. Furthermore, measuring the impact of science communication would be easy and possibly more reliable than standard metrics of teaching, such as student evaluations, as usage analytic methods are readily available.

Revamp communications offices. At most American colleges and universities, offices in charge of science communication ether do not exist or are underfunded and resemble something between a sign shop and a branding police. In the world where what matters most is one’s prominence in the media and on the internet, this is an anachronism. Colleges and universities should take note of successful industries and invest heavily in high-quality science promotion teams. Such offices will always need to keep adapting to societal and technological change, and thus will only retain meaning if staffing is flexible -- and always open to new generations that are ahead of, not behind, new trends.

Some colleges and universities are moving forward and even establishing joint science news outlets (such as Futurity). That is a great start, but the vast majority of science news on the web is still by independent bloggers.

Get serious with local and national media for self-promotion. Many American colleges and universities, and most of the large land-grant institutions, reside in relatively small communities. Local radio stations and TV channels are a logical venue for promoting the importance of science to the community. Yet which research departments truly dedicate strategic effort to collaboration with local news media? In Gainesville, Fla., the crime scene dominates local news, with often little or no mention of the mega-funded and mega-productive research enterprise of the University of Florida that resides here. That is a wasted opportunity for developing a positive image of the institution in the lives and minds of the community, as well as for recruitment of supporters.

It is easy to blame the news media for not supporting science reporters any longer. But media-savvy institutions do not sit and wait to be noticed. They flood the market with interesting stuff, form long-term relationships with the news media and cultivate their audiences.

Reinvent extension. The three traditional pillars of all land-grant universities in America are research, teaching and extension. In a nutshell, extension is a network of university employees who mostly live among farmers and other industry folks and who can translate the fruits of recent research to their constituency. Over the last 100 years, this model helped propel America’s countryside into the most productive agriculture region in the world.

Now, in the 21st century, the vast majority of people live not on farms but in cities, and the extension empire is sometimes struggling to remain relevant. Land-grant universities would benefit themselves and the nation if they turned the extension model toward urban audiences. Those audiences are increasingly moving the American economy and are also more and more prone to be swayed by anti-science ideologies.

The main strength of extension has always lain in the army of motivated agents accustomed to working with lay populations. Thousands of agents are trained in core competencies such as electronic communication, program development and youth education. This organization is as close as it gets to being capable of carrying out the much-needed science communications revolution. All it needs is a new focus on plugged-in city dwellers. Some land grants are already exploring this path: check out the Western Center for Metropolitan Extension and Research.

Establish courses on activism and how to influence the media, combined with STEM course work. Whether academic circles approve of it or not, one sting video can thwart a thousand research papers. By producing alumni with practical skills in activism as well as empirical thinking, colleges and universities would secure their place in this increasingly vital aspect of contemporary history. Most important, by also requiring science-based courses, the educational system can exert a degree of control over the choice of worthy causes. Even a few instances of young people loudly demonstrating for better vaccinations would make a huge difference in the public perception of such matters.

Collectively demand that government agencies increase funding for science communication. Scientists are smart people and would invent amazing ways to communicate their results, but only if it becomes the currency of the trade. It is currently not. The National Science Foundation supports research participation for various student groups, but that is quite different from the need to break into online chat rooms where millions of adult Americans form their opinions. NSF also requires an explicit “broader impacts” statement with every grant application, but there is minimal enforcement and no monitoring of impact. This is not the robust incentive that is needed to communicate with masses.

Some of these suggestions may be uncomfortable for many in academe. Some raise ethical questions about the impartiality of education. That is the point. Anti-science groups and lobbying firms that already dominate the virtual marketplace of ideas are not going to wait for ethical guidance.


Jiri Hulcr is an associate professor in the School of Forest Resources and Conservation at the University of Florida.


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