Incentivising science communication

As discussed in previous articles, the idea of science communication is nothing new. And yet there is still resistance from certain quarters to the idea that communicating science research to the public ought to be as high a priority as the research itself. So how do you counter that, or better yet, enact a lasting change in the resistant areas?

One idea getting attention is that of the ‘flipped academic‘  – that is, someone in academia who focuses on public engagement and communication first and traditional markers of academic success – such as publishing papers – second. The flipped academic endeavours to maximise the impact of their work, ensures their work addresses specific problems rather than theoretical ones, and rearranges traditional teaching structures into something more effective and engaging for their students. While this may be easier for academics in some fields than others it’s still a robust blueprint for any school wanting to update their outputs to embrace.

Another necessary requirement for any meaningful change is research into the effectiveness of science communication and outreach. Asking scientists and academics to adopt a wholly new and sometimes vastly different way of working cannot come without proof that it’s worth doing, and right now proof is surprisingly thin on the ground. STEM researchers need to link up with social scientists to document and analyse the impact different outreach activities has on things like public opinion so that there’s a concrete reason to be pursuing it. Most grants in the UK seem to be good at requesting evaluation as part of the funding requirements, but science communicators should go one further and publicise these evaluations, and expand on them.

Though to argue against the existence of specifically-trained science communicators would be to put myself out of a job, now is also the time to instill the importance of public engagement in the ‘next’ generation of researchers and academics – though that isn’t to say currently-existing researchers can’t get on the bandwagon. But students are in an excellent position to build up a skillset that includes the ability to both do good research and good communication about said research. I would be thrilled to see universities moving towards offering science communication courses for undergraduates and for postgraduates and doctoral students to be allowed to specialise in public engagement – a benefit for both the researcher and the institute they represent.

Lastly, more support for public engagement from governing bodies would go a long way towards convincing universities of its growing importance and therefore incentivising them to value it more highly. This is a bit of a chicken-egg scenario, as more people doing good science communication and researching its effects would make it much easier for it to gain public support, so ideally these things would all grow together until there’s a well-balanced network of monetary support, good data, and well-trained professionals engaged in it. I do think we’ll get there one day, but with all the exciting research and discovery going on in the world today, the sooner the better.

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