Tag Archives: academia

A Chat About Women In Science

What do Erin and I talk about behind the scenes of this very blog? Well, plenty, but often we discuss science communication and women in science. We decided to post this recent chat we had, with references! This is how the sausage is made, people.


Jessamyn:  !!!
Erin:  I question whether the overarcing discussion is still so humanities-unfriendly (given the proliferation of things like Bright Club over here), but he’s got a lot of good points
I also think it’s worth thinking about why the humanities’ contributions have been overlooked
mainly because I think they are viewed as ‘lesser’ by a lot of scientists
which is kind of ironic given the way the tide has turned
Jessamyn:  yeah
I think that putting science up on a pedestal has both isolated it and decreased its perceived value
and being all shirty about the social sciences and how they have ‘physics envy’
Erin:  which is ridiculous!
we should be able to appreciate the value of other areas of study and hopefully see how they can benefit our own
Jessamyn:  being interdisciplinary and collaborative have huge payoffs
but they aren’t ego payoffs
Erin:  absolutely
but I don’t think scientists feel like they are being egotistical
Jessamyn:  they may not label it as that
but they are imposing a moral value system that conveniently places their work at the top
and then building a hierarchy of status based on that
Erin:  oh! how funny it ended up like that
Jessamyn:  sorry guys it just HAPPENS that my stuff is the most important EVER
Erin:  as defined be ME AND ALL MY BUDDIES
Jessamyn:  not everyone is smart enough to do what I do, sadly
so I have to tell you what’s important and what’s not
Erin:  sadly the current environment of academia does not help dispel that. PIs and researchers are constantly being driven to justify their work
and it’s only very recently that outreach and collaboration have had any place in that justification
Jessamyn:  yeah
I love doing all this stuff but I’m very aware that it’s not going to do much to help me get a faculty position
research publications do that
I think some departments are more into outreach than others, and I’m hoping one of those will place a higher value on someone like me… but it’s not a universally valued thing the way research pubs are
Erin:  I was talking to a PhD student today who is great, she is part of the bioscience team and is also spearheading a college-wide blog initiative. and the comments from her colleagues have just been so dismissive. “Oh, you’re good at talking to people? you should quit your position and go into publishing or communications.”
Jessamyn:  yes!
after I won that physics communication award people asked me if I wanted to take the outreach coordinator’s job
and I’m like, no, I want to do research and some outreach, and I want her job to be coordinating lots of scientists like me
and I think most scientists should be doing this stuff
at varying levels, but I mean… COME ON
Erin:  yeah, oh god, don’t get me started
and it’s like “overall that might be a good amount of outreach but my god it’s unfair to the few people who are willing”
even if they enjoy it
because as you said, it doesn’t directly help your career
Jessamyn:  my boss was also commenting to me and a gender equality committee yesterday that it’s generally female scientists who end up being great communicators
which, yes, because (a) I think female scientists are much more aware that they are unlikely to be able to be the single-minded scientist, if only because there is the ‘WHAT ABOUT BABEEEZ’ thing from so early on that men can just skate on past, assuming that a partner will do the bulk of the work
and (b) women are socially conditioned to value communication and language skills more than men are, and more ostracized if they fail to develop those skills, so
Erin:  yeah, I’ve definitely read studies and it goes: men without kids < men with kids < women without kids < women with kids in terms of scientists who engage with outreach efforts
Jessamyn:  makes sense
I mean I guess you could also say, well women in science know about the importance of role models
so they would be more invested in providing that, to get more scientists and more girls into science
but then that ends up being effectively another tax on being a woman in science
Erin:  yeah, especially since they’re also required to sit on all the committees, and be on all the brochures, and the panels, etc etc…
Jessamyn:  exactly
Erin:  :-/
AND WHO IS MORE LIKELY TO END UP IN THE HUMANITIES? (to tie this in to the beginning point)
Jessamyn:  yes!!!
oh I read a great thing about that awhile back
and more of those people are women
I hated the title of this, using storytelling to bring women to science, but it’s very interesting
I like how it challenges the framing that women need better sci/math skills
when it’s also, we just lose those women who go off and pursue other things they are good at
Erin:  yeah!
science needs better women skills!
Jessamyn:  yes!
stop phoning it in, science!


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.