(This post is based on a presentation at the European Science Open Forum session on “Can outreach make you a better scientist?”, which took place in Dublin on 12th July 2012)
The title of this post (and the ESOF session) is a deliberately provocative question, and I won’t attempt to offer a definitive answer; instead, I’d like to share a personal perspective as a researcher who shares their work with wider audiences. In short: why do I bother? And the short answer is: it’s not out of a sense of “duty”, but because my research benefits from it.
Let’s start with definitions of “outreach” and “better scientist”. For “outreach”, I’m specifically going to consider sharing your own research with wider public audiences. That’s deliberately distinct from communicating a broader general area of science. The latter is of course important, involves similar skills, and can overlap to some extent. But you don’t need to be a research-active scientist to be an excellent science communicator (for example: Adam Rutherford, Ed Yong). Nor does a researcher need to pursue a separate career in general science communication (like Brian Cox or Jim Al-Khalili) to do worthwhile outreach about their own work.
As for a definition of “better scientist”, I think there are pragmatic and philosophical elements. Pragmatically, there are the metrics by which we are judged in our research careers: grants won, projects and collaborations established, papers produced, and the “impact” generated by our work (defined as wider benefits to society beyond academia). I’m not here to defend those metrics, but they must be acknowledged. Then there’s also a “philosophical” element, in the form of our perspectives of research problems, and our motivation in our work.
Armed with those definitions, how has my research benefited from being shared with wider audiences? The goal of my research as a marine ecologist is to understand how species disperse and evolve in our planet’s largest realm, the deep ocean. To tackle this, my group studies the patterns of life in the island-like system of deep-sea volcanic vents on the ocean floor.
I’ve tried to put public engagement at the heart of what we do, because I think that everyone is a “stakeholder” (with apologies for using that awful word!) in the deep ocean. Consequently, when we’re exploring and investigating deep-sea vents, I want people literally to watch over our shoulders and talk to us about what we’re finding. And I want to share the insights that we gain so that we can make informed choices where our behaviour as consumers or constituents affects the ocean depths.
To achieve those goals, there are three strands to our outreach activities. Firstly, we engage with the “traditional” media to share our findings with people worldwide, for example by press-releasing the publication of our key papers. This can reach very large audiences: since December 2011 our work has been covered by at least 440 online media outlets, and one recent BBC News Online article had more than 734000 readers in one day.
We also work with documentary makers who are interested in featuring our work in their stories. Some of our work will appear in a National Geographic series broadcast to 170 countries this autumn. My PhD students also enjoyed recording audio material at sea for a Costing The Earth programme on BBC Radio 4, which had an audience of ~1.3 million.
Although “traditional” media allow us to reach huge audiences, we also want people to interact with us directly about our work. So as a second strand, I created thesearethevoyages.net as a core engagement website for our fieldwork. When we’re aboard ship on expeditions, we post daily updates of our research including photos and videos, with chat and comment facilities for people to ask questions and discuss our work. Since April 2010, the site has received more than 200000 visitors from at least 90 countries. The website also part of a network of social media “portals” that include Twitter and YouTube, so that people can reach us from lots of different places.
Our third strand is a programme of face-to-face talks, events, exhibitions, cafes scientifiques. For these activities, we’ve specifically targeted four “communities of place” or “communities of interest”. Firstly, we’ve engaged local communities in the southern UK, because that’s where we are located. School pupils are another traditional target, but we’ve also contributed to events for teachers, offering our work as fresh examples to illustrate the curriculum.
We’ve targeted “users of the marine environment” as well, through events such as the Southampton Boat Show that are less traditional venues for science outreach. And last but not least, one constituency that I’ve particularly enjoyed engaging are “retirees / lifelong learners”, through networks such as Probus and University of the Third Age. Our total audiences so far for these “face-to-face” engagement activities are more than 15000 people.
So have all or any of these efforts made me a “better” researcher? There are four outcomes that I think fit the bill:
(1) Raising our profile has led to new research opportunities and resources. For example: some of the funding for my lab currently comes from National Geographic; working with other documentary makers has led to new fieldwork opportunities; and potential new collaborators from different fields have contacted me following media coverage of our work. So together that means cold hard cash, new collaborations and proposals, and more papers, i.e. things that my bosses measure.
(2) Generating “impact” from our research. Inspiring and informing people about science is recognised as a “wider societal benefit”, if you have the evidence to demonstrate that outcome. That’s the tricky part, but we’ve collected evidence that shows this impact (in terms of “reach” and “significance”). Consequently, in research proposals, our “pathways to impact” involving carefully crafted public engagement have been well-received by reviewers (and RCUK are highlighting some of our work as a forthcoming case study).
(3) Gaining broader perspectives of research problems or issues. This has come particularly from engaging “retirees / lifelong learners”, who I think are an important but perhaps underappreciated audience. Questions that I’ve had from these groups have made me look at research problems in new ways, and helped to broaden my thinking. It’s pretty arrogant to assume that only a fellow specialist in your field can offer any insights for your work, and I’m excited by the potential wider experience that we can “crowdsource” in this way.
(4) Reaffirming motivation in our research / boosting our morale. I switched on the “interactive” elements of our engagement website with some trepidation, half expecting a deluge of spam and vitriol. But instead the comments we received were overwhelmingly positive: people really appreciated the chance to share in our work, and talk to us about it. That kind of feedback and demonstration of public support has been a huge boost, renewing our determination in struggles we face within our science agencies for our area of research.
There is, of course, a cost involved in the outreach that we do. That cost is not financial (we’ve had no direct funding for our engagement activities), but in terms of time and effort. Consequently, there must be a balance. My group could doubtless do more outreach, but we also need to produce our traditional research outputs. We could also do less outreach, or none, but I think the benefits above outweigh the costs at our current level of activity.
One factor that makes a big difference in that calculation, however, is that it is a shared effort. In particular, my research students are eager to contribute, and do so exceptionally skilfully, while keeping the targets of their PhD theses and papers in sight. Most of all, I find that encouraging for the future: to them, there is no dichotomy. Sharing our research with wider audiences is simply part of how we do our science.