How much science communication should / do people do?

I’ve recently finished the final throes of a major grant application to keep me employed beyond the end of my one year in Dublin (good luck me). As part of this I had to complete a fairly significant section on what effect this research will have (if funded) on UK culture and how I would go about communicating this effectively to the public. This is a pretty standard form and would be completed in some way by most people applying for science funding in the UK (as far as I can tell). This has apparently only been on the books for the last couple of years, but one would expect that UK researchers would therefore be burying the world in their sci comms stuff in the next few years and the process should have started if every one of them has to do more outreach as part of their grants.

And yet….. Look, I know it is tough to find time to do science communication. Not everyone likes it or is good at it. The media can be indifferent to your work no matter how exciting you (or other researchers) might think it is. There are lots of ways of getting the message out there beyond a blog, newspaper articles etc. and one 5 minute spot on national TV reaching a million is arguably better than a thousand blog posts read by the same 1000 people. There are also lots of little things that can go unnoticed like consulting to a TV show or article, doing talks in local schools, designing a museum exhibit, and so on, which are easy to miss but are every bit as valuable.

However, I can’t help but suspect that this is simply not the case and that people are not doing have as much as they could or indeed should. If the UK science councils are really serious about this kind of thing then where is all this extra stuff? As I say, I might be missing loads by mistake, but (and I’m trying *really* hard not to be self-aggrandising here) I seem to produce more science-comms stuff than some entire departments. If everyone is effectively contractually obliged to go out and do much more science communication work than before, then were is it all? OK, it will take a while to kick in as more people get these grants and fulfill their commitments, but surely this should have started by now.

I’m not suggesting everyone *should* do lots of this kind of work. Not everyone does have time, not everyone enjoys it as much as I do. For that matter, I don’t actually think that it should be a requirement of the job (or a grant). But, and this is the key point, if you are going to at least partly base the criterion for receiving funding on the quality and amount of science communication then it would be nice to see that this is really the case and that this in enforced in some way. If those are the rules that are being set and the demands that are being made, then I’m unconvinced that I have seen the outcome you might expect from it yet. From the outside (and I freely admit I could be profoundly mistaken) it does not look like people are doing what is being asked, indeed demanded, of them.

The next few years are going to be very interesting, and hopefully, very productive time for science communication in the UK. I’d also be intrigued to know what experience my colleagues in the UK and abroad have had of these systems. Are the enforced? Do they even check what you did? Are they even considered important in the review process? Any comments will be most welcome.

10 Responses to “How much science communication should / do people do?”

  1. 1 Julia 31/12/2010 at 11:00 am

    Following on from our chat about this, from Sunday 2nd I’ll be posting about the GCSE and A-Level specifications so UK-based researchers can at least see what they might be able to link in with their own grant applications.

    • 2 David Hone 31/12/2010 at 11:08 am

      That would be great Julia. It is hard to try and tie in an application to things that are directly relevant to schools and non-university education when you don’t actually have a good grasp of the syllabus at various levels etc. This would be a really useful thing to have as a reference source. I’m sure more than just me would make much use of it.


  2. 3 220mya 31/12/2010 at 5:59 pm

    A ‘Broader Impacts’ statement for all U.S. National Science Foundation grant proposals has been required for a number of years (at least 10?). In fact, the ‘broader impacts’ (e.g., for higher learning K-12 education, public dissemination, cultural relevance, science literacy in general, etc) of any proposed project now count for a very significant portion of the scores that determine whether or not the proposal is funded.

    • 4 David Hone 31/12/2010 at 7:03 pm

      Just to clarify though, is that a broader impact in the sense of declaring how you think you’re work will / could benefit schools etc. or does it actually require (as the one described above does) that you specifically go out and make a directed contribution (teaching, producing material for schools etc.)?

      • 5 220mya 31/12/2010 at 10:04 pm

        Its both. You both need to explain the significance, but also talk specifically about what particular activities you will directly be involved in that make a directed contribution towards the broader impact of your science. And saying you’re going to do a press release doesn’t count. Increasingly, NSF likes to see actual budgetary line items that direct resources towards the broader impacts parts of the projects.

      • 6 David Hone 31/12/2010 at 10:27 pm

        Well that’s great to hear in the sense that, like my point above, this should produce a wealth of new science communication stuff. But the same point still stands, are people actually doing it, and is it enforced’? (That’s rhetorical, rather than directed at you).

  3. 7 Dave C 04/01/2011 at 12:36 pm

    Hi Dave,

    I just finished my PhD in Cardiff University where a group called science made simple is housed (it’s a private company that uses uni space). Their mantra is to deliver science presentations and demonstrations to audiences who aren’t familiar with the nitty gritty, so as to get the important points across. Being based in the university gives them access to a lot of researchers to do talks for them, and for the researchers it’s a nice way of being able to communicate what you are doing to the rest of the world. While their focus is mainly Physics and Engineering I thought you might like to know that such a group exists. I can pass on email details if you’d like.

    • 8 David Hone 04/01/2011 at 1:20 pm

      It’s always good to know of other groups and there certainly are some excellent communicators out there, including I’m sure, many I have not heard of but should have done or would like to. Do they have a website or something similar?

  4. 9 Dave C 05/01/2011 at 12:37 pm is their URL. I hope many groups like this exist, the work they do has been excellent for Cardiff.

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