Outreach is a buzz term in academic science right now. Scientists have to publish. And they have to teach. Then there is service (e.g. committees and such). Outreach is now part of the service element. It doesn’t need to be hard or sophisticated. Not only that, outreach can be general (to the public) and specific (to your peers). As an example of what I’m talking about Michael Eisen’s blog is more aimed toward a broad audience, though on occasion he delves specifically into the science which is the bread and butter of his research. Haldane’s Sieve is more tightly focused on researchers working at the intersection of evolution, genomics, and population genetics. But even it expands further out toward biologists who take an interest in specific evolutionary or genomic questions in their own research (e.g., I have known several molecular biologists who had no idea who was behind Haldane’s Sieve, but had read the site because of an interest in a specific preprint).
This isn’t rocket science, so to speak. Information dissemination is pretty easy right now, and that is theoretically one of the major things which drives science. This should be a great time for scientific progress! Is it? In genomics, yes, though that’s not because of more efficient flow of information, as opposed to technology. With that prefatory comment, I think John Hawks’ recent jeremiad is worth reading, Speak up and matter:
I have little patience for the risk-averse culture of academics.
The bottom line is: People need to decide if they want to be heard, or if they want to be validated.I have long been an associate editor at PLoS ONE, and once I edited a paper that received a lot of critical commentary. That journal has a policy of open comment threads on papers, so I told disgruntled scientists to please write comments. The comments appear right with the article when anybody reads it, they appear immediately without any delay, and they can form a coherent exchange of views with authors of the article and other skeptical readers.
Some of the scientists didn’t want to submit comments, they wanted to have formal letters brought through the editorial review process. “Why?” I wrote, when you could have your comments up immediately and read byanyone who is reading the research in the first place? If you want to make an impact, I wrote, you should put your ideas up there right now.
They replied, “How would you feel if someone published something wrong about Neandertals? Wouldn’t you want to publish a formal reply?”
I wrote: “In that case, I would probably get a blog.”
What is the difference between being heard and being validated? It’s whether you are contributing to the solution or to the hindsight.
Academics are risk averse. I’m thinking here of a friend who expressed a bit of paranoia about maintaining good relations with his Ph.D. adviser because negative comments from that direction can still matter ten years down the line in tenure reviews. Science is highly political, and money and career options are finite. You have to be careful about who you might offend.
Or do you? What’s the point of doing science if security is what you want? I think scientists need to be careful about personalizing a war of ideas into a war of people, though this is going to happen because science is a human endeavor. But there are many easier jobs than science which pay better. Those jobs require political skills and machinations, but many of them don’t put forward the pretense of a noble elevation of the truth above all.
One day we all die. On that day if you are a person interested in forwarding science and understanding the world, being true to truth, do you want too many regrets about how you had to “work the system” and cultivate relationships? If that was an overwhelming focus rather than speaking plainly, then you should have gone into a more lucrative career. The world needs more actuaries.
Addendum: Much of the same could be said about journalism. And science journalism? Well….