Is Public Engagement A Duty for Scientists?

By Neuroskeptic | June 24, 2018 4:40 pm

Do scientists have a responsibility to make their work accessible to the public?


“Public Engagement”, broadly speaking, means scientists communicating about science to non-scientists. Blogs are a form of public engagement, as are (non-academic) books. Holding public talks or giving interviews would also count as such.

Recently, it has become fashionable to say that it is important for scientists to engage the public, and that this engagement should be encouraged. I agree completely: we do need to encourage it, and we need to overcome the old-fashioned view that it is somehow discreditable or unprofessional for scientists to fraternize with laypeople.

However, some advocates of engagement go further than I’d like. It is sometimes said that every researcher actually has a responsibility to engage the public about the work that they do. Speaking about my own experience in neuroscience in the UK, this view is certainly in the air if not explicitly stated, and I think most researchers would agree. Public engagement and ‘broader impact’ sections now appear as mandatory sections of many grant applications, for instance.

In my view, making public engagement a duty for all scientists is wrong. Quite simply, scientists are not trained to do public engagement, and it isn’t what they signed up to do when they chose that career. Some scientists (like me) want to do it anyway, and they should be encouraged (if I say so myself), but many don’t want to. Cajoling the latter into doing engagement is futile. A half-baked public engagement exercise helps no-one.

We already have people who are trained to communicate science and who are paid to do it – such as press officers and journalists. These people exist because communicating science is a job in its own right. I’d say that researchers do have a responsibility to help press officers and (serious) journalists when required, but I don’t think any scientist has to be more proactive than that.


On the other hand, I believe that there does exist a civic duty to help inform others, correct misunderstanding and challenge falsehoods, on important issues. But this duty isn’t part of being a scientist. And it certainly isn’t a duty to engage about or publicize one’s own scientific work. Rather, I would say that if anyone, scientist or not, is in a position to contribute to important matters of public discourse, then they should so.

Not all scientists find themselves in a position where they can safely and effectively speak up on issues of public importance, and that’s OK. I think those who are in such a position have a responsibility to speak out, but I would not characterise this as a duty for ‘public engagement’. I would say it’s a more basic human responsibility: if you know about something that affects peoples’ lives, you should share it. In its simplest form, this is the same responsibility that compels us to call the police when we know there is a crime in progress.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: media, science, select, Top Posts, Uncategorized
  • Lee Rudolph

    Hear, hear!

  • OWilson

    Any scientific research that is paid for by the taxpayer through grants or public employment, rightfully belongs to the public (or at least Congress, in the case of security interests).and should be available for public scrutiny (the work, not necessarily the scientist).

    Especially any work that is actually cited in public policy.

    In a recent Canadian Court case, Michael Mann’s libel suit against Tim Ball, was tossed out by the judge, because Mann refused to disclose his “hockey stick” data and methodology.

    Dr Mann’s work on climatology is arguably a major driver in public policy, and the immense costs of attempting to mitigate global warming.

    • Desertphile

      Er, Dr. Michael Mann’s libel suit against Rev. Tim Ball has not been “tossed out:” it is still going strong, and Rev. Ball is doing everything he can to delay the final judgment against him.

      • OWilson

        I’m curious as to where you got that information.

        A simple internet search brings up many contrary reports on the first page!

        A sampling:

        “Update: Tim Ball’s Huge Courtroom Win, Now Targets Michael Mann …”

        “Breaking: Climatologist Dr Tim Ball Wins Epic Libel Court Battle …”

        “Michael Mann loses his court case and faces costs – ”

        “ALERT: Canadian judge dismissed all charges in lawsuit against …”

        • Joseph Daniel

          According to the articles I read, the judge did not find in favor of Ball because Mann refused to show his data, but because Ball’s statements were too stupid to be taken seriously by rational people. As such it did not reach the level of credulity needed to be considered libel. So maybe not exactly a “win” for Ball.

  • Joseph T. Devlin

    Not sure the UK government shares your perspective on this one. They have already begun the launch of the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) to requires universities (albeit not individual scientists) to play a major role in KE

    • Neuroskeptic

      I can see how it makes sense to expect universities to be involved in this. I just hope the universities don’t expect all their scientists to equally contribute to the KE program

  • saymwah

    I think you’re completely right: a disciplinary commitment to public engagement is not the same as a professional expectation of public engagement. But some fields don’t have either.

    My own field–mathematics–does an especially poor job of public engagement, to the point where almost no one outside mathematics has even a hand-waving sense of what it is research mathematicians do. Sadly, the attitude within the field is that nothing can be done about this, and the few people who do try to reach a lay audience invariably fall back on dumbing down to trivial examples or making half-assed connections to physics, economics, etc. So research-level mathematics doesn’t even have a language for engaging with the public that makes it seem interesting and worthwhile on its own terms.

    • Lee Rudolph

      I’m also a mathematician (mostly a low-dimensional topologist), and I think the situation for us is even worse than you describe it. I have two examples in mind. (1) Jeffrey Weeks is (or was for a long time) one of “the few people who do try to reach a lay audience”. He did what should have been a very good job! He didn’t dumb down; he used (very well executed) computer-generated video animations to make not-at-all-half-assed connections to highly non-trivial physics (cosmology), specifically, to “the shape of space”. I saw him do it, to an audience at a polytechnic institute (with non-STEM majors invited, and at least some of the lay “general public” present). As far as I could tell it didn’t make a dent! (His opinion of his success might differ.) (2) For a period of 10 years ending when I retired (in the sense of no longer being paid regularly to do mathematics) I had a very successful collaboration with a computer scientist whose research was/is in robotics (and related areas involving manipulation of objects in space, e.g., protein molecules). We found some new and (as it turns out) reasonably useful (because much simpler than other, older) ways to describe the topology and geometry of spaces of configurations (e.g., of assemblages of joints, or molecules). We got NSF funding! and therefore most definitely had to undertake public engagement. My collaborator did just that; she is much more younger and more engaging than I am. Her presentations weren’t half-assed, and as far as I know the young people she made presentations to enjoyed their encounters, because robots are interesting! But as to the mathematics involved (and for that matter the statistics—to which I did not contribute directly), I never heard that anyone in her audiences found that it was “interesting and worthwhile on its own terms”.

      What those examples have in common, and what I think they almost necessarily have in common with any mathematical presentation to a lay audience that is neither “dumbed down to trivial examples” nor based on “half-assed connections”, is that they rely on somehow conveying to the audience (however sketchily) chains of (mathematical, or at least mathematoid) reasoning of non-trivial length. And the ability/skill/talent of having such a chain conveyed to one seems mostly only to be acquired/inculcated/realized over a course of years (even by most, though obviously not all, mathematicians) of more or less deliberate exposure to such chains: exposure that a lay audience is very unlikely to have had.

      This all makes me gloomy, and when I’m gloomy I talk too much. Sorry.

      • saymwah

        I don’t agree that it’s necessary to be able to follow mathematical reasoning in order to have a general sense of what it is mathematicians do. Your anecdotes make me think that maybe the main obstruction is a strong cognitive preference most people have for the concrete (as opposed to the “useful”) over the abstract. Maybe there is a way to present pure mathematics in a more “concrete” way without resorting to applications?

        • Lee Rudolph

          Maybe. But abstraction is an important, I think an essential, part of “what mathematicians do”.

  • David Littleboy

    I’m much more negative/pessimistic about scientists communicating with the public than you are. I don’t believe it will do any good. (It’s great for those of us interested in science, of course (Hey, guy, thanks!).) At least for us US folks, the reason many of us are anti-science is cultural; anti-intellectualism goes along with being on the right of the political spectrum. The people who need to be convinced to listen to scientists are not listening for political/cultural reasons, and it’s hopeless. It’s not the facts that they need to be educated on, it’s the whole mindset. The only way to fix the anti-science thing in the US is, IMHO, to make sure the kids of right-wing voters get a college education. If the world survives*, I’m optimistic in the long term. College attendance rates are rising, and educational level is strongly associated with not being an anti-science idiot.
    *: I’m pessimistic here: we’ve already pumped way too much CO2 into the atmosphere for there not to be a disaster in the latter half of this century.

  • McCelt

    I just really do NOT like they way “scientists” automatically assume everything they say is correct.
    Science is NOT settled. Nothing is set in stone.
    People might believe what the “scientists” say just because the scientists are semi-famous.
    If you are famous that does NOT mean you are correct and it does NOT mean you are incorrect. It means nothing.
    Anything that is written should also be accompanied by a disclaimer:

    ● This is well known fact
    ● This is just guesswork
    ● This is completely hypothetical
    ● This may be nonsense
    ● etc

    • saymwah

      A fine example showing the need for more public engagement.

      • McCelt

        You do NOT think correctly.

  • Remi Gau

    I am not sure that the “I did not sign up for that” argument holds very well: “scientists are not trained to do public engagement, and it isn’t what they signed up to do when they chose that career.”
    There are quite a few facets of being a scientist that often come with the territory and that scientists were not trained for (and often because of that are very bad at): team management, teaching, peer-review… Yet for many of those, we don’t get the same level of push back as you get for outreach.
    Is it because they are seen at being a necessary part of the package? Then why can’t we do the same with outreach?

    Other possibility: give some training in science communication to scientists (and also team management, teaching, peer-review while you are at it).

    Other other possibility: start selecting scientists also in terms of their ability to do sci-com, manage a team, teach, peer-review…

  • Anthony C. Lopez

    Agreed. Social Evolution Forum had a discussion on this question a couple years ago. Sadly the original piece by Peter Richerson seems to have disappeared, but some commentaries remain, including my own, if I could be permitted a bit of shameless self-promotion.

  • Pingback: Getting it right… « Botany One - Sciencetells()



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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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