Public engagement

Nature’s Gene Russo has a nice article this week about scientists’ attitudes toward colleagues who do lots of public outreach: “Outreach: Meet the press”.

Although some young scientists embrace media engagement (see page 365 for a profile of one of them), many remain nervous. I've had some young postdocs in politically charged institutions whisper to me, 'Hey, I have to wait until I have tenure, and then you'll hear from me', says Baron, adding that caution is sometimes warranted. In her book, Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter (Island Press, 2010), she cites the example of Martin Krkosek, a biologist who as a graduate student helped to show that sea-lice infestations linked to farmed salmon in Canada were hurting wild salmon populations. Between 2005 and 2007, he published in Science and elsewhere, and often spoke to the media. Controversy swirled. The salmon aquaculture industry refuted the findings, suggesting that the infestations were natural; but in 2008, British Columbia put a moratorium on fish-farm expansion, owing in part to Krkosek's work. He says that his media outreach may have hurt his cause at some departments where he applied for positions. At others it was an asset. Waiting for tenure may be safer for career advancement in some instances, says Krkosek, now in a tenure-track position at the University of Otago in New Zealand. But opportunities for communicating with public and policy audiences could be lost.

I’d recommend the article for students starting their research careers. The world today is very different from fifteen or twenty years ago – today, colleagues are more accepting of scientists who take on opportunities to engage the public. The public now expects such engagement and is less tolerant of “ivory tower” scientists. But that doesn’t mean that recognition for such efforts comes easily – you can spend countless hours investing in outreach efforts before you start to see any returns, and they close some doors.