Have social media seeded a communications renaissance in science and if so, what is limiting its growth? My colleagues Kevin Zelnio of SciAm’s EvoEcoLab (and Deep-Sea News), and John Bruno right here at SeaMonster, recently started a fascinating conversation on these topics. Kevin’s excellent essay noted that scientists have many reasons for going online, but most of the discussion focused on the critical issue of outreach to the general public, and the impediments facing it.
John in turn zeroed in on the seeming resistance of both university administrators and many faculty to online outreach. This is indeed a problem—or, perhaps more charitably, a time lag in uptake—but having wrestled with some of the same issues myself for some years, I have some additional perspectives to offer.
The jack-of-all-trades problem
Why don’t more scientists blog? Look around you: as alluded to by both John and Kevin, the best science bloggers are not professors or active researchers. And the best researchers are not active bloggers. By the best I mean, in both science and blogging categories, those that are producing both high quality content and a steady stream of it. There are a few prominent exceptions to this rule, of course, but the general pattern is quite clear. Why is this? Is it because the most prominent researchers are old-school types who speak internet as a second language, and haven’t yet got with the program? No doubt it is, in part. That will change, slowly, as the next generation comes into leadership positions.
But there is something more fundamental at work too. It is a general principle at the heart of economics, ecology, and evolutionary biology: in the struggle for existence, however defined, the jack of all trades is a master of none. In both science and communication, competition is fierce and distinguishing oneself takes a laser-like dedication. It is true that teaching and research synergize to some degree, as do research and writing about research for a general audience. But time is finite and at some point doing one thing means you can’t do something else. It is a zero-sum game.
In other words, your average mortal can be excellent at one thing, but generally not at multiple things. Again, we can all name prominent exceptions: E.O. Wilson has been one of the most influential biologists of the 20th century and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author. But how many E.O. Wilsons are there in the world? Again, we are talking here about average trends, not the superstar exceptions.
Why don’t more scientists blog? Another reason is the same reason that more people generally don’t blog. Noone is listening. That’s an exaggeration, but the online world is a huge, overpopulated, cacophonous realm. It is no simple matter to be heard above the din and the competition for audience is fierce, as many would-be bloggers soon learn (as Kevin Z memorably put it, “I’ve seen talented writers and communicators drop like flies in the chloroform by the dozens”). Is it really worth putting in all this time to reach a few dozen or a few hundred people grazing for entertainment on their lunch hour? In some cases it is. But it’s not surprising that many scientists, who after all got into the business to do science, decide that it isn’t and bail out to return to doing the things they enjoy, have learned how to do well, and are rewarded for. The resultant scientific papers may reach even fewer readers than the blog, but those readers will actively engage with the content, which will influence their own research and, ideally, the future of the field.
Back in the heady days of 2006, on the heels of training as an Aldo Leopold Leadership fellow, I stated up a blog, the Natural Patriot. The stimulus that finally pushed me into the water was the essay by Ashlin and Ladie in Science (“Science adrift in the blogosphere”), which advocated:
“Environmental scientists should actively engage in blogging to increase the presence of informed opinions in the blogosphere. Research supervisors should encourage students to blog while providing training in science communication and dissemination. Senior scientists should set up their own high-profile weblogs to help allay fears that blogging is somewhat disreputable.”
Blogging at NP was fun and I learned a lot. But it was a hell of a lot of work and there is more than one scientific paper I did not write, and likely a grant or two I didn’t get, as a price of doing it. Fortunately I already had tenure. But I would be reluctant today to encourage my grad students to blog. I’ve learned through experience that blogging successfully, by which I mean crafting multiple substantive, interesting posts each week, is damned hard work. For most professors already working at 110% of capacity to build and maintain an innovative, externally funded research program, teach excellent classes, serve the community of one’s university and field, and generally negotiate the dynamic landscape of science on a daily basis, it will simply not be possible. Something will have to give. (Case in point: at this moment I’m away on family holiday service at an undisclosed location and getting disapproving looks for being hunched over my computer instead of visiting various Great Aunts- and Uncles-in-Law).
Maybe it takes a village
Why is outreach, including blogging, not valued by university administrators? Why do administrators only give credit for grants and research papers, and not for excellent teaching? Kevin and John both suggested this situation is incompatible with university mission statements that highlight service to the larger community and public.
Perhaps. But note that the documents they cite state that it is the mission of the University to reach out. They do not say that it is the mission of individual professors to reach out. By the University is meant, presumably, the university community at large (Thomas Jefferson’s idealized vision of a university was an “academical village”). I am of course not suggesting that individual professors should not reach out (it’s a big part of my own personal profile), only that these mission statements are not necessarily in conflict with the lack of rewards for individual faculty outreach. Many universities produce very slick and appealing outreach materials for alumni, friends and the general public (I know because I get them in the mail from universities that I don’t even have an affiliation with). These are produced by professionals and are generally more compelling than what many of my colleagues would have done on their own. Meanwhile those colleagues are doing what they do best, pushing back the frontiers of scientific research, unencumbered by having to write for the alumni magazine.
For me the bottom line question (also posed in Kevin’s first paragraph), which has yet to be answered, is: what will happen to cutting-edge research if the average professor, who is precariously juggling a competitively funded research program, teaching courses, mentoring grad students, serving on committees and editorial boards and agency review panels and so on (did I mention a family?), also takes on the substantial commitments of becoming what amounts to a journalist?
How are individuals and society as a whole best served—by having jacks of all trades or masters of their respective professions? Perhaps the answer is collaboration. Some years ago I learned the hard way that I could not be both a good ecologist and a good geneticist simultaneously. So I focused on ecology and began working with collaborators with expertise on the genetic side. That has been a highly rewarding, productive course and has saved me a lot of stress and headaches. Maybe something similar will ultimately be the answer in science outreach. We need the immediacy and personal experience of scientists in outreach, but scientists also need to the time and space to think about their research, that is, to do science.
Rereading this, I am afraid that some readers will take me to task for being old-fashioned and arguing against outreach by academics. I am not, and I hope that my record on that account speaks for itself.
I do enjoy blogging and support blogging, and outreach more generally, by academics. I do believe wholeheartedly that we need to communicate beyond our subdisciplinary microcosms to the people whose tax dollars pay our salaries and grant funds. And I also believe that the voices of scientists themselves are critical to making that message real.
But I would also argue that all of that is secondary to producing good science. And if social outreach compromises the intense focus and effort that is unarguably needed for scientists to maintain careers producing the best science—which nobody other than scientists can do—we had better figure out a way to engage collaborators effectively to help do the other stuff.