That it is time for scientists to move out of their ivory tower is sometimes seen as a reductive call to action. Yet as the topic of science communication emerges as a focal point of discussion for what science needs to do to connect with society, there is a concomitantly growing murmur that academia needs systemic incentives to support such behavior. Initiatives from the top down that can support scientists beyond mere lip service.
What can be done?
Placing scientific work within a larger context can be gratifying as well as stimulating for scientists. But without clear rewards, a time-strapped demographic is unlikely to add another potentially burdensome activity to their already long work weeks. What shape could these rewards take?
Pro-science communication policies across the board. Universities in the UK are subject to a national performance-based research funding system called the Research Excellence Framework (REF). REF is the system for assessing the quality of research in the UK higher education institutions.
Other countries have research assessment frameworks in place as well, not always cast in the same mold as the REF but accounting for a mix of quantitative and qualitative evaluation. Given the importance of REF in the UK, most universities and research groups at various levels have policies in place to encourage academic staff to produce work likely to fare well on the REF. But part of the pre-requisites is showcasing impact or being “internationally excellent”. What could help young scientists go about this?
Which brings me to the next point: institutional support for science communication. Training, specialized programs, endorsement, seminars, workshops. Imagine a doctoral student or postdoctoral scientist supported for their teaching, writing or broader communication activities beyond a simple go on social media and shout from the rooftops.
Clearer mandates, clearer definitions help. The publication is a pit stop, not the end. The impact is definable. Roles should be clarified. Is it centralized research managers who should be describing and promoting research impact within their institutions, or should science communication be about lending a personal voice and hence the purview of researchers themselves? Advocate reduced emphasis on traditional impact metrics. Goodhart’s Law tells us that any measure ceases to be valid when it becomes an optimization target. Gamification of the system in the current academic environment is all too common.
It is not easy being a young scientist today. Even Nobel laureate Peter Higgs, one half of Higgs boson, deems himself unfit for survival in today’s academic system. The demands of productivity on early-career individuals are burdensome enough to merit attention; add to that demands to be a public speaker, marketer, and flag-bearer of science and the writing becomes clear on the wall: We need to help young scientists.
*This piece was originally published in Euroscientist.