Should scientists be better public servants?

In an earlier blog I chastised parents for taking advice from celebrities like Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy on important health topics.  In the days since I wrote that blog I’ve been wondering about the scientist’s role as a public servant.  Could the scientific community have done more to counter this misinformation, perhaps preventing the decrease in vaccine use that we’re currently witnessing?

I believe that the answer is yes, we could have done more.  Vaccines aren’t the only area where greater scientist involvement could make a difference.  I’m confident that just about every scientific subdiscipline has something important to offer the public.

So how do we get this information to the public?  It won’t be easy, but I think we need to be proactive.  We could contact newspapers, TV stations and radio stations, for starters.  We could contact local high schools and offer to give special lectures to students during their scheduled science classes. 

But the question remains, “Are we obligated to do anything?”  It likely depends on which scientific position you hold, but the contracts that most of us have signed in no way state that we’re obligated to educate the public.  That being said, I think it’s important to remember that taxpayers pay our bills.  Whether you’re funded by NSF, NIH, the university or college that you work for or some other government agency, it’s likely that state and federal tax monies are going towards funding your projects and paying your bills. 

Despite this, it is the case that what we’re actually being paid to do is to either teach courses or conduct research.  Our bills are also being paid by the students sitting in the courses that we teach.  In fact, in academia at least, too much public service could be detrimental to your career.

Why don’t scientists spend more time engaging the public?

The answer, in my mind, is because it’s often detrimental to our careers.  It’ll probably take a lot of time and effort to really get the public’s attention (especially when we’re going up against celebrities) and many of us are in a system where we can’t afford to offer that kind of a time commitment.

If you’re a professor going up for tenure, then you’re going to be judged on a set of predetermined criteria.  I have yet to go through the tenure process myself (I’m still a graduate student), but I believe I have a pretty good understanding of what the criteria are for achieving tenure.  The tenure committee focuses on how many papers you’ve published and where you published them, how many courses you taught and how well you taught them, how capable you were at establishing your lab, and how much service you provided to the department and the institution as a whole. 


Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan

If you’re going to excel in all of these areas in the space of 7 years, then just about any activity you engage in that isn’t focused on achieving these ends is going to set you back.  I know people who have even put off having the children that they eventually want until after they’ve received tenure because they don’t even feel like they have time any spare time at all.  During the years when you’re really getting into the groove of what kind of a scientist you’re going to be, you’re keenly aware that you don’t have time to spend communicating with the public.  This is critical because, as far as I can tell, not making tenure is devastating to one’s career.


Once tenure has been reached, there is still no incentive to spend one’s time with the public.  Professional scientific societies and the scientific community as a whole primarily praise and award achievements in research, not public education.  So again, time spent communicating with the public is time that you’re taking away from advancing your career. 

So what is the solution?

I don’t think that change is going to come without a push from research institutions and professional societies.  For example, I think it would be absolutely fantastic if universities hired scientists who were paid to spend all of their time finding ways to communicate with the public.  They should be required to stay on top of important public issues (swine flu, vaccines, etc.) and should then disseminate this information through public media as well as more direct avenues (public lectures, etc.).

Alternatively, universities could offer professors limited teaching loads for a semester every couple years in return for time spent educating more publicly.  They would be charged with discussing whatever topics are pertinent in their field and would be required in some way to show that they had made a strong effort to get this information out.

The problem with both of these solutions is that they require even MORE taxpayer money to get them accomplished.  Hiring a scientist whose sole job it is to educate the public wouldn’t be cheap, nor would paying a professor who wasn’t teaching (as college students sitting in a classroom are paying tuition which keeps the university running).


E.O. Wilson

Until we figure out another solution, our hopes rest on the few scientists who really do try to reach out to the public.  There are and have been a few greats.  My personal favorites are Carl Sagan and E.O. Wilson

Many others have good intentions, but end up preaching to the choir.  Some choose channels that have a tendency to reach people who are already science minded.  Others close out those that they need to educate by insulting them for holding different beliefs or for not understanding the concepts that we’re trying to get across.  I guess my point here is that, if you’re a scientist interested in public education, please please please stay patient and don’t fuel the growing stereotype that scientists are assholes.  This makes it difficult for us to get the public to listen when it’s really important.

In conclusion….

I look forward to reading your comments in regard to this post.  I’m sure that there’ll be controversy over whether or not we should feel obligated to spend our time communicating with the public.  I’m not suggesting that all scientists should be obligated to do this, but simply that we could probably make a big difference if we did find ways to spend at least some of our time correcting misunderstandings and spreading new information.  What do you think?


21 thoughts on “Should scientists be better public servants?

  1. Most research-oriented scientists aren’t terribly good at explaining their own research towards non-scientists. I would say that scientists are an introspective bunch. We are not going to go out and take unnecessary risks that could impact our own careers; we would rather be subject to peer review than public review.

    Also, considering that there are still a large body of people within the United States that do not trust evolution as scientific fact, I would say that most people would rather trust what “seems right” as opposed to what is actually scientifically proven.

  2. I agree that more scientific information needs to reach the mainstream public, but I don’t think it follows that scientists have to be the ones who do it.

    Maybe other people – doctors, teachers, actual public servants – should be getting more of their advice from scientists instead, serve more as middle-men. Maybe there should be almost a press release style write-up when information relevant to the public comes out, and these could be passed on to the people mentioned above. Kind of like the abstract of a paper, but maybe less technical and more practical.

    By the way, I found your blog from Zach’s comic – it’s really interesting. Enjoying the feed.

  3. Another well thought out post. I enjoyed your intro on epigenetics.

    While I think it is important to educate the public in all areas where science intersects health, I don’t think it is always a productive use of time. Simply put, the amount of willful ignorance people have in their everyday lives make it nearly impossible to educate them.
    Most people probably won’t even be concerned about the science behind health until they come down with Diabetes or heart problems.
    And there is another issue: doesn’t going out of our way to educate the otherwise ignorant public remove one more pillar from the staggering natural selection? Wait, you’re not trying to make Scientists seem like assholes..

  4. There is a further reason for the low degree of public exposure of scientists: bad experiences among those who do.
    The above links are to, where Ben Goldacre has quite often detailed the negative experiences of those scientists who try to get some kind of public awareness of their work: misquoted, misunderstood, and in some cases, just made up.
    The standards of journalistic “truth” have sunk so low in many places that for a scientist to get involved with the greater media is a terribly risky proposition.

  5. I think you are correct – not every scientist is cut out to speak to the public, but not every scientist is cut out to teach intro level courses. Carl has public-oriented published works reaching back to 1967 if not before, and his television appearances were during a high-point in government funding of PBS, through one of the major PBS markets: WGBH in Boston. If a scientist is going to make a career of public outreach, it will be apparent early on, but it’s difficult to spot and hard to nurture, like you point out.

    There are always cartoonists – Larry Gonick comes to mind.

  6. Strange that you talked about scientists who educate the public without talking about Richard Dawkins; Public Educator Number One.

  7. I feel scientists should avoid large-scale public address. I think the most good is done educating on a local and communal level. It’s not so likely you will face common problems with the media if you are working with a local newspaper or news station to educate people about scientific progress. The problem with publicizing anything nationally is that the reactions with concentrate on a number of levels: more people will be informed, but more people will be opposed. As for the risk one takes spending time away from other research to teach the world, I don’t know what to say. It is absolutely true that trying to reach people requires generous amounts of time and, yes, money. It may be that you need a publicist to make it happen, but that’s not a great solution for the time or the money. A person must simply be willing to sacrifice him/herself in order to get information out.

  8. I’d like to thank Kelly for putting up such a wonderful website. Biology is definitely one of my favorite subjects and I always look forward to reading the posts here.

    I must say I agree with the notion that scientists in general do not have the time to be significant public figures.

    I think some scientists may just be too shy or else protective of their findings to stand out in the limelight too often. Just my two cents, but let’s not rule out the emotional conditions the job brings.

  9. Hi, great post and very thought-provoking.

    I do not know when this enormous chasm that separates “hard” science from “junk food science” (e.g. Jenny McCarthy preaching on autism)was established. I presonally believe it’s a sequel of WWII and nuclear weapons use. I cannot find another possible explanation for people being so willingly oblivious to true science.

    I believe the scientific community *owes* to the public, at the very least, an attempt to accurately communicate the facts regarding the areas of common interest. This is because, as I see it, science is a calling for the betterment of society and its well being. Everyone who participates in research does so for personal and professional advance, true, but also because they believe that what they do will bring about a change for the better.

    I know this sounds naive, but I am not yet jaded enough to believe that most people “are in it for the tenure”. The problem is the academic “food chain” that forces people to postpone their idealistic goals in lieu of career advancement, just not to be left behind.

    Anyway, great post, really got me thinking.

  10. The world would be a better place if the general public had a greater understanding of scientific principles. On this point Kelly is absolutely correct. I also agree that it’d be amazing if more public institutions took a larger, more active role in achieving that goal.

    What Kelly forgets is that we already have an institution in place that is designed to teach scientific principles to the masses: Public Schools. I was very lucky. At my public high school, we had amazing science teachers, many of whom were active researchers in their fields before deciding that their passion was for teaching. The result was that my graduating class knows the difference between good science and ‘celebrity propaganda’; we all became ‘scientifically literate’.

    If you want to see an America that appreciates science, start with the public schools, and start with the teachers.

    • I think that this is a really good point. Starting with the public schools would be a really good idea.

      Unfortunately, public school science teachers don’t have access (as far as I know) to lots of scientific journals and aren’t totally up to date on lots of important issues. For example, they may not be aware of the recent studies showing that there isn’t a link between autism and vaccines.

  11. Scientists should absolutely be educating the public, far more than they are. Carl Sagan was a huge influence on my childhood, and it is a shame that a voice like his (as far as I’m aware) isn’t around today.

    Someone above mentioned Richard Dawkins who is a poor, angry substitute for someone who actually knows how to talk and explain science to the general populace.

    I look at it this way — if science is comparable to religion, then you need people spreading the word out amongst the people. yes, you have scholars that advance our knowledge but that is useless unless the public is properly engaged with the scientific community.

    Additionally, no one has spokena bout the benefit to the scientific community that a dialogue with the public would bring. Not only would there be new, fresh voices joining science but a greater understanding of scientific principles would undoubtedly increase opportunities for funding and research.

  12. The Cafe Scientifique project is one interesting ways of having scientists engage the public on a more personal level.

    Most people who distrust science will probably never meet a scientist in real life; but if they could, it might help change their impression of them, and of science as a whole.

    Understanding that science isn’t about anti-social geniuses having flashes of insight, but about ordinary people working very hard, would probably go a long way at making The Public more receptive to science education.

  13. Hey, since you’re blogging now, you should know the correct term is “post” not “blog.” Blog can be a verb and a noun, but as a noun it refers to a kind of website, not content therein. The phrase “in an earlier blog” is cute, but wrong.

    No need to thank me, a good deed is its own reward.

  14. Someone above mentioned Richard Dawkins who is a poor, angry substitute for someone who actually knows how to talk and explain science to the general populace.

    This is a matter of opinion, and I think you are misinformed. Richard Dawkins has become perceived as angry and insulting because that’s how certain public figures have reacted to his message(s). I’ve never seen an interview with him, either an interview of Richard Dawkins by a journalist, or an interview by Dr. Dawkins with another public figure, in which he displayed obvious, aggresive, insulting anger from the beginning. He has been provoked in public, usually by somebody gratuitously insulting him repeatedly, but that’s quite distinct from a combative, insulting style a priori.

    Disagreeing with what Dr. Dawkins says does not mean he is angry and insulting – that’s projecting. Could he present his message better? Of course, there is no perfect style of communication, especially when one’s audience is initially hostile to one’s ideas. But it’s a mistake to assume that because many people do not like his message, that he must be presenting it wrongly.

    Back on topic, thanks for putting this up. I’ve seen a great many posts on a range of blogs on this topic, and the majority of them seem to assume that scientists who don’t spend time directly engaging with the public are afraid and / or lazy. You correctly point out that most scientists are very busy, and would have to sacrifice other important aspects of their day-to-day lives in order to attempt to effectively engage with the public.

  15. @TheBrummell:
    It has nothing to do with how public figures have reacted to his message. I have been reading Richard Dawkins since I was 14 years old, and while I agree with many things he says (I am an agnostic after all) the manner in which he characterizes opposing viewpoints is dismissive and rude.

    Perhaps it comes down to him not being a very good writer or public speaker, but if he is trying to be an educator and not merely an edutainment speaker then he should take a few lessons from his less hot headed colleagues, as his contentiousness does nothing to convince people, only to stir fundamentalists to action.

  16. Scientists are good at well, being scientists I believe. This means that they should do what scientists do, right? They spend thousands of dollars, years of their life, and pour blood, sweat, and tears into what they do. So, now we are going to expect them to get a minor in public relations, too? Ouch.

    I would also like to focus on an area that you glossed over as to why scientists do not head up their own PR campaign. To do so would be job suicide, much as you said. However, the implications of not being in the lab versus being seeing in the public eye are usually negative. If you were the government and gave a grant for cancer research do you want to see that researcher on the radio or in the lab?

    This has a catch 22 within it. The financial backer wants the publicity from the research being done, ie. “Merc spends 500k for new cancer cure research from Australian female bullfrogs!” At the same time, they want the research to be done.

    The solution (alternative) is quite simple. Universities and educational facilities should hire people to speak for the scientists. Crazy idea, hiring someone to do public relations who is trained in public relations… It is just crazy enough to work.

    However, like I always say, the education system’s administration is usually full of idiots. So, lets fund another sports activity so we can get more financial resources instead of getting information out about cutting edge research that could change the world’s outlook on whatever research we are doing. Both scenarios bring in investment and one is worth more to me (bonus points if you can guess which one).

    Seriously, would you rather have your school find the cure for AIDS or win a basketball tournament? There is something seriously wrong with the priority chain that our education system follows.

  17. I also wanted to add that blogging and sites like yours have an ability to increase the access that the public has to science. It is no longer necessarily an ivory tower viewpoint when the information can be produced at level that is accessible to everyone or those interested.

    In order to get over this mountain it will take more then a few bloggers and twitter heads. It is going to take an awesome PR program that will convince people that science isn’t scary it is their friend. When this is accomplished you will see a mass influx of those wishing for access gaining the access they strive for.

  18. For some reason, WordPress isn’t allowing some comments. Here is a comment from Tiffany that I received by e-mail:

    I think you forgot to take into consideration the entire “publish or perish” culture that most larger universities promote. In this atmosphere, scientists are tight lipped about their discoveries, despite their potential benefits to their respective field. While a scientist may be doing excellent work, they hoard their information for their own benefit. Their studies then appear in journals that a only small segment of the scientific community have access to, and probably even fewer read. I can think of at least one brilliant field biologist that has avoided reentering academia for this reason alone; but I suppose that’s another subject altogether.

    Meanwhile, there is hope! I agree with the folks that have commented that blogs like yours are a great way to make science a little less scary to the general public. There are (UNDERFUNDED! UNDERSTAFFED! UNDERPROMOTED!) organizations doing great work [] [] while also attempting to engage the public. I urge anyone that is interested in promoting the greater good of science to get out and volunteer with or donate money to a local conservation organization, zoo, library, or science museum.

  19. Pingback: Nicolás Giorgetti » Los científicos deberían ser mejores servidores públicos?

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