In recent years, scientists have been under scrutiny to demonstrate the public relevance of their government-funded research. A new study from Rice University and Southern Methodist University finds that women are much more involved in these outreach efforts than their male counterparts.
“Ultimately, it is the public that funds much of the scientific research taking place today,” said Elaine Howard Ecklund, co-author of the study and an associate professor of sociology at Rice. “As a result, there’s huge pressure on universities and academics to make their work translatable and applicable to the broader public.”
The study, “How Academic Biologists and Physicists View Science Outreach,” is the first in-depth study on this topic. It included interviews with 150 interview respondents randomly selected from a larger study, “Perceptions of Women in Academic Science.” That study encompassed a survey and in-depth interviews with more than 3,400 scientists housed in the top 20 graduate programs in biology and physics – two core science disciplines – in the United States.
The new study found that although 58 percent of respondents are involved in science outreach of some kind (72 percent of which were women), 37 percent of respondents blamed poor science-outreach efforts on scientists themselves.
“Our research shows that scientists often perceive themselves as having poor personal communication skills and have little confidence in their own abilities to do outreach, leading them to think they might actually hurt the public’s perception of science if they engage in outreach activities,” Ecklund said. In fact, 29 percent of all respondents said that scientists are poor interpersonal communicators or that nonscientists perceive them to be uniformly inept at communication, regardless of their actual activities.
A male biology professor Ecklund interviewed said, “I’m not sure you want most of the (scientists) that I know here to go out and try to talk to the public. (The public is) going to say, ‘Stop spending my tax dollars on this person!'”
Other factors deterring scientists from conducting public outreach include a lack of encouragement at the institutional level at universities and a widespread notion among academics that dissemination of research findings beyond peer-reviewed journals is “dumbed-down” science and thus not undertaken by the most talented researchers.
Given that the majority of scientists conducting outreach are women, the authors theorize that as the number of women in science increases, outreach may increase. However, a corresponding interpretation is that scientists may have the perception that outreach is a more feminine, care-oriented task, which may further decrease the legitimacy of this pursuit.
“Unless outreach efforts increase in legitimacy at top research universities, the academic careers of the women who engage in outreach work may actually be hindered,” Ecklund said. Ecklund is also director of the Social Sciences Research Institute’s Religion and Public Life Program and a Rice Scholar at the Baker Institute for Public Policy.
This research was funded by the National Science Foundation. The paper was co-authored by Southern Methodist University sociologist Anne Lincoln and Rice undergraduate student Sarah James.