Image: From Science Borealis’ project “100 Voices for Canadian Science Communication”; © The Vexed Muddler, reproduced with permission. That’s me as a Cobblestone Tiger Beetle, Cicendela marginipennis – a beautiful beetle, vulnerable because of its locally rare and very scattered distribution in riverbank cobble habitats from Alabama to New Brunswick.
Some months ago, the Canadian blogging aggregator Science Borealis solicited thoughts about what lay science communication, or SciComm, is and why it’s important. I sent in the thoughts above and promptly forgot about it. Last week I was startled, pleased, and just the tiniest bit uneasy to see my quote making the rounds on Twitter and Facebook (wonderfully illustrated by The Vexed Muddler).
Why uneasy? I’m quite happy with what I said – but me pontificating on SciComm seems a bit of a reach because I’m not all that active in that enterprise. Scientist Sees Squirrel, for example, is mostly written with other scientists in mind – although I’m pleased when non-scientists read it, and there are exceptions among my posts. In this sense, Scientist Sees Squirrel is more about science community than science communication (I’ll expand on this in an upcoming post, as soon as I figure out what I think about it. UPDATE: here it is.) I do other SciComm (radio appearances, classroom visits, nature club walks and talks, and so on), and I enjoy it very much, but it isn’t a big component of my portfolio.
Lately there’s been a burst of discussion about SciComm as important (which I agree with) but also as a moral imperative for all scientists. I think that goes way too far. I stand behind every word of my Science Borealis quote, but nothing there implies that every scientist needs to do SciComm. Actually, I don’t think there’s anything that every scientist needs to do. Not every scientist needs to train graduate students. Not every scientist needs to teach undergraduates. Not every scientist needs to advise public policymakers. Not every scientist needs to edit a journal, or serve as Departmental Chair, or judge science fairs, or provide expert testimony at trials, or – well, you get the idea.
Actually, I think we can state this more strongly. For almost any X that’s part of the broad portfolio of What Scientists Do, there are some scientists who shouldn’t do X. There are scientists who shouldn’t train grad students, scientists who shouldn’t teach undergraduates, and scientists who shouldn’t do SciComm. Sometimes that’s because their temperaments would lead them to do really bad jobs. Sometimes it’s because their lack of skill or training or interest would have the same result. What each of us should do is develop a portfolio of activities that
- moves science forward,
- takes advantages of our own strengths,
- complements the portfolios of those around us, and
- is consistent with the job we’re in.
So if you’re one of those scientists who doesn’t want to (or shouldn’t) teach undergrads, that doesn’t mean you’re useless to science; but it does mean you shouldn’t expect to be a professor at a college or university with a strong undergraduate emphasis. If you’re one who doesn’t want to (or shouldn’t) do SciComm, that doesn’t make you morally deficient; but it does mean you shouldn’t expect a career in science journalism or with a university extension service. In either case, you’ll need to be complemented by those around you – either locally (as with a university research appointment complemented by others with teaching appointments) or more globally (as a non-SciComm-active scientist complemented by the SciComm activities of journalists, bloggers, and other scientists). There’s nothing unusual about that; all of us are complemented by those around us. Science writ large (like most things) is done best by teams in which members play specialized roles reflecting their strengths and interests.
So I’m going to forgive myself for pontificating on SciComm while spending relatively little time actually doing it. I’m going to keep doing some of it, mind you – because I enjoy it, and because it makes me feel good to have contributed to such an important thing. But I’m going to keep contributing to a lot of other important things, too, and thus complement those around me who devote more of their effort than I do to SciComm. It really does take a village.
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) September 12, 2016
UPDATE: Josh King has just expanded on this topic very nicely. I have to reluctantly admit that his post is better than mine!