18 August 2016

PhD students should have science-communication committee members

Posted by Shane Hanlon

By Shane M Hanlon

Last year at the AGU Fall Meeting, I had a whopping couple hours of downtime. So, being the good recovering academic that I am, I decided to find a pub, grab a pint, and finish a manuscript review that I had been neglecting. A guy pulled up a chair beside me and commented on the MS I was reviewing, about how he was familiar with the journal (which was surprising as it was an aquatic ecology journal and we were at an Earth and space meeting). We started chatting and I learned that he was on rotation at NSF as a program officer in their Antarctic division. I told him about what I do and explained AGU’s Sharing Science Program. He asked for my card; when I looked confused, he laughed and said that he’d been toying with the idea of adding science communication/policy professionals to proposal-review panels because of the new emphasis on Broader Impacts and might be in touch down the road to request me for a panel. This got me thinking  – what if we added non-academic professionals to PhD and MS committees?

Me (plaid shirt and all) on your PhD committee. Credit - JoAnna Wendell

Me (plaid shirt and all) on your PhD committee. Credit – JoAnna Wendell

I’ve seen this idea floated before (here for example) but hadn’t really seen it taken seriously. But maybe it should be. So, here’s my case for including non-academics on committees:

First, let’s address this from the perspective of someone who is certain that they want to stay in academia. Why would they be best-served having an external (in the career sense) committee member? From a straight funding standpoint, consider the importance of Broader Impacts. NSF proposals are divided into Intellectual Merit (IM) and Broader Impacts (BI). Years ago, simply stating “I plan to incorporate undergraduates into my research plan” was sufficient to placate reviewers in terms of BI. Not so anymore. BI composes (or at least is supposed to) roughly ~50% of grant proposals. While funding foci have changed to reflect the growing need for science communication, the training that students receive has (largely) not. That’s why I think that committees should include a scicomm professional (or at least a professor with significant scicomm or policy training/experience).

I bet that this is already happening in some areas, likely by happy accident. But what if it was a required aspect of committee formation? Many programs, mine included, require students to pick an “external” committee member. This usually refers to a member of the academic community outside of the student’s department or institution who is still within their discipline (e.g. environmental science, biology, chemistry, etc.). However, I think that it should be extended to require that individual to be outside the normal research track. Ideally, of a five-member dissertation committee, three would be from the student’s institution, one from outside but in the same or similar field, and the final would be a non-research member of any sector. 

I benefited greatly from my outside committee member who was a scientist within my field. I would have benefited even more from a member outside of my field and outside of the research spectrum. I took a huge leap of faith after obtaining my PhD to go out and pursue a career in science policy and communication without really knowing what that involved. Being able to talk to someone, someone who had been where I was and chosen to pursue a career outside of research, would have been incredibly valuable.

Maybe there will be a sea change. Or a scicomm change. My colleagues and I are already seeing small but promising shifts in that direction, as individual professors and sometimes whole departments try to include a science-communication element to their students’ majors or graduate work. But change has to come within. Communication is not just a fun thing to do: it’s a core part of science. Granting agencies recognize this; let’s hope that academia will begin to do so as well.

-Shane M Hanlon is an AGU Sharing Science Specialist and (hopefully) future dissertation committee member.