16 October 2017

Public outreach: Be mindful, not fearful

Posted by Shane Hanlon

By Shane M Hanlon 

One of the most important things to think about when reaching out, especially through means such as social or classic media, or writing letters to media outlets or journals, is that these mediums are public. What you say will be able to be seen by a wide audience and will be available to reference forever. This can be viewed as a barrier to prevent scientists from engaging in practices to which their names will be tied; however, these activities can be fun and rewarding and little forethought into content can go a long way.

Some common questions and concerns.

But everyone can see what I say… – That’s the exciting part! Your reach in a scientific journal is confined to (due to paywalls, a fraction of) the scientific community. Crafting your message for the public is a great opportunity to find a new, non-traditional audience.

I’m hesitant to put my opinion out there for everyone to see. What about potential repercussions? – This is the biggie. Academia is touted as a pillar of free expression outside of the government, private sector, etc., where faculty are encouraged to express their beliefs without fear of repercussions. And this is certainly true in many cases.

I’m pre-tenure. Could things I say in public hurt my chances of obtaining tenure? – The tenure/promotion process is oftentimes viewed as a black box. Each discipline, institution, and even department have different guidelines. Also, while personal feelings of peers should not play a role in tenure decisions, they sometimes do. The pre-tenure concern is real; however, that should not prevent you from communicating your work to non-scientists. On the contrary, outreach and communication are being weighted more heavily at many institutions as tenure considerations as funding success rates plummet due to decreased science-funding for major funding agencies.

OK then, what should/shouldn’t I say? – Use your judgement. Some scientists are OK with having the world know much of their personal opinions whereas others are more reserved. Just always keep in mind the visible nature of what you’re putting out there.

I don’t want to get pulled into discussions/arguments with critics of my research. – This could also be viewed as, “Don’t get sucked into conversations with alarmists.” Since you are putting yourself out there, the possibility exists that you will have your detractors. Be careful to stay on point with your intended message. You are the expert. If others try to pull you off message, steer the conversation back.

You have a voice. Use it!

One of the best things about being an academic scientist is the freedom allowed to express your views. While you should obviously be careful about what you say, that shouldn’t prevent you from saying something in the first place!

-Shane M Hanlon is a Senior Specialist in AGU’s Sharing Science program. This post is adapted from our web resources here