27 May 2019

Revealing the baseline of geoscience outreach

Posted by Shane Hanlon

By Fatima Husain and Gabi Serrato Marks

As geoscientists, we spend much of our time thinking about the world around us. But how often do we take that research out of the lab and into communities? Geoscience has been one of the least diverse STEM fields for nearly four decades, perhaps in part because our science isn’t making it to those who are outside our departments and institutions. In the era of climate change skepticism, geoscientists who practice science communication could provide immense value to their local and global communities by serving as Earth experts who can empower non-scientists to engage in reasoning and analysis in all aspects of life.

To begin to address these issues, we need a baseline to understand how outreach is (and isn’t) being conducted in the geosciences. To do that, we decided to conduct an informal survey to gather data on who does outreach, and where and how they conduct it. We got responses from 90 people, many of whom were graduate students or tenured faculty, with the least respondents in the tenure-track category. Simply put, science communication and outreach isn’t part of the tenure review process, which disincentivizes early-career geoscientists from participating.

Because our end goal is to find ways to change geoscientists’ perception of outreach (it’s more than just a grant requirement or an afterthought!), we specifically looked into whether those who conduct community outreach get more media attention. We know that some institutions and scientists value news coverage about their work, and if conducting outreach correlates with media attention, then perhaps that correlation could incentivize some previously hesitant researchers to share their science. After gathering data from geoscientists around the world, we learned that there was indeed a clear connection between conducting outreach and gaining media attention!

Our respondents’ thoughts on what barriers exist to community engagement near their field sites

That wasn’t exactly surprising. I (Fatima) am a science journalist as well as a geoscientist, and I’ll sometimes find sources for my articles and videos by looking for scientists who’ve demonstrated an ability to communicate their science well to general audiences — and these are usually scientists who practice science communication in one way or another.

What excited us most was the questions people asked. One respondent asked how they should do local outreach as an oceanographer. Another asked how geoscientists conducting fieldwork could best engage with Indigenous communities that may not welcome research and intrusion into their lands. We don’t have answers yet, but we’re in a privileged position to work on gathering materials that do answer these questions.

Our work is merely beginning, but, luckily there are many resources for those interested in public outreach, including AGU Sharing Science, ESA Scicomm, institutional communications departments, and countless examples of science communication on social media. Sharing geoscience with folks from all backgrounds can truly enhance our science, and immeasurably benefit our communities for the years to come.

– Fatima Husain is a Curiosity Correspondent and organic geochemist at MIT; Gabi Serrato Marks is a Ph.D. candidate in the MIT-WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography. They both collaborate on science communication activities around the United States.