1 February 2021

Supporting scientists who communicate: Roles for universities and scientific societies

Posted by Shane Hanlon

By Rose Hendricks

Many scientists feel that science communication must be done in their “free time.” It becomes a hobby or a side gig, in tension with the expectations that most departments and universities have for scientists to devote the vast majority of their time and energy to research. The current academic “system” — the policies that determine hiring, promotion, and tenure decisions, the allocation of resources, and the training available to scientists — does not sufficiently incentivize or value science communication. As a result, many scientists who want to share their work broadly, whether to inform policy, inspire kids to pursue STEM careers, or to increase public trust in science, are limited in the impact they can make.

The good news is that across the US and the world, academic systems are changing. More researchers are receiving institutional support, recognition that advances their careers, and training that equips them to communicate effectively. But we still have a long way to go. Although many changes need to take place at colleges and universities, scientific societies like AGU also have an important role to play in advancing a culture in which science communication is fully embraced.

A nascent network of scientific societies, the Society Civic Science Initiative, is working to collectively support scientists who aim to communicate with public audiences and advocate for more institutions to do so. One way they’re working to do this is by serving as vocal champions, signaling that they value science communication and the researchers who do it. The group of societies is also working to bolster their science communication programming by learning from each other about how they can best support their members. Finally, the network is developing materials that scientists can use to make the case for the value of science communication and to advocate for more robust institutional support — for things like making science communication courses and staff support available to researchers or ensuring that promotion and tenure guidelines reward quality science communication.

Staff from science societies meet to discuss opportunities to collaborate to support science communication in September 2019. Credit: Rose Hendricks

Science communication can provide tremendous benefits not only to society, but to researchers too, as it helps build skills that support professional success and makes communicators and their research more visible to potential collaborators, employers, and public stakeholders. As more scientists recognize the widespread benefits of science communication and begin engaging, we need to make sure that they’re fully supported to make an impact.

-Rose Hendricks leads the Society Civic Science Initiative.