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Science communication can be its own reward

Not all scientists are motivated to engage in outreach in the same way. Brad.K/Flickr, CC BY

Science communication can be its own reward

If we want a well-informed public, then it is of utmost importance that science is communicated effectively by those who excel at it.

But there are challenges to effective science communication. Bill Laurance wrote last week that our current funding system effectively punishes scientists for engaging in outreach.

But I disagree. I believe that funding agencies should not reward scientists for science communication. Creating such incentives will result in funding poorer science and diluting of the quality of science communication. That is not what we want or need in a time when there seems to be a war on science.

But I also think there may be a larger issue underlining the desire for a change in how we assess researchers: the feeling of being under appreciated for the hard work that you do.

The role of a professor

I am a senior lecturer at UNSW and an ARC Future Fellow. This fellowship “buys” me out of teaching, yet I still take on a small teaching role. I also sit on a few committees that meet every so often. These are the roles I am expected to take on within the university, and the ones that are considered for promotion.

I also engage in science communication, with more than 20 articles in various media outlets. I visit schools during National Science Week and actively engage with individuals on Twitter. I perform science outreach because I find a unique joy in doing so.

Of all my above roles, the Australian Research Council (ARC) only takes into consideration my research output and ideas in an equation that determines whether I should gain funding.

In his article, Bill states:

By doing things this way, the government is actually creating a disincentive for researchers to do popular writing. The reason, of course, is that it takes time to do popular writing, and that’s time a researcher could spend producing research for a refereed journal.

What Bill is saying is that, although he is motivated to communicate science, he is not rewarded for it in the same way as other scientists that are performing science.

But should they be rewarded in the same way for performing different tasks: educating the public and advancing science?

Intrinsically and extrinsically motivated scientists

Much research is dedicated to demonstrating that intrinsic rewards – the desire to increase one’s capacity, knowledge, and well-being – better motivate employees and lead to greater job satisfaction than extrinsic rewards – external validation for a job well done.

Individuals enter their respective professions because they are intrinsically motivated to understand the system they work in. It’s the same whether you are a plumber, a nurse, a physician or a researcher. Each individual also receives extrinsic motivation through a salary.

Although scientists have these same motivations, they also receive extrinsic rewards for doing well in their intrinsically-motivated research through successful grants. There is thus an interesting interplay between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in research that doesn’t necessarily occur to the same extent in other professions.

Additionally, there is also the opportunity to increase intrinsic motivation through scientific communication. One takes the knowledge they’ve gained and disseminates it to the general public. It can make you feel pretty darned good when you see that people are reading and commenting on something you’ve taken the time to think about and explain.

But one could argue that there are extrinsic rewards to science communication as well. Scientists can increase their level of standing within society and are rewarded by Twitter followers, the requests to speak at events as well as book sales.

But because the extrinsic rewards for progressing scientific thought in the general public are different than the extrinsic rewards for performing the same task within the scientific community, there is a mismatch between the value of the extrinsic rewards and their feedback towards the initial intrinsic motivation.

What this means is that scientists who spend their time communicating science to the public are not rewarded with the same likelihood of receiving a grant for their extra effort as someone that spent their time communicating with other scientists through publishing.

What Bill is suggesting is that we need to re-align this mismatch. The question then becomes, can we realign it and should we? And will this repair the feeling of under appreciation?

Diluting the quality of science outreach

The intrinsic motivations for primary research and scientific communication are different. Moreover, performing well in one sphere doesn’t mean you will perform well in another.

The mission of the ARC is “to deliver policy and programs that advance Australian research and innovation globally and benefit the community.”

There is no doubt that science communication benefits the community, but it does not advance primary research. For that reason alone, recognising anything that isn’t primary research will jeopardise a program whose goal is to further such research.

Additionally, linking incentives for scientific outreach with research will result in individuals poorly suited to the job having to enter the field. This will dilute of the quality of science communication.

The Conversation declines articles by scientists that aren’t written for the general public, and which wade too far into a scientific or technical domain. Imagine of they didn’t. The Conversation would quickly plummet into being another journal read only by “experts”, thereby excluding the public.

And finally, research is already full of many metrics, with discussions about whether they are accurately representing individual performance. By hurrying into creating a new metric that incorporates science communication into research output, we run the risk of recreating similar problems as seen with the h-index and HERDC.

Generally, forcing people into a sphere in which they are uncomfortable, and increasing how we measure one’s productivity, will only lead to greater cynicism and less job satisfaction.

As a result, I don’t think the changes to the system that Bill proposes will solve the problem of feeling under appreciated.

We are not alone

Feelings of under appreciation are not limited to science outreach in academics. Teachers often feel under-appreciated, as do nurses, mothers and fathers. Almost everyone does at a certain time.

Perhaps what we need are less metrics and we need to recognise what are colleagues are doing as this collegiate appreciation can increase job satisfaction. Maybe this will refocus our perspective towards what motivated us to become interested in our jobs in the first place.

Bill’s final example of the professor at McGill is an excellent one. His colleague spent a large proportion of her time creating an NGO, something that was likely highly intrinsically rewarding. As a bonus, the committee took this into consideration during for her successful tenure application –- an extrinsic reward.

What I’m interested is whether Bill’s colleague felt more proud of establishing the NGO or the tenure position, and which one she would like to be remembered by? My guess would be the former.

Perhaps physicist Richard Feynman had it right when he said:

I don’t know anything about the Nobel Prize. I don’t understand what it’s about, or what it’s worth […] I don’t like honors. I’m appreciated for the work that I did and I’ve noticed that other physicists use my work. I don’t need anything else. I don’t think there’s any sense to anything else. I don’t see that it makes any point that someone in the Swedish Academy decides that this work is ‘Nobel’ enough to receive a prize. I’ve already got the prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it. Those are the real things. The honors are unreal to me.

Perhaps Richard Feynman was as successful as he was because of his highly intrinsic motivation. But then again, the Nobel Prize is a pretty big extrinsic reward.

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