Postdoctoral researcher Danielle Desa volunteers her time during a Summer Science Camp session to assist a high school student camper.

Scientists more likely to engage with the public when supported by their research institutions

As public discourse surrounding climate change, gene editing and other pressing issues gains momentum, scientists’ expectations to engage with society are expanding. And no issue has heightened how relevant the juncture between science and society is today like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite increasing calls for public engagement within the scientific community, scientists at all stages of their careers differ in their willingness to divert attention away from the desk or lab bench.   

The Science Communication Incubator Lab (SCI Lab) at the Morgridge Institute for Research investigated what characteristics make productive scientists more likely to participate in public engagement than their peers in new research published in the journal Science Communication.  

While existing literature affirms the value of public outreach and informal science education, research institutions typically define productivity as the number of scholarly articles published in a scientist’s career. As a result, some scientists view participation in public engagement as an opportunity cost that takes time away from conducting research.   

Mikhaila Calice

However, events like COVID-19 highlight how critical it is for scientists to build credibility within communities. Without a bridge between research and the public, audiences find it difficult to trust science alone.   

“There’s this perception that if we provide people with the facts about science and technology, that that will be enough to change opinions about certain issues,” says Mikhaila Calice, a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and member of the SCI Lab. “But there’s decades of research to show that that’s just not how human psychology works.”   

The recent sociocultural change in the ways the public consumes and interprets information has led to a growing need for researchers to become effective science communicators. To initiate large-scale change that facilitates science communication, the SCI Lab questioned what influences scientists to engage with the public.   

The study surveyed over 5,000 tenure-track faculty from 30 R1 land-grant universities, or institutes that have a high level of research activity. Respondents were asked about their willingness to participate in two categories of public engagement, public scholarship and informal science education.

Public scholarship refers to engagement activities including meeting with policymakers, being interviewed by journalists or writing popular news articles or op-eds, and participating in public meetings. Informal science education on the other hand includes activities like giving a public lecture or talk at a science café, participating in a science festival or open house event, as well as working with K-12 youth. Scientists’ willingness to engage in these two types of engagement was then compared against several related variables such as level of science communication training, self-efficacy and career-related institutional incentives. 

Dominique Brossard
Dominique Brossard

Findings revealed a positive relationship between productivity and willingness to participate in public scholarship. However, that willingness slightly declined when research organizations failed to support engagement through monetary or career-related incentives.  

The exclusion of public engagement from the tenure process particularly highlights the disconnect between institutions and scientists on what equates to research excellence. Other research conducted by SCI Lab supports this — as Calice explains, “While younger, pre-tenure faculty seemed really motivated to engage with the public and find ways to engage, they often felt like the culture of their lab or institution wasn’t necessarily supporting that.”  

With the addition of institutional support and incentives for engagement, scientists’ research could have greater impact by spending time on engagement, in contrast to the status quo which prioritizes research productivity. Incorporating engagement into the culture of institutions is essential in generating excitement surrounding not only the scientific methods of research but also the teaching of it.   

“Participating in public scholarship and informal science education exposes researchers to how their work intersects with society and why considering that component can be incredibly useful for both connecting with people about science and improving scientific research,” Calice says.   

Nonetheless, a shift in cultural attitudes surrounding engagement involves a change at the institutional level. Dominique Brossard, Morgridge investigator and chair in the Department of Life Sciences Communication, emphasizes this for academia and beyond.   

“Encouraging effective public scholarship and engagement from researchers at all levels is a key part of our mission,“ Brossard says. “Institutional change will not only support our researchers but also the broader community.”  

Looking forward, the SCI Lab plans to assess the effects of upward pressure from early career scientists on mentors and research departments to prioritize engagement. Over time, this institutional change can have a profound impact on how research is conducted and disseminated to the public.