Young Scientist Outreach

Can We Foster It?

Back when I was at the University of Colorado and doing my graduate work, I suggested that young science grad students take a course in writing or some other form of outreach — mostly to foster their skills in communicating science. That was well over a decade ago and in a time when such things were radical ideas. To put it mildly (and perhaps not surprisingly), the idea went nowhere.

So fast forward to today, and an age of advanced science outreach and you’d think maybe that grad students have been encouraged to DO outreach? Are young post-docs encouraged to do so? Not so much. Oh, sure there are some who get hooked on outreach and CAN write well and CAN do animations that explain their work. And, I have heard of some programs at a few places that encourage grad students to take some training in writing, etc. But, from a community standpoint, such outreach isn’t the reason these folks go to school and so such courses aren’t widespread.  And, it isn’t encouraged by the older generation of scientists and researchers who hold tenure decisions, etc. over these young folks. Which is unfortunate. If ever we were in an era needing MORE people to explain science who are also DOING science, this is it.

Not that I want to put myself out of work — far from it. My expertise IS in communicating science, particularly in astronomy and space sciences (and related disciplines). I have academic background in my specialty areas, and I did my graduate work in problems of science communication.

These days I am a science communicator writing documentary scripts, articles, exhibits, and other outreach materials. I work WITH scientists to help them communicate. And, to do my job, I rely on scientists who can communicate their science.  And, if they can’t, then all I’m left with are press releases and institutional puff pieces.  THAT’s why I want to see more young scientists at least take a course or two to help them communicate their research to people like me. Sure, it’s a selfish reason — it helps me do MY job better, but it also brings scientists into the realm of communication — of being part of the conversation about science.

At the ASP meeting this past week I heard a statement from a panelist about how young scientists at an institution this person works with are encouraged NOT to get too involved in outreach too early in their careers — because they should concentrate on the science and the grant-getting and paper-writing, etc. Apparently it’s better to do outreach when one is an older scientist, more set in one’s career. I suppose this makes some kind of sense,  but it also made me kind of sad — those are the folks who perhaps are the most enthusiastic part of their careers and this is a really good time to involve them in outreach. So, now I wonder how we can get them into outreach AND make it rewarding while at the same time making sure their research is sustained?

Anybody  have any thoughts about this out in the hive mind?


  1. ccp

    They aren’t forbidden to do outreach — just at the institution mentioned, they are cautioned to throttle back on it while they’re still early in their research careers post-doc. Yes, they are researchers, but that “muscle” for communication needs to be exercised, too. Even if they don’t actively create animations or press materials, they should still be able to a) learn to write effectively for the public, and b) be encouraged to do SOME outreach throughout their careers.

    I don’t know of a specific NSF requirement for outreach; NSF funds some outreach, as does NASA – but that’s for projects attached to research. it’s a start, but not everybody does these projects. See my paragraph above.

  2. I find this an interesting problem. It seems to me that most of the new media outreach is done by graduate students. They’ve embraced new technologies. Is this the way to reach the public? It’s only part of the puzzle. New media is one tool, hosting face-to-face engagements is another. I think they go hand in hand. There’s a sad statistic out there that only 15 percent of Americans actually know a scientist. There is more to life than research. Sharing that joy of learning and science can be contagious in the right audiences. I come at this from a different angle. I’m a journalist with a science background, not the other way around. I was trained to question what I hear and read, dig for answers and prepare it in such a way as it’s easily digested by the general public. I also know PR and marketing. It might be helpful for scientists not only to be able to write to the public but be able to clearly explain their research in an entertaining way but also present it in favorable ways to garner attention support. This does take time.

  3. ccp

    Yes, you are right about the new media — many of us were starting to grasp it even a decade or more ago when web pages were the “new media.” It seems natural and normal.

    I’m not saying that scientists should become writers — but that they should have that toolkit to help them communicate the science they are doing — either to the public or to those of us who also write and publish about science and help them get their word out.

  4. I live in Ottawa, Canada, and one of the universities here, Carleton University, is helping students learn how to communicate science, but I’m not sure how far they go in promoting outreach.

    “…for about eight years, we have given a course called the First Year Seminar in Science. This course, given to about 80 students each year, is not primarily about science content but rather about science communication.

    The students are encouraged to learn how to write and to speak to readers and audiences at various levels, including to the general public. We are not yet sure how well this is working, but indications are all very positive.”

    That’s getting close, but I’d be interested in knowing if they encourage students to go out and put what they’ve learned to work with the public.

  5. One of the outreach programs I’m involved with is JPL Solar System Ambassadors. This group of volunteers, space enthusiasts, link up with the Museum Alliance and other volunteer organizations to promote space. It’s highly rewarding. One thing I find missing is young people in the ranks. If this kind of thing were available when I was an undergrad, I would have jumped on it. Maybe it’s a lack of time or maybe it’s a lack of PR on the part of the program to try and reach this age group niche. The program is taking applications now, by the way, if anyone is interested. You’ll find it on the JPL site. (That site is: (CCP))

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