Thoughts on Outreach

Jan 24 2018 Published by under Uncategorized

Razib Khan and Jennifer Raff had an interchange about outreach. It's a longish conversation, but here is one entry point:

It was about the need to do outreach. There is more in this thread, including:

This exchange got me thinking about doing outreach, both personally (as one of those "senior people" who can't write), but also in terms of the junior people I mentor.

I think that one of the biggest reasons people have for not doing outreach (or only doing outreach because it is required by their NSF funding) is that many of us are swamped by the feeling that I am treading water to stay alive. If I am not devoting 105% of my energy towards the things that: get me a job, get me tenure, get me funded, etc then I will not survive to be able to do outreach tomorrow. The argument that senior people have less of these pressures than junior people is not necessarily valid. There are things that are easier,  psychologically, when you have tenure. But as one goes through life, the logistic concerns shift. If one is not making my children's lunches, doing laundry, exercising and all that overhead that is life, one will not be able to do outreach.  If someone is squeezed between teenage children and demented elderly parents, they may look like a selfish boomer to you, but their story is far more complicated than what is seen every day in the lab. Asking anyone and everyone to do outreach, in the current climate is kinda like saying: you all can have a 4 hour work week, if you are clever enough to acquire enough slaves to support you.

Now, there is no question that outreach is important. Indeed Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson make a difference to the public perception of astronomy in general, and probably physics in specific. It's important to realize that outreach, at the level of NdGT isn’t easy or necessarily possible no matter how much time and energy and love you put into it. IRL, I have written some of those popular articles, and even gotten them published in big-audience places. But getting the kind of audience he has? Not a chance in the world. It is this hard no matter how old you are.

Not everybody is going to be good at that level of outreach. One may argue that a Sagan or a deGrasse Tyson is a relatively rare and talented human being. Neil Shubin got a show based on his “Inner Fish” book – evolution, humans, etc. Neil is good, but it didn’t take off the way Cosmos did. Paul Serreno does a ton of outreach for dinosaurs, but one may argue whether his work, or that of Jack Horner, another dinosaur dude, makes the headlines in the same way. Jurassic Park, with the Sam Neill character based on Horner, probably did more for dinosaur funding than anything else. I know of a couple of other evolution types who’d like to be NdGT, but just aren’t that good. Ed Wilson (Silent Generation) just wrote another popular book on creativity and our brains. Steve Gould. There is a list of folks who try, but succeed at various levels of public splash.

Finally, keep in mind that there is lots of outreach going on that isn't so obvious.  Outreach that is, shall we say, in reach? Talking to schools, publishing locally, even giving money for science in schools. There is a couple I know, who do great biology, ranging from dinosaurs to birds to bats, bone and tissue through evolution and ecosystem. They go to public schools about once a month, every month, every year. They may not impact federal funding or the greater public perception, but if they reach one kid a visit, is that an important difference? By definition, this isn’t going to be visible on twitter.

More thoughts to come.



4 responses so far

  • qaz says:

    I would argue that talking to schools, publishing locally, speaking to interested groups (No one is more interested in cardiology than a heart-attack patient) is extremely important for federal (and state!) funding. One thing that I *always* do is end every talk, particularly every public talk with a statement saying "thank you for funding me and giving me the opportunity to make these discoveries for you" and I explain why private money does not fund research (too long from discovery to breakthough, hard to profitize) and why it is so necessary that we as a society fund it. I've worked up a 20 second spiel to end my outreach talks with. I think this definitely changes the attitude of people towards taxes and government and the funding of research. (People have expressed such to me after such outreach talks.)

  • Another Anon says:

    Lots of male scientists in your 'good but not good enough' list of outreachers. Sad that there are no female scientists that come close.

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