Incentive structures in higher education have a major impact on how scientists communicate critical advances in their fields. As Andrew Hoffman, Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan, said, the rewards system is a statement “about who we are, what we do, why we do it, and what we value. If we don’t change the rewards [system], nothing is going to change.”
Many academic scientists believe that it is important for the public to know more about science but think that they will not benefit personally by engaging in science communication, noted Hoffman. According to a poll of University of Michigan faculty conducted in 2015, 56 percent thought that public engagement is not valued by tenure committees, 41 percent thought it was time consuming and distracting, and 34 percent believed that public engagement is dangerous because sources are often misquoted. However, the poll also showed that younger scholars want more engagement. “They want to change the world around them,” Hoffman said.
He distinguished four combinations of motivations and incentives as a two-by-two matrix:
Extrinsic Motivation and Formal Incentives encompass tenure and promotion, annual reviews, journal publishing, and training and include much of what is considered the rewards system in academia.
Extrinsic Motivation and Informal Incentives include gaining greater visibility within a field or among the public, which can improve a person’s status within the university. However, such a person can also be mocked or dismissed as a popularizer or media hound who is simply trying to attract attention.
Intrinsic Motivation and Formal Incentives can lead a scientist to develop new research strategies or seek new audiences as a way to explore new and novel approaches and increase stature and impact both inside and outside the academy.
Intrinsic Motivation and Informal Incentives can provide a person with a sense of meaning and purpose. Scientists may do something “because they believe that’s what they’re supposed to do, it’s their purpose, it’s their mission.”
Hoffman pointed to several signs that the rewards system is changing for the better. High-level administrators are beginning to pay more attention to the issue, though “I’d love to see more presidents, more deans, more provosts, more funders, the people who really have their finger on the institutions” engaged in such discussions, Hoffman said.
In addition, more institutions are getting involved in the issue. For example, a recent report from the American Sociological Association explored how to evaluate public communication in tenure and promotion (ASA, 2016). The Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan added a fourth category—practice—to the three traditionally included in annual reviews—research, teaching, and service. The Mayo Clinic now includes social media scholarship activities in tenure and promotion decisions.
Finally, journals are beginning to change. One initiative, for example, is encouraging business management journals to focus on more issues of empirical relevance. “It’s much easier to engage in public discourse if you’re doing research that the public actually cares about,” said Hoffman.
A number of factors predict faculty behavior, said KerryAnn O’Meara, professor of higher education at the University of Maryland, College Park. She focused on three (at the risk, she admitted, of oversimplifying): identity and socialization, agency and self-efficacy, and recognition. With all three, different groups could integrate science communication in “sticky” ways into faculty careers.
Identity and socialization constitute part of the process by which people become academics. In graduate school, students acquire knowledge, skills, and orientations within their disciplines and institutions. Thus, if graduate students do not get opportunities to develop the knowledge and skills of science communication and do not see this work as being valued by their academic mentors and peers, they will not develop an orientation toward it.
As an example of one way to socialize future faculty toward this type of work in graduate school, O’Meara cited the University of Maryland’s Language Science Center. As part of a National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Traineeship program, the center aims to train graduate students to communicate about their research through policy internships, opportunities to meet with policy makers, writing workshops, interactions with professionals in the field, and outreach to high school linguistic classes. Students in this program practice explaining their work and receive feedback to improve their approach and style. They also receive strong role modeling and signals from their faculty that “science communication is part and parcel of being an excellent scholar,” said O’Meara.
By agency and self-efficacy, O’Meara said that she was talking about strategic perspectives and actions to accomplish the goal of communicating with public audiences. Despite many innovations in graduate education, most faculty today are trained to study specific phenomena and then
communicate that knowledge through presentations and journal articles. With support from federal agencies, foundations, and other organizations, groups are working with faculty members to broaden their targets through such means as blogs, op-eds, national and local interviews, and social media posts. For example, the OpEd Project is a leadership program with the mission of trying to change who narrates history and interprets findings. “Who’s invited to the research panel to write an op-ed? Who gets to be on NPR to weigh in? They’ve been very successful at bringing in new voices to public conversations,” O’Meara said.
Finally, recognition includes promotion and tenure and the other ways that academics are rewarded. “I like to think of reward systems more as regard systems, because they’re about much more than promotion and tenure,” said O’Meara. In the process, biases and existing reward systems can privilege some voices over others, limiting the number of people at the table for important conversations. But criteria for evaluating scholarly activity have begun to change. For example, many institutions have begun to create awards and track various kinds of high-impact engagement. The institutions that have been most successful have been those that have integrated activities into a holistic portfolio, avoiding the faculty members’ fear that public engagement will be an add-on responsibility that everyone must do. This approach calls for clear criteria and the use of language within that field to identify high-quality work, O’Meara said. “It’s a matter of changing the view that we have of the work to move it into a form of scholarship that can be acknowledged for what it is.”
“As an engineer, my focus is on taking scientific understanding and using it to create societal change,” said Emmanuel Taylor, senior electricity consultant at Energetics, Incorporated. “It is impossible to do that unless technical professionals collaborate and communicate with broader audiences.”
As a graduate student, Taylor was involved in the Science and Engineering Ambassadors program, an initiative of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering to better equip scientists and engineers to be able to communicate and then to create dialogues between scientists and engineers and the broader communities in which they live. Similarly, as a technical consultant for Energetics, Incorporated, he works with public- and private-sector organizations to create technology road maps and strategic plans. These often require direct dialogue among stakeholders in a community to establish a common vision, identify barriers for achieving that vision, and brainstorm path-
ways for overcoming those challenges. “Both at the community level and the industry level, we’ve seen the benefits where communities are able to utilize scientific understanding to make complex decisions, and industries are able to move forward with clearer vision and purpose, in order to create benefits that have a measurable impact beyond publications,” he said.
Scientists and engineers benefit in many ways from engaging in these dialogues, said Taylor. They are exposed to opportunities that can advance their careers. They can affect policy and regulation by making available and interpreting data. Their work can also have a greater impact on society. “Often researchers will spend years developing new technologies and then attempt to commercialize it, only to find that industry is working with a different set of assumptions,” he said. “That can be overcome by direct dialogue and communication.”
Taking early-stage research to commercialization in a complex socioeconomic environment requires the coordination of scientists, engineers, and other professionals from universities, national laboratories, private industry, and other organizations, Taylor said. He has been helping Energetics, Incorporated, structure those dialogues and create forums, summits, and workshops to gather diverse opinions. “Increased understanding and knowledge, and advanced technology, can have a measurable impact on the quality of life for communities and can change advanced industries,” he said.
As an example of how the Science and Engineering Ambassadors program has been used as a vehicle to engage the public, Neil Donahue, Lord Professor of Chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University, described his experiences publishing several papers on climate change. They were on the formation of fine particles in the atmosphere, which is a major source of uncertainty in climate forcing. This work was picked up by The Wall Street Journal and used to suggest that computer models have overstated the risk of a warming climate. But this was not at all what the papers showed, said Donahue. Rather, they showed that fine particles could slightly cool the atmosphere to an extent well within the uncertainty range estimated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “We weren’t disagreeing with anything,” said Donahue.
Since then, Donahue and his colleagues have been working with Baruch Fischhoff and Illah Nourbakhsh at Carnegie Mellon University to engage communities in Pittsburgh around the questions about air pollution. The Science and Engineering Ambassadors program has been particularly valuable in this effort, he said, because it has engaged people in industry and in national laboratories “to get the dialogue going.”
Tenure guidelines differ among institutions, but they typically require demonstrated excellence in research and in either teaching or service, which at land grant universities has often included extension activities. But recent years have seen pushback against these criteria even at major research universities, said professor of science communication Dietram Scheufele, who chaired a committee that looked at a revision of tenure guidelines at the University of Wisconsin. That committee recommended what he called an “integrated case” that combines elements of public outreach, traditional tenure criteria, and a candidate’s overall impact on the field. In particular, working with communities and other stakeholders would become a larger part of a tenure package.
However, questions of how to quantify the quality of such activities have long plagued tenure committees, Scheufele added. For example, a major problem is distinguishing between research and the impact of that research. Can the same activities count toward both categories at the same time? What are the criteria to be used for excellence? Are standards being watered down?
Scheufele said that such challenges can and should be seen as opportunities. Focusing on outcomes provides an opportunity to clearly define outreach, engagement, communication, and public scholarship. In the past, these terms have not been well defined, which complicates the writing of tenure guidelines. “We need to do a lot more thinking in that respect and we have to be very clear.”
Greater clarity also will yield greater transparency, he said. The criteria for promotion can be established when people are hired and then people can be evaluated against those standards. For example, the standards at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, call for independent, verifiable, and specific evidence of excellence and impact in the area of outreach.
The University of Wisconsin now has a Ph.D. minor in science communication for bench scientists that shows up on their transcript. Such training prepares bench scientists for careers that involve outreach, which has been particularly welcomed by younger scientists. These young researchers have a hunger to make a difference, Scheufele said. “It’s a generational shift.”
Ahna Skop, associate professor in the Department of Genetics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, studies cell division, which she described as a “beautiful” process. With an affiliate faculty position in both life sciences communication and the Arts Institute of Wisconsin, she
has been doing outreach and engagement through scientific art and trains artists in her laboratory. Art provides creative and innovative ways of visualizing and tackling problems, she said. For example, partly because she is a visual learner, she was transfixed by the process of cell division as a young researcher. She also became fascinated by what she saw underneath the microscopes of other people. As a graduate student, she started the International C. elegans art show, which has been going on for 20 years in the C. elegans community. She also noticed that the walls of the laboratory at the University of Wisconsin had no art. “So I went to the dean’s office, above my chair, and I said, ‘I have an idea. I want to put art on the walls because I want students to come in and see what we’re doing.’” With the $15,000 she got from the dean, she has filled the department with art. “These are images that engage the public and bring them in,” she said. In turn, this led to the Cool Science Image Competition at the University of Wisconsin, in which scientific images are displayed as art and are a way of interesting schoolchildren and other members of the public in science. “As someone who takes funding that is from taxpayer money, it’s an obligation to give back to society,” Skop said.
She pointed to the broader impacts criterion introduced into the grants process at the NSF as a powerful incentive for these kinds of programs. One way for scientists to have broader impact, she said, is to integrate the arts into their work. “If you have a passion or hobby, you can combine it with what you do,” she said. “You can meld that with your science, and there are lots of funding mechanisms to support this.”
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