In recent years, scientists have been under scrutiny to
demonstrate the public relevance of their government-funded research. A new
study from Rice University and Southern Methodist
University finds that women are much more involved in these outreach efforts
than their male counterparts.
“Ultimately, it is the public that funds much of the
scientific research taking place today,” said Elaine Howard Ecklund, coauthor
of the study and an associate professor of sociology at Rice. “As a result,
there’s huge pressure on universities and academics to make their work
translatable and applicable to the broader public.”
The study, “How Academic Biologists and Physicists View Science
Outreach,” is the first in-depth study on this topic. It included interviews
with 150 interview respondents randomly selected from a larger study, “Perceptions of Women in Academic Science.” That study encompassed a survey and
in-depth interviews with more than 3,400 scientists housed in the top 20
graduate programs in biology and physics—two core science disciplines—in the United States.
The new study found that although 58% of respondents are
involved in science outreach of some kind (72% of which were women), 37% of
respondents blamed poor science-outreach efforts on scientists themselves.
“Our research shows that scientists often perceive
themselves as having poor personal communication skills and have little
confidence in their own abilities to do outreach, leading them to think they
might actually hurt the public’s perception of science if they engage in
outreach activities,” Ecklund said. In fact, 29% of all respondents said that
scientists are poor interpersonal communicators or that nonscientists perceive
them to be uniformly inept at communication, regardless of their actual
A male biology professor Ecklund interviewed said, “I’m not
sure you want most of the (scientists) that I know here to go out and try to
talk to the public. (The public is) going to say, ‘Stop spending my tax dollars
on this person!’”
Other factors deterring scientists from conducting public
outreach include a lack of encouragement at the institutional level at
universities and a widespread notion among academics that dissemination of
research findings beyond peer-reviewed journals is “dumbed-down” science and
thus not undertaken by the most talented researchers.
Given that the majority of scientists conducting outreach
are women, the authors theorize that as the number of women in science
increases, outreach may increase. However, a corresponding interpretation is
that scientists may have the perception that outreach is a more feminine,
care-oriented task, which may further decrease the legitimacy of this pursuit.
“Unless outreach efforts increase in legitimacy at top
research universities, the academic careers of the women who engage in outreach
work may actually be hindered,” Ecklund said. Ecklund is also director of the
Social Sciences Research Institute’s Religion and Public Life Program and a
Rice Scholar at the Baker Institute for Public Policy.