Science Outreach: Is It Really Worth it?
Standing off to the side of the demonstration, I watched a six-year-old girl carefully pick up her paper airplane from the ground and bring it back to her work station. With intense concentration, she snipped away a part of each wing, making the plane more sleek and adept for flying. After several more snips, she held it up to her mother to observe, then ran to an open area to test her experimental adjustments.
“This is fun,” she said to me, as she watched her plane soar through the air. “I want to design real planes when I’m grown-up!”
Such are the moments that we live for as scientists who are truly passionate about outreach. Whether we work with children or adults, we all have a common goal: communicating our love of science in a way that inspires others. To me, there is no better reward than that.
Or is there?
As a PhD student at a large R1 school, I know how competitive it is to win a fellowship. From the moment we enter graduate school, we are encouraged to apply for every grant we see. Through organizations such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), millions of dollars are provided to support graduate students in performing groundbreaking research that largely impacts society. However, as I come to meet more scientists, my faith is beginning to wander concerning the true intentions of those who are supported by such agencies.
In my first semester of grad school, I was required to take a semester-long class to learn the art of grant-writing. The biggest point I took away was that institutions like the NSF pride themselves on two main focuses: intellectual merit (the impact of the research on the field) and broader impacts (science outreach). It’s common for students’ applications to be rejected due to their lack of outreach. Thus, to avoid rejection on next year’s round, they get involved with outreach events wherever they can – museums, libraries, schools, and the like. However, once NSF’s application deadline passes, so does students’ interest. It’s already a line on their resume, so no need to continue attending, right?
Don’t get me wrong, even forced science outreach can be valuable. But to someone who actually enjoys volunteering and public service, this is quite a nuisance. Even professors sometimes do outreach solely to include it in their grant proposals. While these activities nonetheless help bring science to the community, I argue that it takes away from the true greater good. If we’re only doing outreach to put it on our resumes, what prevents us from skimping? Can we be confident that our work is being done well, and if it’s actually benefitting others?
In order to really make a difference, we need to look past the funding allocations and prestige of awards. We need to stress the fact to our scientific colleagues that outreach is a critical component of good science. Additionally, if we want to be good educators, we must first educate ourselves. A great way to do this is through workshops and classes that teach us the importance of good science communication. It’s easy to get caught up in the jargon that we use in the lab every day. By learning how to be effective presenters, we can better understand what inspires others, and can lead them to share in our enthusiasm for science.
On the other hand, we must recruit and retain motivated scientists to accomplish this task. Grad students, I’m looking at you! There are so many ways to get involved in outreach, both within and outside of the university. Find something that you’re passionate about, then share your excitement with others. The beauty of science outreach is that you get to be the author of the story that you tell.
The only question left now: will you help us? Ultimately, the choice is yours.
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