Science outreach must be flexible

Throughout 2016, on average more than 9,000 scientific papers and letters were submitted each month to the scientific publication platform arXiv.org – and the number is still increasing in 2017.

The submissions are from scientific researchers, and many of the papers cover research in physics and astronomy, see below. The audience is typically a relatively narrow range of scientists, who work in the same field.

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Fractional new submissions per year (source: arxiv.org). Physics and astronomy cover the bright and dark blue, green and red areas.

Research performance is often evaluated by the quality and quantity of scientific contributions, and more often than not scientific impact is measured by some sort of metric, which typically is driven by number of citations in other papers.

So, what is my point with this semi-boring outline of the scientific framework? Well, my point is this: There is a lot of science available online, because scientific researchers have to publish their work. Unfortunately, it is only few people other than the scientific peers, who can read and understand the paper.

Media boosts the attention

It caught most people’s attention, when the Higgs-boson was discovered at CERN in July 2012, or when LIGO claimed to discover gravitational waves in February 2016. LIGO and CERN are both large institutions, and they have communication specialists dedicated to convey physics to the layman. Science becomes available to the public in a form that is understood.

So, what about all the publications that are submitted every day to e.g. the arXiv? Of course there are much more scientific findings hiding in the crowd of paper submissions, but much of this science will never reach the public. Often because of low outreach resources at the scientific institutions. This can lead to production of alternative facts or straight up wrong interpretations, if the wrong person picks up the science.

Today anyone can be a writer on the internet, and this can and will dilute source critique and enhance ‘fake news’.

So why don’t researchers just convey more science to the public? Well, they do. Many researchers make themselves available for public interviews and lectures. This year, for instance, March for Science put focus on the need for public correctly conveyed science.

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March for Science 2017 in Washington DC (source: Reuters via BBC.com).

While this naturally is great, there are still multiple reasons for why this is not enough.

First of all, take a look at these criteria for submitting an outreach paper to one of the journals supported by American Physical Society and American Institute of Physics. This is a considerable work load. One hour that a researcher spends on this, is one hour less to do science.

Even if a researcher takes the time to do it, then comes the time consuming process of public communication. Who is my audience? Where are they? Which media do they use?  How do they use them? Why should they care? Answering these questions -and more- requires a lot of time and knowledge about audience behaviour. After this initial phase, comes the actual creation of content based on the publication.

Outreach flexibility is the key

Some institutions have permanent communication staff to enhance outreach and ensure that the correct message reaches the correct audience. But what about those who have none? Or those who do not need permanent communication staff, but instead need ad-hoc outreach when they have a new finding?

outreach-graph-1
Researchers’ ad-hoc demand for outreach (source: Astronomicca.com).

The terms of scientific outreach are changing. Science is long term, outreach is short term –  because outreach can combine science with the rapidly changing trends of today. The access to flexible outreach is crucial for the scientific community to create public interest. Otherwise there is a risk, that important science will drown in the crowd of monthly submissions.

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