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Science Communication

Is science communication making me a better scientist?

Career | Opinion | Researchers
Is science communication making me a better scientist?

Is time devoted to science communication a valuable investment?

With every passing month, a science communication workshop is happening. Professional societies are embedding science communication workshops at their annual meetings. Scientific journals and Universities are also stepping up their efforts to support science communication.

This interest in science communication - which means ensuring the general public understands scientific discoveries and findings - occurs despite the fact that graduate students, scientists, professors (including untenured ones) are rarely rewarded for adding this to their already rigorous and demanding careers.

Why do they do it? Could there be other rewards? Is time devoted to science communication a valuable investment? Does engaging in science communication make researchers better scientists? What are some of the benefits that can arise for scientists who choose to engage in science communication?

To begin with, routinely sharing and communicating science with the public allows the researcher to distinguish themselves from their peers while elevating their research profile among other researchers, policy makers and grant funding agencies. In essence, scientists engaged in science communication consistently do create a personal brand making their profile more visible to their peers and to the larger scientific community. Increased visibility can pave way for many other benefits including drawing attention to grant funding agencies, improving the number of people who cite the research science communicators share, and create pathways to influence science policy.

There is research evidence showing that, in ecology and conservation research, scientific communication correlates positively with increased citations. Another recent study demonstrated that tweeting has the potential to disseminate research results widely, further elevating the scientist’s profile.

Secondly, sharing your research with the wider public can open doors for new networks while broadening your existing ones. Importantly, engaging in science communication enables you to interact with researchers at different stages of their career, from different regions of the world, thus building a broader network. New expansive networks from across the world can lead to future collaborative and interdisciplinary research and can be a gateway for scientists to learn about different conferences and training programs, all of which can help to enhance a researcher’s career trajectory. The Informal science network, for example, has a collection of all the conferences that are available for scientists that are interested in science communication. 

The growing interest in science communication has opened up new funding opportunities such as the ones offered by the US- based National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, the Swiss National Science Foundation, Alfred P Sloan Foundation, and the VolkswagenStiftung Foundation. This is in addition to the MIF’s Science Communications Funders Network representing a cohort of funders who are recognizing the need to communicate more effectively around science.

The benefits that derive from translating the jargon of science into language the public understands can sometimes be hard to quantify, especially in academia, where metrics such as the h-index are used to assess the quality of peer-reviewed science publications and the impact scientists’ output has. The good news, however, is that the academic community, including grant funding agencies, are slowly but surely beginning to change how they define impact. For instance, scientists submitting grant proposals to the National Science Foundation are requested to list their research products or “broader impacts” rather than just their peer-reviewed publications, meaning that other products, such as those generated by engaging in science communication can count too. Not only that but also, academic institutions are beginning to allow scientists to use metrics provided by blog sites or social media platforms on which they post their articles about the research they are doing.

All in all, time devoted to science communication is a valuable investment that can have a tremendous societal impact. And the return on this investment is truly rewarding. Dr. Michelle Rodrigues at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign who is an avid science communicator, sums it all up in a Twitter comment – “The major reason I do it is because it's so fulfilling to have people interested and engaged in your work in a way that you don't often get without public engagement.”

It is our obligation as scientists to continue to highlight many of these benefits. Doing so will go a long way in inspiring other researchers to raise awareness of the role that science plays in the quality of everyday life.

This blog post is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY). The illustration is by Hindawi and is also CC-BY.

Article of the Year Award: Outstanding research contributions of 2020, as selected by our Chief Editors. Read the winning articles.