What’s most worrisome is his assumption that scientists should naturally embrace this approach, and that they are skilled enough to succeed. Scientists deal in data. That’s where they’re most comfortable. They pursue knowledge for its own sake. Although obviously acknowledging its value to society, the commercialization or benefit of discovery is usually an afterthought, not a primary goal of their work.
And being the public face of science, or being perceived as an advocate for some science policy, carries very real risks to scientists’ careers. Most scientists still consider such activity an inappropriate form of self-promotion that can cast doubt on the impartiality of their work. While most researchers would philosophically agree that more active participation in public debate by scientists would be a good thing, there doesn’t seem to be any mad dash by researchers to enter the fray.
A survey earlier this year by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press showed that 70 percent of those asked said that scientists “contributed a lot” to society, beating out the clergy, journalists, lawyers, and business executives, in that order.
Would the public react the same if suddenly researchers started arguing positions rather than reporting findings?
Perhaps, but that still leaves a pragmatic question: Do scientists have the time to increase their efforts in the public science debate? Do they have the time to become more skilled in communications?
Research has gotten much more competitive in the last decade. The size of funding awards, on average, has dropped; at the same time, the number of researchers vying for federal grants has risen. The stakes are already high, and scientists routinely complain about the demands already placed on them.
In 2007, more than 6,000 researchers responded to a survey (pdf) by the Federal Demonstration Project intended to gauge how scientists spent their time while working on federal research grants. The report said that 42 percent of the researchers’ time was now “devoted to pre- and post-award administrative activities – not to active research,” and that compliance issues—adherence to regulations and the simple management of projects— stole time away from their doing the actual science.
Given the choice, scientists would rather do the science instead of other ancillary tasks. And that’s how it should be. It’s unfair to expect scientists, as a community, to undertake a greater role in communications about their fields, regardless of the societal good that might come from it.