Confronting the critics of public engagement

Sharing knowledge and information widely is no waste of time, says Philip Moriarty

February 29, 2016
Angry man shouting at computer

“You’re a professor at university, for f**k’s sake. Stop wasting your time on YouTube and do research.”

That title above is the closing line of a rather aggrieved email I received last week from a critic of a Sixty Symbols video Brady Haran and I made a while back. It came at the end of a poorly punctuated, grammatically challenged, vitriol-fuelled, stream-of-consciousness diatribe about my lack of research credentials. (Sample quote: “You got a phd from an average college and went on to do a useless post-doc at an even worst college… and ended up teaching there…[sic]). This person clearly had a particularly buzzy bee in their bonnet about academics “wasting their time” doing public engagement instead of devoting themselves exclusively, and monastically, to research.

Although the vast majority of Sixty Symbols-related emails I receive are highly supportive of what we do, and missives such as that described above are rare, it’s certainly not an entirely isolated rant. Others have similarly questioned in no uncertain terms (anonymously, of course) why I, as a publicly funded academic, should be “pissing about online” instead of staying in the lab and “doing what we taxpayers pay you to do”.

Hot on the heels of that charming “get off YouTube” missive appearing in my inbox (and entirely coincidentally), Brady sent me a link to this paper: “Has contemporary academia outgrown the Carl Sagan effect?” The author, Susanna Martinez-Conde, asks whether scientists who devote time to public engagement are perceived to be weaker in terms of their academic credentials than those who, following the advice of my friend above, forgo YouTube and (social) media in general and remain cosseted among the ivory towers and dreaming spires. This is the so-called Sagan effectthat public engagement can be a net detriment, rather than benefit, to an academic’s career. (As Martinez-Conde describes in her article, it is widely perceived that the nomination of Sagan for membership of the National Academy of Sciences did not succeed largely because of his charismatic media presence.)

I found Martinez-Conde’s article fascinating (despite the flawed h-index concept appearing there as a proxy for academic quality/activity). She writes lucidly and engagingly, and her article is timely in that it reminds us that there can still be some degree of backlash against scientists with a media profile; as Martinez-Conde pithily puts it: “The ambivalence [to public/media engagement] lives on.” There are some telling quotes towards the end of the article that, in my experience, represent an accurate sampling of how public engagement is currently perceived by many academics:

“When one begins to speak about one’s science to the public early in one’s career, I think there might well be some punishment from the field. This of course should not be, if the work is solid and the applications are appropriate. But I suspect that it’s a price junior people unfortunately have to pay. In my field, even writing a popular book ‘too early’ in one’s career is viewed negatively.

“University departments, at least in the UK, are now encouraging… public engagement or outreach… Having said that, young researchers are often criticised for blogging about their research.

“I started when I was already in a tenure-track job, which is a reasonably advanced career stage and already somewhat less at risk of backlash.”

I’m extremely lucky to work in a department where there is a very strong commitment to public engagement and outreach in a variety of forms, including via social media. Indeed, our head of school, Mike Merrifield, has a substantial social media presence on both YouTube and Twitter. For Mike, there is no question that public engagement is associated with considerable “added value” for an academic’s career (and, by extension, for the department/school/institute/university where that researcher is based):

“Given the choice between appointing or promoting someone with nothing but a strong research programme and someone with the dynamism and drive to be involved in innovative outreach as well as a strong research programme, it seems a complete no-brainer to me.”

But, as Martinez-Conde highlights, not every academic is perhaps as enlightened as Mike when it comes to public engagement. One criticism regularly levelled at those who aim to explain science to a wider audience than just their immediate scientific peers (in a particular sub-sub-sub-discipline) is that too much dumbing down happens – the science is trivialised. Indeed, some have gone even further and claimed that bringing science to a wider audience somehow debases it. This is a particularly vitriolic example from a few years back: “Brian Cox doesn’t dumb-down science. He does worse. He makes it disposable.” The author sneeringly claims that “Cox has single-handedly turned the fine art of science presenting into a Katie Price impersonation competition”.

I’ve not heard quite that level of spitefulness when Cox’s TV and radio appearances have been discussed among physicists, but I’ve certainly encountered some “sniffiness” regarding his research credentials: “What qualifies Cox to speak about astronomy, he’s a particle physicist, isn’t he? How many papers has he written on the topics he covers in Wonders Of The Universe? Isn’t there someone more qualified?”, and so forth. There was also a certain irritating “gotcha!” flavour to quite a bit of the criticism surrounding Cox’s explanation of the Pauli exclusion principle during the BBC’s Night With The Stars programme back in 2012. “Just who does he think he is? He may well be able to entertain the masses but maybe he should spend more time on the nitty-gritty of the physics before he tries to explain it. 

I should perhaps point out that, as an undergraduate admissions tutor (and simply as a physicist), I cannot sing Cox’s praises enough. He has had a hugely significant and entirely positive impact on popularising physics and astronomy. I thoroughly enjoyed his rebuttal to his critics in this Guardian article:

“Some people can’t see the content for the style. I just want to get the script and say, ‘Here’s what I said about gravitational mass and inertial mass, or about Einstein’s general theory of relativity or about entropy. Now you tell me what you fucking know about entropy.’ I suspect they couldn’t because they weren’t paying attention. They’re so bewitched by complaining that the style of Wonders isn’t like the great TV documentaries from when they were young.”

Although public engagement (in the UK at least) is arguably now viewed with slightly less suspicion than when that Guardian interview with Cox was published five years ago, Martinez-Conde’s article reminds us that early career researchers in particular still need to be careful to weigh up the pros and cons before they dive into blogging, tweeting, YouTube-ing, etc. So while I certainly strongly encourage researchers in the group here at the University of Nottingham to get involved in public engagement and outreach, they and I know only too well that their future career – if they want to secure a permanent academic position – depends fundamentally on the research they do and the papers they publish. Some hiring committees may not have Professor Merrifield’s laudable attitude when it comes to weighing up research outputs vs public engagement.

While writing this post, I got in contact with a number of research scientists and academics I know – at various career levels – who are regular bloggers/tweeters/social media users. I was keen to know whether they felt that their social media presence had affected their careers positively or negatively. Kyle Baldwin, an early career researcher here at Nottingham, is new to the blogging lark, having started up Apples And Bongo Drums just a few weeks ago. I asked him what prompted him to get into blogging and if he’d encountered any nay-saying from colleagues or friends. Kyle sees his blog as a hobby and as something distinct from the “day job”, and while he’s not encountered any snide feedback as such, he’s of the opinion that there can be quite some scepticism towards blogs in both academic and non-academic circles. He attributes this to a number of factors:

“I think there’s a few things. First, there’s the image of the blogger as being this ultra-opinionated internet warrior that rallies support from the Reddit/Tumblr mob, and descends the mob down on anyone in their path. I think people who have this problem can be generally described as social media sceptics. Second, some just see it as a diary, which confuses them as a diary isn’t something that they would think should go on the internet. Thirdly, I think some people just see it as showing off, and sometimes I feel that way too. In a very stereotypically British way of thinking, why would I have the arrogance to assume that my opinion is either correct or important? Better to just shut up, go home, and grumble by the fireplace.”

This concern about being seen to be “showing off” came up a number of times in the responses I received; apparently, expressing your opinion online is just not cricket in certain company. Sylvia McLain is a biophysicist and lecturer at Oxford who blogs at her own site (the cleverly-monikered Girl, Interrupting part of the Occam’s Typewriter blog community), writes for The Guardian’s science blog, and also tweets regularly. Sylvia echoes Kyle’s concerns about the perception of self-promotion:

“I don’t try to promote too much not because I am humble – I’m not – but because I worry that people will think that I am overselling myself and that this stuff is useless…”

Staying within the so-called golden triangle, but moving northwards to the University of Cambridge, I asked Paul Coxon, a research associate (and keen tweeter) based in the materials science department there, for his views on Martinez-Conde’s paper. (Paul waxed lyrical about the benefits of Twitter for early career researchers in a great blog post for the Institute of Physics last year). He’s of the opinion that his tweeting has not had a negative impact on his career – the worst it gets is a little mild teasing at times from colleagues. Nonetheless, he points to the same type of ambivalence as identified by Martinez-Conde:

“There is still a lingering perception that any kind of public engagement either through public talks, or SM or whatever is something to be looked down upon and avoided by Serious Academics. It’s very complex.”

Paul also cites Francis Cornford‘s Principle Of Sound Learning, espoused over a century ago in the Microcosmographia Academia, suggesting it’s been ever thus:

“The Principle of Sound Learning is that the noise of vulgar fame should never trouble the cloistered calm of academic existence. Hence, learning is called sound when no one has heard of it; and ‘sound scholar’ is a term of praise applied to one another by learned men who have no reputation outside the University; and a rather queer one inside it. If you should write a book (you had better not) be sure that it is unreadable; otherwise you will be called ‘brilliant’ and forfeit all respect.”

Two colleagues who have made extensive use of social media for their research, particularly in the context of post-publication peer review and open science, are Raphaël Lévy and Brian Pauw. (I got to know Raphaël and Brian via the stripy nanoparticles debacle, which has now mercifully drawn to a close.) Raphaël doesn’t feel that his blogging or tweets have had an adverse effect on his career; quite the opposite – he’s recently been asked to chair the public engagement committee of his institute at the University of Liverpool (the Institute of Integrative Biology) largely as a result of his social media profile.

Pauw, currently a research fellow at the Bundensanstalt für Materialforschung und -prüfung in Berlin, similarly hasn’t experienced any adverse effects from his online presence but he notes that the bitterness academics sometimes encounter – “get off YouTube/Twitter/WordPress and go and do something more useful instead” – may well reflect a certain irritation among the public(s) with the perceived freedom of university researchers. When this is coupled with a lack of access to the results of publicly funded work due to paywalls/impenetrable papers – and the perception among some of an unwillingness of university scientists to engage (ClimateGate cast a long shadow) – then it’s arguably surprising that academics don’t encounter higher levels of opprobrium.

And what about social media’s influence on the professoriat (and vice versa)? Two particularly high profile professorial bloggers (and tweeters) are Dorothy Bishop (also at Oxford) and Stephen Curry at Imperial College London. (Yes, we’re back to that golden triangle). Dorothy is highly respected in the academic blogging community (and well beyond), and her large Twitter following pays testament to how influential BishopBlog has been. She’s particularly enthusiastic about blogging:

“For me, the pluses of blogging far outweigh any negatives. The positives for me are:

1. Forum for letting off steam about things that concern me;

2. Getting better at writing briefly and coherently (though I have been told recently that one of my science papers was "too informal");

3. Making contact with a very wide range of people and ideas; 

4. Getting rapid critique of my views – the willingness of people to engage and put forward contrary arguments makes this very different from science publishing. Sometimes I’ve been persuaded to change my mind; often I’ve been educated. And if I disagree with what commentators say, I still benefit from learning about the arguments they use and devising counter-arguments.

For what it’s worth, my experience of, and motivations for, blogging certainly chime with the points above (although this blog has a miniscule fraction of the “reach” of BishopBlog). I only wish that my experience of Twitter was as positive...

Stephen, whose Reciprocal Space blog is always entertaining and informative (and has played a central role in making the case for open access and the death of impact factors — his “Sick Of Impact Factors” is a classic to which I often refer), is similarly of the opinion that the advantages of social media engagement more than offset any negative effects. But, like the bloggers quoted above, he highlights that there’s still some resistance in certain quarters in academia:

“I sense growing support for public engagement at universities, and communication via social media is seen as an important part of that. But clearly there is still wariness within the academy. I do have concerns about its impact on my research output and competitiveness – but it is a path I have chosen because I think it’s an interesting and worthwhile journey, especially since it has given me opportunities to have a say in some of the important issues that affect the business of science, such as funding, publishing and research assessment. It’s not something every scientist needs to be involved in but if some of us aren’t outward-looking and willing to engage in debate and dialogue with the public then we do a disservice to the idea of the university and deserve every insult about ivory-tower mentality that might be flung at us.

Stephen’s final sentence here is key. The vast majority of academics are publicly funded. We therefore have an obligation to explain our research to the people who fund it. More broadly, and as Stephen highlights, universities should be about the dissemination of knowledge and information as widely as possible.

Or, in other words…you’re an academic, FFS, why aren’t you involved in public engagement?

Philip Moriarty is professor of physics at the University of Nottingham. This post originally appeared on his blog, Symptoms of the Universe.

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Reader's comments (2)

Not all researchers believe in interacting with the public. But public engagement can help science move from the realm of exclusivity towards inclusivity. Apart from the fact that tax payers have the right to know how their money is being utilized, public engagement can help them understand and even participate in policy making. It can bridge the gap between the scientific and the non-scientific community, thus reducing instances of sensational journalism and miscommunication. I have discussed the importance of public engagement in detail in this post:
What are the pros and cons of using social media for outreach programs in Higher Education?

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