Scientists have no time to talk to public

June 30, 2006

Time pressures are preventing a generation of young researchers from communicating their science to the public, the Royal Society said this week.

About 64 per cent of those who took part in a survey for the society on the factors affecting science communication by scientists and engineers said the need to spend more time on research prevented greater engagement. Some 29 per cent said time taken away from research was the main drawback.

Scientists see science communication activities as bad for their careers and frowned on by their peers, with a fifth agreeing that scientists who engage with the public are less well regarded by colleagues. It is seen as altruistic and not a central part of academic life.

Nonetheless, 45 per cent would like to spend more time engaging with the non-specialist public about science, and 74 per cent of respondents had done some communication work in the past year.

The study, backed by the Wellcome Trust and Research Councils UK, polled 1,485 research scientists and involved 41 interviews.

Senior scientists (older than 40 years) are more likely to engage with the public. The same goes for researchers funded by the Government or charities, clinical and non-bioscience scientists, those in departments with lower research assessment exercise ratings, those in research-only posts and those with communication training. The RAE was cited as having a negative influence on science communication.

Departments should introduce rewards for and recognise the value of public engagement, the society said. Continuous professional development of researchers funded by the society should include training on the subject.

Sir David Wallace, the society's vice-president who chaired the study's consultative group, said: "We need to see the profile of this kind of work being raised in departments so it is seen as a more integral part of a well-rounded career."

Speaking on behalf of RCUK, Colin Blakemore of the Medical Research Council, said: "Public engagement takes time and effort, but it helps scientists to see their own research in a broader context as well as building public confidence and trust."

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