Will my popular science book bring any career benefits?

Universities must give credit for the broadened skill sets that the pandemic has prompted academics to acquire, says John Tregoning

October 13, 2021
Person standing on tower of books
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When my lab shut in March 2020, I found myself looking into the void, pondering my self-identity. If I didn’t have experiments to do, was I still a scientist?

Normally, the duties of a scientific researcher are plain enough, even if accomplishing them is never smooth. You are judged on two axes: volume of cash in and quality (whatever that means) of papers out. So you act accordingly. You get a grant, do the research, write the paper, then rinse and repeat.

Reader, before you launch into your angry letters to the editor, I know there is more to academic life than this. That is kind of the point of this article. So bear with me.

There are so many vital tasks that enhance and shape our universities – administration, addressing diversity, fixing research culture, teaching, pastoral care, doing outreach and mentoring. But most of these undertakings can pass unrecognised.

The same is true of science communication. It’s not immediately clear what career benefit it offers those who get involved. You can’t return an extended Twitter argument to the research excellence framework, however much impact it may have had. Even Brian Cox’s The Planets television series, with its viewing figures of 3 million, is of no interest to the bureaucrats (although Cox’s media profile is obviously valued by the University of Manchester for the increased visibility it brings).

Still, in the past 18 months, we lab-based scientists have all had a bit more time on our hands than usual. And I decided to fill this space by writing a popular science book.

Now you may think this is a long-winded and self-indulgent way of trying to get a bit of extra publicity for the book, and it is (INFECTIOUS is available from all good stockists from this week). But there’s a more important point, too – the value we as a community place on activity outside the grants-papers production cycle.

The pandemic has seen a huge surge in interest in science, particularly in infection and all things related. We’ve also seen many scientists become household names. But this hasn’t just failed to confer any obvious career advantage, it has also caused some of them a considerable amount of personal grief. Many, for instance, have experienced online abuse for making the seemingly uncontroversial points that viruses exist and can cause disease and that antiviral vaccines prevent infections.

Sometimes the scientists themselves have joined the pile-ons; we’ve seen a resurgence of scientific name-calling not seen since Félix d’Hérelle challenged Jules Bordet to a duel in 1920 over the discovery of bacteriophages (which you would know about if you read my book).

In addition to online abuse, there are other costs to participating in science communication. The main one is time. While access to labs has been restricted since the pandemic began, so has access to the systems that many of us relied upon for support, particularly childcare. And every engagement takes time, whether that be doing a quick interview with a journalist, writing an article about an upcoming popular science best-seller, or arguing with online trolls who apparently have learned more in the past month about viruses than you have in 20 years of study.

I am not the first and won’t be the last to say that there should be a fairer, broader system of recognition that values academics in the round. And hopefully at some point the message will dribble through. Some institutions, such as the University of Glasgow and Utrecht University, are leading the way, and funders such as the Wellcome Trust are trying to address the publication-obsessed research culture, creating one that is “creative, inclusive and honest”. However, change takes time and is most likely going to take the form of evolution, not revolution.

In the absence of a holistic approach to academia, it is perhaps better to think about the situation differently. This is where the concept of constructive alignment can be useful: getting the most out of the activities we do.

There are multiple aspects of science communication, for instance, that can have an indirect career benefit. First and foremost for me is that doing it is fun. It is very easy to get bogged down in the publication cycle, dwelling too long on the rejections and worrying that each success is only fleeting; science communication can feel like a bit of light relief from that treadmill. And speaking to wider audiences makes me feel that I am putting the knowledge I have to broader use.

Second, communication engages different parts of the brain from more analytical research, opening a very different outlet for creativity. Hopefully, that enhances my abilities in the other parts of my job. Working more closely with book and magazine editors, for instance, has made me more confident about having direct conversations with the editors of academic journals. It has led me to pitch directly to them, finding out if the work I have done is a good fit, rather than firing off articles blindly.

As the new academic year commences and we begin to settle back into familiar old rhythms, maybe now is the time to push for a rebalancing of career incentives, before the sense of new possibilities wears off entirely. These new skills that many of us have developed in between the endless work/life juggling demanded by the pandemic can’t continue to go unrecognised. Can they?

John Tregoning is reader in respiratory infections at Imperial College London. INFECTIOUS is published by OneWorld.

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