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Engagement – Understanding the Place of a Scientist in Society

There are many people that scientists need to talk to for their work.  Our core business involves talking to other scientists, describing our research and the interpretation of our results.  This is the traditional form of academic communication, using journal articles and conference presentations as our means to reach out and engage others in our research field.  It also includes writing grants; convincing our academic peers that our research plans for the future are just as (or more) important and meaningful for our discipline than the results we have obtained to date (sort of a scientific version of fortune-telling).  Engagement on solely this level is the ‘ivory tower’, and although it provides us with our primary motivation as scientists, it cannot be our only form of engagement with society.

For those of us who have had the opportunity to do so, there is also the need to talk to the end-users of our research, which can be industry for physical scientists, or clinicians for health-related scientists.  For many, this is our second largest engagement activity, as it can provide much needed funds for our research, and it also aligns with the mission of UniSA (my university) – to do relevant research that makes an impact.  Talking to such end-users requires a significant shift in terms of emphasis of communication, and is one that is stereotypically not handled well.

Scientists often spend most time telling end-users what they can do instead of listening to what the end-users want.  Coming up with a project that will satisfy the academic needs of a scientist and the bottom-line focus of an end-user needs to be an iterative, collaborative process, and most importantly demands that scientists do what someone else wants them to do.  Giving control of research direction to an end-user is quite a scary concept for most academics, most of whom pursued an academic career because of its self-deterministic nature.  However, scientists need to engage in this manner if innovation is to be an outcome of their activities.

Further down the priority list of engagement (and sometimes off the bottom of the list entirely) comes the broader community – outreach activities that can provide a connection between the general public and our research.  For many scientists with a focus on education, outreach can have a solid impact through engagement with school-age children.  This is a captive audience group, and does not require us to fight for attention (although it presents many other challenges 🙂 ).

In terms of the general public, engagement with scientists is very different now compared to before the advent of social media.  A scientist needed to be at a very high level in their field before they would have real opportunities to reach a wide audience through traditional print and broadcast media.  These days, any scientist with a will to do so can connect with a potential audience of thousands through platforms like Twitter, web formats like blogs, and video content posted on YouTube.  This is not as easy as it sounds – unless done skilfully, posting online content can be like whistling in the wind, producing no verifiable impact.

To make an impact on social media, scientists need to have a clear purpose and mechanism for the engagement.  For some, social media is turning out to be a source of direct funding for their research, through the crowd-funding model.   For others, engagement is from a desire to increase the impact of their traditional outputs, such as using Twitter/blogs to highlight the area of research behind their journal publications.

I would argue that the most important reason for scientists to engage with social media is so that they understand what society expects from them.  University academics are heavily publically-funded.  The tax-payer is the source of our research dollars.  In this context, engagement with the public can be our barometer for determining whether our research is valued and worthwhile.   As with handing over control of our research direction to an industry partner, providing the public with a say on what research activities should happen in universities may make us slightly uncomfortable.  But being an academic scientist is an enormous (although hard-won) privilege – one that comes with responsibility to think very broadly about our place in society.

David Beattie

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