Research News

More and More Scientists Serve Up Science for Mass Consumption

Scientists use innovative, barrier-busting methods to educate the public and decision-makers about cutting-edge science

The amount of respect that a scientist received from other scientists used to be, in many cases, inversely proportional to the amount of respect she received from the public. Indeed, it seemed like the more attention a scientist received from the public, the less she usually received from her peers.

But now, many scientists are rejecting the stigma that has traditionally been associated with popularizing science and are taking science to the streets ... the Internet ... the airwaves ... the halls of Congress ... schools ... and other venues for educating students, the public and decision-makers about their research.


Various factors are currently driving the growing appeal of public outreach among scientists, including:

  • Encouragement from federal funding agencies to scientists and engineers to become directly involved in public education and outreach. For example, since 1997, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has evaluated research proposals on their potential "broader impacts" in addition to their intellectual merits.

Scientists may fulfill NSF's "broader impact" requirements by communicating with non-scientists through the media, creating Web sites about their research, contributing to museum exhibits, and writing books for non-scientists, as just a few examples. A list of representative "broader impacts" activities, along with other resources that may help scientists satisfy NSF's "broader impacts" requirements, is posted here.

  • A desire among scientists to influence decisions on science-based issues that currently crowd the national agenda, including climate change, stem cell research and bio-technology.

A recent Science article quoted Peter Agre, President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) as stating, "[I]t seems to me that every tenured faculty in America owes something, and my idea would be tithing 10% of your time for the public good ... I think being part of the public debate is very important--and that's where we're overdue."

  • Requests for training on outreach from young scientists. "About one-third of the attendees at our annual meetings are graduate students," says Nadine Lymn, the Ecological Society of America's director of public affairs. "They have a lot of energy and enthusiasm and a desire to reach out beyond their peers and tell people why their research is important."
  • The proliferation of new media tools, such as the Internet, video cameras and podcasts, which speed communication between scientists and the public.


In response to these factors, various scientific organizations are currently promoting public outreach by:

  • Training scientists and engineers on communication skills: NSF is currently partnering with AAAS to produce resources that are designed to help researchers develop compelling messages, communicate effectively with reporters, and identify appropriate venues for interacting with the public. These resources include workshops held throughout the U.S. as well as online guidance. Click here for more information.

In addition, the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program annually trains 20 academic environmental scientists how to communicate effectively with the public and policy-makers. This training includes working with members of the media to improve their interviewing skills, participating in mock Congressional hearings and interacting with policy makers in Washington, D.C. Click here for more information.

  • Devoting more attention to public outreach at annual meetings: Among the scientific societies that have recently increased the number of sessions or activities devoted to public outreach at annual meetings are the American Society for Cell Biology, the American Geophysical Union and the Ecological Society of America (ESA).

A case in point: ESA's 2008 annual meeting featured a symposium entitled "Linking Scientists with Non-Traditional Public Audiences to Enhance Ecological Thought," which was organized by Nalini Nadkarni of Evergreen State College. Nadkarni says that her symposium--which included presentations on ecological outreach targeting prisoners, artists, preachers, non-literate African animal trackers and others--would probably not have been given a place at a scientific meeting even five years ago.

Nevertheless, Lymn says that because of the popularity of ESA's outreach sessions, "they are here to stay.  Even our evening sessions on public outreach are very well-attended."

  • Creating communication channels between scientists and policy-makers: For example, ESA maintains a "Rapid Response Team" of scientists, including many NSF-funded scientists, who provide information to policy-makers and journalists. The team's recent achievements include contributing expertise to reporters from BBC Radio and National Public Radio, helping to write an Amicus Curiae ("Friend of the Court") brief on wetlands for the Supreme Court, and speaking at a Capitol Hill briefing on biofuels.
  • Expanding Policy Fellowships: More and more scientists are being placed in Congressional offices and federal agencies through fellowships sponsored by scientific societies. For example, about 150 scientists currently work as AAAS Science & Policy Fellows--up from seven scientists when the program began in 1973. Such programs enable scientists to contribute to policy on science-based issues and often help them segue into policy careers.


Examples of innovative outreach projects recently developed by NSF-funded scientists include:

  • Polar Palooza International!: This was an out-of-the-box, on-the-edge science road show celebrating polar research and adventure, which toured science centers and museums from 2007 through Spring 2009.  Tour stops featured presentations by glaciologists, geologists, climatologists, oceanographers, biologists and Arctic residents as well as videos, school programs and briefings for media and business leaders.  Multi-media resources from Polar Palooza are posted here; a rap video from Polar Palooza called "Take AIM at Climate Change" is posted here.
  • A DVD set entitled Nano 101 in a Box!: This is a set of richly illustrated DVDs featuring lively discussions about nanotechnology with leading researchers who communicate with clarity and style; it is suitable for museums as well as school and home audiences. More information, including video clips, is posted here.
  • A book entitled Between Earth and Sky: Our Intimate Connections to Trees by Nalini Nadkarni: Written for non-scientists by a renowned expert on rain forests, this book provides a rich tapestry of personal stories, information and illustrations that evoke wonder at the leafy wilderness above our heads and define the roles of trees in ecology, commerce, medicine, folklore and the arts. Additional outreach activities conducted by Nadkarni are covered here, here and here.