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The Black Hole

Practice what you preach – Lip service to public outreach frustrates me…

BY DAVID KENT | NOV 12 2014

As many of my colleagues know, I have spent the last number of months applying for pots of money for my research. Just as in Canada, these monies are typically supplied though government agencies or charitable organisations. Over the last two decades there has been a steady increase in the excitement for and provision of science outreach and granting agencies have openly supported these knowledge translation efforts. Much has been made of the need to create a 21st century scientist who performs excellent research and communicates this research effectively. Bold claims have been made at the granting agency level:

The CIHR says a lot about knowledge translation – it “is a fundamental part of CIHR’s mandate”.

The MRC in the UK calls it public engagement, but it clearly gives knowledge translation the same priority – “Engaging the public in dialogue about medical research is part of our mission”.

With such high prioritisation, the question becomes whether or not this strong encouragement for the well-rounded researcher actually transfers into the decision-making processes that determine who gets funding and/or jobs? I have my doubts and, based on my recent experiences, I am beginning to worry that such activity negatively affects a young researcher’s chances of academic career progression.

One of the granting agencies that I am applying to encourages applicants to discuss their application prior to submission with the program manager. As part of this process, I submitted my CV and abbreviated research proposal for a first look. The feedback I received was extremely surprising in the context of the statements above. While my research proposal was positively received, it was advised that I restructure my CV since it “took a while” to get to the important parts which were used to evaluate a young researcher’s potential. I was told that my CV was so full of non-reserarch activities that it looked like I didn’t have any time to do research. I took this to mean that my publications and research activity (conferences, peer review, awards, etc) were not front and centre and the teaching/training and public outreach style activities (including this blog!) could be hidden away. So, I redesigned and resubmitted to the same office.

The response this time: “Looks great, you’ve really improved the CV in particular”.

The (perhaps generous) reality is that peer reviewing systems are so overloaded that reviewers do not have the time to filter through a young scientist’s track record in public engagement and the result is that a CV detailing such activities are a distraction from the “important stuff” – the publications, the previous awards, the invited seminars.

After this experience, I asked several colleagues for their opinion on whether public outreach efforts were seen as a positive or negative – many spouted the “distraction” refrain, others insisted that it would not negatively affect your applications, but it probably did not positively affect your application. Nobody said that it was an essential (or even desired) quality looked for on evaluation panels.

Next I thought about my own experiences – I look at my fellow bloggers on the scientific Signals blog – most are no longer pursuing academic research careers anymore (despite being amongst the most experienced in communicating science to the public). I look at my former colleagues that coordinated university Let’s Talk Science programs – again the vast majority are pursing non-academic careers.

The annoying thing is that there is enormous lip service paid to attracting and encouraging young scientists with the ability to communicate their research (and science in general) to the public, but this is matched with rather underwhelming career support. In fact, my experience leads me to believe that, if anything, it is seen as a detrimental distraction to an otherwise productive scientific research career.

Just be straight with applicants – your research (read “publications”) is all that counts – don’t focus on anything else. However, my fingers are crossed that this recent tale is an isolated incident and I would LOVE to hear from our readers who may have sat on grant or fellowship panels where someone’s non-research activities tipped the balance in their favour. Otherwise, it is really unfair to encourage emerging young researcher’s to undertake science outreach in any form, but rather they should focus on one more experiment, one more paper, or one more paper review for their boss.

ABOUT DAVID KENT
David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Dr. Jonathan Thon / November 13, 2014 at 16:50

    Hi Dave, while I would love to disagree with your assessment – I absolutely cannot. While I have been privy to many academic conversations where knowledge translation is espoused, I am often told that my involvement in this space is a ‘distraction,’ and that I ‘should avoid losing focus.’

    I understand that to mean: “What matters most to academic researchers, academic research departments, and federal funding agencies are scientific peer-reviewed publications and evidence of successful grantsmanship.” The remainder has been, at best, an awkward conversation starter, and more often a conversation ender.

  2. Stacy Konkiel / November 14, 2014 at 13:54

    At Impactstory, we’re starting to hear from researchers who have used altmetrics to document the success of their outreach initiatives in their tenure dossiers. One researcher, Ahmed Moustafa, got positive comments from a reviewer on including that additional information. More often, however, we hear that altmetrics & outreach aren’t addressed at all by reviewers.

  3. BP / November 15, 2014 at 16:47

    Hi Dave,

    As you know, I was always heavily involved in some sort if extra-curricular activity involving science communications, etc. After my postdoc, I tried to pursue this route and during one interview with a granting agency, after describing my activities and what I thought were the pitfalls and solutions to improving communications between the clinic and academia, the director of the agency told me, I’m not interested in all of that fuzzy warm stuff…since then I have seen other colleagues, who were excellent at communications and whom spent a few years pursuing such goals, now either pursing other careers or doubting their abilities and or choosing to not work. Sadly these were people that began incredibly passionate about communications….