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Van Arsdale '11: Scientific outreach and tenure at Brown

Last Wednesday, Nancy Baron delivered a lecture on the idea that "being a good communicator makes you a better scientist." As the science outreach director for the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea, Baron has helped the world's foremost scientific experts communicate their research to society. Baron's statement may seem counterintuitive until we realize what good communication requires.

Scientific outreach involves communicating research to society, often in the form of news articles, blogs or even public lectures. Effective communication requires scientists to reduce their research to the bare necessities and explain why their research matters. These activities make scientists hold up their research to even more scrutiny than normal and often result in stronger science with implications that reach across academic disciplines. Despite these benefits, Brown's tenure policy gives professors incentives not to engage in such activities. With the University currently reviewing specific tenure issues, now is the time to reexamine the overall policy.

As it stands, Brown and other universities do not consider outreach when a professor comes up for tenure. Instead, publishing research constitutes the majority of tenure credentials. With tenure aspirations engulfing a professor's first few years on the job, scientific communication is ignored at the very moment when a professor is molding his or her academic identity. To remedy this, Brown should incorporate scientific communication into its tenure considerations. Unchanged, the current policy simply perpetuates our single-minded focus on research publication and reinforces the gap between science and society.

This gap exists because scientists communicate through peer-reviewed journals, while much of society gets its news from the Internet and Jon Stewart. Policy makers frequently lack scientific literacy as well. When science is not at the table, our national policies lack a fundamental empirical foundation. Anddeclining science coverage in the media has increased this gap as well. With politicians stuck in a nation-wide fisticuffs, the burden falls on citizens to raise the alarm about overlooked issues.

In this uncertain time, scientists must take active roles in engaging society. Communication involves not only relating findings and technical information, but also providing ways to frame research. Framing helps communicate why specific issues are important and what the possible courses of action are. Framing also brings up an issue of concern — objectivity.

Scientific objectivity is important and has played a part in science's public image, currently second only to the military among professions most trusted by the American public. Many scientists avoid communicating science to the overall society for fear of being "sagan-ized," referring to the famous astronomer Carl Sagan who was denied membership in the National Academy of Sciences, allegedly because he developed a popular television show on astronomy called Cosmos.

The time of "sagan-izing" must come to an end. We must put to rest the myth that a good scientist cannot also be a good communicator. The late Stephen Schneider's work on climate change attests to this. Schneider walked the line of scientific advocacy by stating where his research ended and his opinions began. As one of the world's foremost experts on climate change, Schneider walked this line because he believed that "staying out of the fray is not taking the high ground but is just passing the buck."

The buck has already been passed. The weight of unresolved environmental and social challenges now lies on the shoulders of our generation. Rising to these challenges will require future scientists who can bring their research into the fray, and these young scientists have support. Three past presidents of the American Association for the Advancement of Science — America's largest scientific organization — have all either called for increased scientific communication or led by example.

The atmosphere of change is apparent, but Brown's tenure policies are holding us back. Our current tenure scheme discourages professors — and thus students — from engaging society. Worse, the University's avoidance of the issue allows for the stigmatization of scientific communication to continue.

I am not calling for all scientists to take up the banner of scientific communication and begin bombarding the New York Times with opinion articles. The choice to communicate is ultimately a personal decision. Practicing science for science's sake is important and should continue, but professors wishing to engage in scientific outreach should be encouraged and rewarded.

 I am also not saying that communicating results should be more important than research. President Ruth Simmons is correct in saying that research is the "life blood" of Brown. But we are so focused on this lifeline that we are missing the larger systemic picture.

Failure to acknowledge scientific communication inhibits our professor's activities, limits scientific education and perpetuates the gap between science and society. With increasing calls for scientific communication, many of the University's future scientists will benefit from knowing how to communicate their research to society at large. Be bold, Brown.



Eric Van Arsdale '11 is an environmental science concentrator from Naples, Fla. He can be reached at


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