Engage or fade away. Is this what its come to?

Image (1) shutterstock_196423220.jpg for post 1082A new paper pushes scientists to wake up to the reality that they must engage – or fade away. Some may argue it pushes a bit too hard.

It offers sharp criticism of the media and uses vaccination, climate change, and even Sea World to illustrate issues where misinformation has been allowed to propagate because too many researchers shun public engagement. The paper also includes some basic steps scientists can take to emerge from their ‘hiding place’ behind the Ivory Tower.

Before We Get Started

As science (and higher ed) communicators, we spend a lot of time talking about the need for researchers to engage with the public. We write blog posts with lists of tips to help them get started. Sometimes we share success stories, and other times we gripe about how frustrated we get when they resist doing outreach. We also write and read an endless stream of stories about major scientific issues being co-opted and misrepresented by those with political or economic agendas. This paper rolls all of that into three – very direct – pages.

Andrew J. Wright’s (@marinebrit) “Defending the Ivory Tower against the end of the world” (full citation below) captured my attention immediately. It’s abstract alone is the scholarly version of ‘a hot poker to the rear’ of any scientist who thinks that – in this day and age – public outreach and advocacy are – as he puts it – ‘someone else’s job.’

When I asked Wright why he wrote the paper, he gave me three reasons. (I’ll paraphrase here.)

  1. He’s frustrated with scientists fearful of losing their ‘scientific integrity’ by engaging in public outreach and/or advocacy. This includes those who refuse to challenge misinformation when they see it published. If anyone should have an opinion on science, it should be scientists.
  2. He’s tired of what he calls ‘mistreatment of scientists’ who engage with policymakers and the public. He says the same senior researchers who have resisted making their own research more accessible continue to look down on those who ‘dirty themselves’ with policy.
  3. He says that science is being corrupted by the anti-science crowd, which undermines the authority and integrity of scientists. This has an impact on public support and funding, and he believes public outreach and advocacy can make a difference.

Wright also admits that it’s a bit ironic that the paper advocates for open access, yet remains trapped behind a paywall. ***I can say it was quite a challenge to get my hands on a copy…and I work at a university. Thanks to the author for sending it to me directly.*** (Editor’s Note: Wright wanted to share that he was “unable to afford avoiding the irony of the paywall due to unemployment.”) (Editor’s Note 2 (2/11/14): Wright notified me that the publisher has now made the paper open access.)


Some Highlights From the Paper

“There is no doubt that science is under siege, but hiding inside the Ivory Tower is not the answer. If science is going to defend itself, we—the foot soldiers of science—need to take the battle beyond and engage those who seek to obfuscate the truth for their own benefit. We must make use of the tools available to us and correct inaccuracies clearly, publicly, and emphatically. This is not, and never will be, Advocacy. It is simply standing up for the principles of science in the face of those that would cast them aside. Similarly, making sure that your work actually reaches the ears of those who can use the information is an act of outreach in this world of 24-7 information overload.”

“The irony is that science has shaped, if not created, the world we now live in. Yet, many scientists cling to the illusion that their work can exist outside the mainstream, while simultaneously being consumed by it.“

“…some of us still resist the urge to reach out and correct factual errors, confront fallacies, or even take our science directly to those who could use it, as this is often seen as Advocacy: impurity in the Ivory Tower existence. Advocacy is somebody else’s job: somebody that we can then look down upon.“

“…if you just want to make sure that the science you worked so hard to conduct actually reaches those that need it (even if they do not yet know it) then that simply makes you a conscientious scientist. You do not have to tell those people what they should do with your work (although this may, at least on occasions, also be a good idea) but merely make sure they see it. That is not Advocacy, merely outreach.”

“Governments around the world are ignoring the best available science: it is now widely known that Canada even prohibits its scientists from saying anything publicly on their work. The results likely include under-preparation for a changing climate (in addition to the lack of effort to limit these changes), an increased susceptibility to disease, and the reliance upon current economic growth practices, which are inherently unsustainable.“

“Misrepresentation of the assembled science, selective reviews, and the presentation of pure fiction have resulted in confusion in the public and mistrust of the science, which has stalled efforts to deal with climate change in the USA and elsewhere. These delays are likely to have widespread consequences for the environment and human society, but the well-funded flood of misinformation keeps coming.”

“At the very least, science itself is at risk from efforts to ‘protect’ its purity, as it will become increasingly undervalued by society. Marginalized, science budgets will be further cut, and there will ultimately be fewer scientists around to fix the problems that we are creating. In short, if we continue to try to hide in the Ivory Tower, science will perish inside the walls to the detriment of the world around us. We have now accepted that, individually, we must publish or perish. Collectively, we must engage or fade away.“

But Wait, Theres More

Wright offers some general tips for scientists who want to start sharing their work beyond the walls of the Ivory Tower. These will be familiar to communicators. (…again, I’ll paraphrase.)

  1. Don’t be too proud to ask for help. There are plenty of communicators willing to provide support and help you make new connections.
  2. Build relationships with science journalists and share information you think the world needs to know about
  3. Media training and writing courses are worth checking out. (Many universities have resources you can tap into.)
  4. Familiarize yourself with the marketing tools and strategies used to sell products. This will help you better understand ‘what you’re up against.’
  5. Give social media a try. Twitter is a great place to start and allows easy access to other scientists and policymakers.
  6. Know your audience and convey your information in ‘elegantly simple ways.’


Your turn! I bet you’ve got some opinions to share. Let ’em rip.


Citation:Defending the Ivory Tower against the end of the world.” Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, online Jan. 28, 2015. A. J. Wright. DOI: 10.1007/s13412-015-0227-y

6 thoughts on “Engage or fade away. Is this what its come to?

  1. It seems logical that the more science and scientists are challenged on their own ground (eg the data) the more outreach should be important. What baffles me is that, as you mentioned, in this time and age there are still many scientists that think that “someone else” should communicate their work to the general public. Scientists are part of the general society, not separate from it-the earlier this “ivory tower” myth get dispelled, the better.


  2. Thank you Lia. I know there are sometimes barriers preventing researchers from communicating, and times when fear takes over and prevents engagement. As communicators we can help by recognizing the barriers and finding ways to work around them. We also need to support researchers in ways that make them more comfortable, and better prepared, to take the leap into public engagement.


  3. Right. Make studies on low-carb diets even for diabetes accessible to the public with the AHA, ADA, USDA and NIH with a choke hold on nutritional medicine and insistence on low-fat despite failure after failure. Reporters are interested but they, or at least their editors can’t or won’t buck the Reichsdiät. It is true that in this field many workers are reluctant to go beyond the real science and exaggerate things but that is not where the problem is. It is the unassailable medical establishment that represses any other message than their own. Big pharma is accused of being behind it but I don’t know about that.


    • Thank you Richard. I think there is a lot of pressure on a researcher, especially in a university setting. That pressure comes from many different places. Couple that with the lack of formal incentives or rewards for outreach, and the potential risk faced if things go wrong. I hope this paper helps more people see the value that science communicators bring to the equation.


  4. Having worked with a range of researchers across a range of disciplines including scientists, it is not just scientists alone who don’t engage. They are the focus of this particular discipline group and a presenting case because of events – climate change, health science, handwringing over the decline of science in schools etc.
    In my experience researchers will engage in issues they feel strongly about and at a level they feel comfortable with. This includes scientists. Some issues have to go to the keeper because priorities such as teaching, funding applications, conference and research presentations dictate it. Likewise some, like all parts of the population, are just not comfortable in the milieu of public debate yet are fabulous and insightful researchers.
    It is incumbent on communicators to work creatively with the researcher before them, listen to their concerns, work out where their strengths and weaknesses are and tailor their approach accordingly. Strategically it’s about recognising and rewarding those who do engage, for their contribution to the communication of their discipline.


    • Thank you Sandra. Your point about ‘rewarding those who engage’ is critical. Currently, universities provide few incentives or rewards to researchers who step outside and engage with the public. This is a problem. As communicators we want more engagement, but the system is set up to value different things. I always see eyes open a bit wider and ears perk up when I mention some of the ‘potential’ personal benefits of public engagement. They include more citations on papers, presentation opportunities, research collaborations, invited papers, advisory board invitations, etc. These are the ‘currency of academia’ – and matter to the faculty/researchers. I can’t say this tactic has resulted in a wave of new people doing public outreach, but it’s helping warm them to the idea. In time I hope to see the culture change, and more formal recognition be provided by universities for this very important task.


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