From the Editor’s Desk: Quantifying Outreach to the Cult of Science

While I had a completely different post already 60% written for this week’s column, I was struck by a few recent posts about various ways to promote science, which I will outline here. In a sincere defense of the Science Cheerleaders project (see video below), Andrea Kuszewski makes a fascinating analogy about the OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) nature of science. She tells a story from her work as a behavioral therapist about an autistic child who is obsessed a peach colored crayon. Do you take away the crayon, thereby not treating the behavior, or make it completely accessible and

“… force him to deal with the discomfort of changing his maladaptive ways surrounding that peach crayon, because really—life is full of peach crayons, and he’d better learn to deal with the reality of those crayons now, because the world will not stop producing peach crayons just to keep his behavior in check.”

Science needs a reality check too. It has tried to exist in an academic vacuum for much of its existence. The OCD nature science needs behavioral therapy, to be forced to confront its discomfort of engaging with non-scientists. Science also needs to acknowledge that there is value in this engagement. That it is not only the public that benefits from engagement (i.e. science literacy/appreciation), but science benefits just as much. Very few academic institutions wholly recognize this and science’s ability to track the spread of basic concepts and technological advances reflects this.

The Cult of Science

Part of the problem is the rituals associated with entering the sacred temple of sciencehood. Stephen Benedict-Mason described in How to Start a Cult 7 simple steps for organizing a body of believers:

  1. Create your own reality – Entrants are encouraged to spend 12-16 hours a day, 8 days a week in a lab surrounded only by their scientific peers, their experiments and their books.  Sure I know we need to be consumed by our thirst for knowledge, but this disengages entrants from the outside world and promotes isolation and self-censorship, the latter leading to repressed feelings that can completely change personalities.
  2. Institute a leader who holds the keys to paradise – The graduate advisor, department head or tenure committee hold your life in their hands. You let them because it what people do when in our positions. We all bow to authority when it suits us.
  3. Make increasing demands – It should be no secret that responsibilities increase exponentially with time spent in science, to the point where you are not even sure you are actually doing science anymore
  4. Turn out stories about the greatness of the leader – Science is full of icons, prophets and God-like brilliant minds. Students and junior faculty stoke the egos of the predecessors, and of course they top dogs stroke their own egos, and we eagerly listen.
  5. Use converts to bring in more converts – Basically what I do! The most devoted in the Cult of Science become its proselytizers and seek to recruit as many new devotees as possible through teaching, mentoring and outreach activities.
  6. Keep everybody busy – An idle mind is the playground of the devil! Keep your converts mind occupied with half-day lab meetings, endless seminars, classes, excessive side projects, discussion/reading groups, menial lab tasks…
  7. Lastly, keep your devotees eyes on the prize – There’s a tenure track job out with your name on it! Or, at least a fifth postdoc.

Now, I’ll concede that all institutions follow a pattern of cult. Cult is, after all, shortened from Culture. Each clique has a defined set of characteristics that sets it apart from all the cliques. Science is no different. This is not a criticism, but a statement of fact. I am proud member and evangelist of this cult. I believe it to be the One True PathTM. Though Science is a way of life for myself and the thousands that partake in this cult’s rituals – cults, almost by definition, exclude others who do not identify with being a member of said cult.

Science Communication – A Pluralist Approach

My long rant on the cult of science hopefully set the stage for what I feel is the most pressing issue of our times, as it relates to science communication anyways. I don’t think people mean to do it, but when they argue over a certain outreach initiative they seem to treat it as if it were the only option on the table. In other words, some people instinctively disagree with an idea without recognizing its utility to sectors of society that are not them. The long, mostly thoughtful, discussion at Rogue Neuron about sexuality and science in terms of Science Cheerleaders is a case point.

Additionally, a separate discussion about another initiative at making science look cool, spearheaded in part by Chris Mooney, is Rockstars of Science. This idea is simple, pair up famous researchers with famous rockstars in order to make the scientists look cool. There is much discussion on the internet about the value of this initiative. Who is the audience? Why are they posed awkwardly? Does the image portrayed reflect upon the cult nature of science? The list goes on and there is much support for it too, just google Rockstars of Science. I just want you to recognize that it is there and follow the links for good discussions on the initiative.

What Science Cheerleaders and Rockstars of Science do share however is their marketing to a specific niche. In each case there are naysayers who grumble and supporters who defend. They are each attempting to display the field and its cultists to a crowd that would have little exposure to it in the first place. While disagreement can be instructive as long as it’s constructive, flat out rejecting each initiative fails to recognize that is may be worthwhile, just not to you personally. The little girl at the end of the Science Cheerleader’s promo above was very clearly stoked about it and wants to be doctor. That is a win in my book! Even if she is 1 in 1000 affected by the program, that is at least 3,000 inspired children in the USA. Likewise for Rockstars of Science, which probably reaches another sector of the public unaffected by Science Cheerleaders. I think a couple tens of thousands of inspired youth is worth the time and effort of these initiatives. Now, what if we consider other initiatives that aren’t in the science blogger’s eye? There are hundreds of after-school programs, community efforts, individuals acting alone, small scale local efforts, large scale national efforts and much more. I don’t have the data, but I would be willing to opine the combined effort has great potential.

We cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach to science communication. Our society prides itself on individualism too much. Every person has his or her own trigger. Furthermore, we must accept that science isn’t for everyone, but strive to not just promote diversity for careers in science, but science appreciation. A society that learns science is a process for understanding the world around them will likely make better decisions about their own lives, but also regarding major issues on a national level such as climate change, evolution, stem cell research, etc. The common thread that binds science communication is tearing down stereotypes that work as a barrier to appreciating science as a process and a way of life.  We need more than one way to do this and should consider each initiative as an important component in our overall toolkit.

Quantifying Outreach Impact

Everything above was one long-winded introduction to get to what I really want to discuss. This was driven home after reading on Neurodojo this morning Zen’s reaction to a comment at Some Lies (make sure to follow the conversation down) where a postdoc relayed how he was “unambiguously” encouraged by senior faculty to “cut the shit” (he was blogging for a large, respected scientific Society) and “focus on the only thing that matters” (I’ll give you two guesses on what that is). Cult items 2, 3, 6, and 7 were employed here at the very least. Zen was dismayed by this,

I cannot begin to describe how much this anecdotes upsets me. It’s an unwelcome reminder that I am a participant in a corrupt system.

Yes, corrupt. I can’t think of a better description of a system that not only allows, and seems to encourage this sort of utter disdain for everything else but the narrowest of research goals. It’s the same myopia that seems to infect Scott Kern.

Dave Bridges commented on that post on what I believe to be the heart of the matter. We’ve been discussing justifying our passion for communication for years online, in print and at venues like Science Online. We really need some concrete quantification of impact from outreach activities. It can’t be measured by dollars since by its very nature outreach spends money to create somewhat intangible benefits. As much as they like to think of themselves as pillars of higher learning, universities are essentially a for-profit institution. They need money to pay staff and overhead, increased enrollment and grow, grow, grow.

How do we as people interested in science outreach justify our time? Below is a list of a few things that may help and lets see if we can make it more comprehensive. While I do not think we could hope to come up with a serious metric or index, á la impact factor, we do need a concrete set of accomplishments that can be presented to any workplace – university, government agency, institute – that they care about. What exactly do universities care about that is not money?

1)   Prestige, occasionally publishing popular articles (i.e. nat geo, discover, am sci, sci am, etc.), getting recognized in awards or other honoraria.

2)   Press coverage of research with the institution’s name on it

3)   Recognition by “esteemed” colleagues within and outside of your institution/workplace

4)   Most universities do actually have some sort of mandate to impact the local community in some way. This is where hard metrics for websites (page views, link-ins, unique visitors, geographic reach, positive feedback such as quotes from grade school instructors and students who found your site useful and inspirational) and in-real-life efforts (number students attending seminars at grade schools, lab tours) come in handy.

5)   The reach of the university. Do its faculty impact minorities, surrounding rural communities, poor people?

6)   Mentoring. How many high school students, undergrads worked with a faculty member? How many were minorities, learning disabled, economically disadvantaged, etc.?

These activities have little to no monetary value, and it may in fact cost the school a little, but have visible benefits on the University as a whole. While the NIH currently does not have an broader impacts requirement, the NSF does in fact require thoughtful ideas on how the proposed research will broadly impact society. My understanding from people in the know is that it is taken very seriously too. Framing the quantification of outreach in terms of how good you are making your institution appear can have a real positive impact on your dossier, but sadly, it always depends on how the Cult leadership at your institution feels about it. I’m not sure how we can escape this mentality, but little by little if everyone chips in we slowly start to tear down this wall.

26 Replies to “From the Editor’s Desk: Quantifying Outreach to the Cult of Science”

  1. Awesome post, well articulated. I do get the sense that things are changing, though, with respect to the Cult’s views on outreach – or am I just living in a bubble with particularly supportive advisors and department chairs and whatnot who happen to “get it”?

  2. A lot of great stuff in there; I particularly like your false dichotomoy that its not cheerleaders vs no cheerleaders, but maybe cheerleaders for this group, rockstars for that group, and something different for someone else. My biggest question remains how to measure the impact of blogs and other informal science outreach. My own blog is obviously new, and this one much more established, so I wonder from time to time how you guys decide whether the effort has been worthwhile and whether you are getting the message across. Whats your metric, since most of the 6 university-based ones you describe dont really apply in the blogging world?

  3. Al, for people like us who are very young in their careers (at least me anyways), it is very important for us to quickly, accurately, meaningfully and justifiably create a set of standards for measuring impact of outreach activities. It would very useful to distill this down a single, or set of, metrics. Administrators love that shit! The problem is its not straight-forward to track down impact, like it is with journal articles. There, it is definable quantities: number of quality, number of citations in, and the “quality” of a journal as defined by these attributes.

    For outreach do we need to measure impact the same way? Number of activities, numbers of individuals reached, numbers of minorities reached, numbers of links made, etc.? We had a session at Science Online about doing Broader Impacts “the right way” and we were stumped about measuring impact. There is a lot of genuine interest in this. It might worthwhile to organize an Measuring Outreach Impact working group to meet for breakfast on Fri. morning or during one of the the AM or PM lab/museum tours.

  4. Really well thought out post with lots of good points! But I worry that one of the points I wanted to make, which got lost in the louder larger shuffle of cheerleaders and feminism, is not the issue of impact…it’s the issue of DOING science. Neither the cheerleaders NOR the rock stars of science actually show people (like rock stars) DOING science and implying that you can, too. I feel like examples of rock stars and cheerleaders doing science (and I bet large colorful chemistry experiments would go over REALLY well at science cheerleader events), would do more to get the point across rather than just showing pictures of scientists next to cool people and cheering about science. I’m all about talking about science (I go into schools and do it all the time), but I also think there’s a LOT to be said for DOING science (talking about neuroscience will never compare to the look on a kid’s face when they touch a REAL BRAIN). I feel like there is a big opportunity here that is being missed of showing rock stars with guitars AND rock stars holding test tubes, and then maybe telling the magazine “This guy taught me this! I saw a cell! How cool is that!”

    But I LOVE your point at the end, that outreach needs to be encouraged by our places of work and defended as something worthwhile and highly important. ABSOLUTELY YES!! They have benefits beyond they university, and benefit science as a whole. I have often found that “outreach” in a university setting is only appreciated when it involves the recruitment of more grad students to the program. I think it’s time for people to appreciate the broader benefits of outreach for science as a whole, low in cost, but VERY high in benefits.

  5. I guess my whole main beef with the issue is that there’s a suggestion of ‘well you’re dorks and aren’t sexy enough to draw people in, we need to draw attention to the sexy ones of you’ and suggesting that somehow we all need to look like dumbed-down sex objects to somehow look ‘cool’. If this is what ‘cool’ is supposed to be, ‘cool’ can suck it.

    There’s this conflation, at least to me, of ‘well, look, guys, the public is made up of idiots who are more likely to pay attention to blinged-out, drugged-up, grammatically-impaired rock stars’, which I kind of agree with, and this sense of having to look like a sex object, not a person who is sexy – there’s this aspect of it that at least to me looks like blatant OBJECTIFICATION and valuing for the body and not the mind. ‘Dorks’ are a whole lot more awesome, to me, than meatheads. What if we don’t feel like sexing it up and just want to get our crud done and be respected for our brains? I’m a reasonably good-looking person, but I sure don’t feel like piling on makeup with a trowel.

    Andrea at Rogue Neuron’s opinion, in particular, seems like capitulation to this and feels almost like a betrayal to me in that we in science, though we should of course not deny other aspects of ourselves, are supposed to greatly value the mind. It should not have to matter whether one is ‘sexy’ (under the apparent and rather unsophisticatedly meatheaded definition of the public, which no doubt differs from the individual’s definition) or not, and it takes away a sort of consideration for those who don’t exactly feel like looking trashy (which I emphasize is DIFFERENT from ‘sexy’, and even then, for goodness’s sake, our work is not about our appearance, it’s about our brains).

    And the public ought to value the mind too, and instead of capitulating to this we need to send them a message. Don’t regress to the mean.

  6. I suppose I should probably clarify what I mean by ‘public’.

    ‘Public’ is what appears to me as the projected image of media, what I know of public opinion polling, and random crap one sees around the internet revolving around these ideas.

    I will be generous and assume it does not really line up well with the opinions of most individuals (certainly, we in science are a classier bunch than that).

  7. Nor should you assume from my statement above that I think Andrea looks trashy, because I don’t – clearly she’s got a good sense of class.

    I’m saying that a whole lot of the public doesn’t.

  8. I guess what I’m trying to say in part is that it ain’t all our fault. Certainly there are areas in which we could improve. But there are areas in which the rest of society has to do its own part or may simply be, to put it euphemistically, unable to, especially with regards to simple scientific literacy.

    (Seriously. There’s ANYONE over the age of 18 that thinks electrons are larger than atoms? That’s the kind of stuff that makes me want to go bang my head against a wall in despair. It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to at least crack open a Wikipedia page at a library or dig up an encyclopedia at the local goodwill, does it?)

  9. Regarding Kevin’s comments on the importance and challenge of assessing outreach:
    As a scientist who (at least temporarily) is working full time doing education and outreach work, I have had to learn a great deal very quickly about the importance of assessment in education work. Fortunately, there is actually a lot of research on the topic. For example, people who work in museums and science centers rely on pre- and post- visit surveys, individual interviews with visitors, and statistics on visitor numbers, as an essential part of their grant proposal process. Evaluating outreach is a lot more challenging than calculating an impact factor, but it can be done, and should be done, so that universities can see the value in ‘allowing’ their faculty to participate in such activities.

    There’s a pretty comprehensive NSF document here: and specific assessment tools (mainly surveys and the like) here: and you can read other people’s evaluations of various outreach projects here:

  10. You think its straight forward to measure the impact of journal articles? Quick, someone tell the tenure committee! ;)

    I agree, there’s a hard but necessary task that lies ahead in this new world of science outreach to determine impact and value. I’d be happy to participate in something at Scio11 about it. I hate to say it, but I think a PR or outreach professional would really enlighten any such conversation.

    Interestingly, these comments show another effect I am concerned about – the comments are mostly from other bloggers. Are we all on here (teh interwebz) preaching to each other (i.e. the choir), or is there a quieter majority that really gets a lot out of it? The former is why I don’t really follow Pharyngula anymore; it just seemed like a giant circle jerk of people trying to outcool each other with the wittiest way to agree with PZ Myers.

  11. Thanks for this. I see a new video on the horizon: Rock Stars banging out a science tune while scientists and engineers–who happen to be procheerleaders–perform. SciCurious: we can even through in some lyrics describing the science of pyrotechnics as we blow up the stage. :)
    That’s not entirely my idea. One of your avid readers, John C, directed me to this piece and suggested the Rock Stars/SciCheer collaboration.
    On a more serious note…we are looking at ways to measure the impact of our emerging effort. Perhaps Al and Phoebe can play a role here?
    Thanks again for taking the time to post this, Kevin.


  12. “Throw in some lyrics” of course. There was some chatter about the lack of science being discussed by the Science Cheerleaders. It’s impossible to convey much in a 2 min video but we’ll be posting more soon. The SciCheers did a number of science cheers in their 12 minute performance, then spent hours talking about science and science careers to thousands of festival-goers in Washington, D.C. We may have them “do science” at future events. That’s a great idea.

  13. lol, Well I guess I didn’t mean that it was straight-forward, but at least there are set criteria that adminstrators can agree on (even if the scientists don’t) to judge the efforts of scientific output. Outreach doesn’t even have that.

    “Who reads blogs?” is a topic for another post. It’s hard to judge the reach of a post from comments. Most people are not inclined to leave comments (myself included). For a post like this one, it is not necessarily directed towards a general audience, though their input is most welcome! It is a really aimed at the online science community as you can imagine.

    For DSN at least, we have lots of evidence that we are read out side of the science blogger circle. Usually, when we are starting to get depressed about our efforts, someone emails us out of the blue and gives us positive feedback, or a teacher thanks us for the material she was able to use in classes (that actually scares the shit out of me!), etc. It took a long time, we’ve been doing for 5-6 years I think. But yeah, I agree there is a lot circle jerking and back-patting in the blogosphere. Some of it necessary as it reinforces our shared common goals or lets us know that our efforts are appreciated before lambasting us with their opinions.

  14. Sci darling! I’m glad you commented. I meant to get more into criticisms of both initiatives, but decided to stay out of the feminism/sexuality debate for this post. But that is why we have comments!

    You have a great point, and its reasonable criticisms like this that can hope improve programs if they are willing to listen. Lets get those cheerleaders and rockstars interacting on science’s turf. The reason this is such a good idea is that what we really want to hear is the rockstars going out and talking about science in their daily lives and to the media. Making it appear a normal thing to discuss with a reporter or interviewer for instance. All those cheerleaders are actual scientists and engineers, get them to do “kitchen science” experiments with school children and adults. I hope to see what you call missed opportunity as lessons learned!

    Regarding outreach at institutions, the problem is the intangibility of the product. The solution is to create some set of metrics that convince adminstrators the efforts are worthy.

  15. I’m not a professional ‘assessor’ but I’d love to talk to more about ways to try to assess the impact of the SciCheer events and videos!

    I think another great thing about the cheerleaders is that they are confident women who are comfortable with themselves and their bodies – when I was in middle school / high school, I was way too self conscious to ever consider being a cheerleader, even though I was totally fine with being a nerd. So they might also inspire nerdy girls to become cheerleaders too!

  16. What if we don’t feel like sexing it up and just want to get our crud done and be respected for our brains?

    No you don’t have to, someone else might WANT to though. There is someone who enjoys sexing it up for science and there are people who relate to cheerleading and sports and their are people who really look up to rockstars and there are people who hate really hate anything to do cheerleading and sports and listen to hipster music while playing video games all day in their in their room and memorizing every line of the original Star Wars.

    My main point was that we should recognize there is a value to these efforts because they do reach a certain of society. They may not have value to us individually, but someone will be affected by the initiative. This is why I argue for the pluralistic approach to science out reach. The more and wider variety of projects out there the better. Our critical, constructive comments can hopefully guide them, but we shouldn’t outright reject initiatives because we don’t individually identify with them.

  17. Great article. I have my doubts about the Rockstar involvement because, as others have commented, it presupposes you need to dress science up to make it interesting. From my experience of working with scientists in the day and talking to people down the pub in the evening, I think a more authentic and (hopefully) effective approach is to simply get across what scientists do, and how their work affects ‘real life.’

  18. Fantastic resources Phoebe, thanks! A lot of assessment is done via surveys, but I would like to find a way to calculate some meaningful values for outreach impact. Something we can gather from visible efforts like we do with journal articles.

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