Eating Our Own

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Last week, an article was published in STAT magazine about how scientists need to do more outreach. A few exasperated tweets complaining about the article’s tone and content soon morphed into a full-on hate-fest, with buckets of vitriol raining down on an innocent graduate student who had dared to try and expand on the article’s premise. The attacks, led by a parade of well-known science communication personalities, went way beyond the bounds of civil debate. As someone who uses Twitter to engage in these types of academic discussions all the time, I was angry with the entire situation but I wasn’t sure how to respond.

Now that I’ve had some time to think about things, I’m still angry. I’m angry with the “venerable” online science community. MY supposed community. My community of peers who are actively involved in doing and promoting science outreach and communication. Is this the way to draw more people into doing outreach and communication? By shutting them down when they try to engage? By using their naiveté and inexperience as weapons against them?

I find this entire course of action by those who chose to denigrate and shame a person who was genuinely looking for information and guidance disgusting. Even worse, it is entirely antithetical to the goals of this movement around public engagement with science that we are all, collectively, trying to engender and support and promote.

We in the science outreach community already have a hard enough time getting scientists to spend some of their scant free time out of the lab doing outreach and communicating about their research. Not when their adviser is demanding to see experimental results. Not when their department chair is expecting them to be securing a steady stream of research funding. Not when their dean is holding a tenure decision precipitously over their head. Now we have to overcome the barrier of having those who are already “in the know” telling them they are doing it wrong? Telling them that they need to get a Ph.D. in outreach before they even start? When did this become a situation of us versus them, where some communicators and outreachers are more equal than others?

Full disclosure- I happen to know this graduate student. She’s taken our online training course, “The Art of Science Communication.” She now volunteers her precious time (as a junior graduate student) to help teach the course. She does outreach and wants to do more. She’s walking the walk, and I want to help her do it. Because that’s my job — getting scientists involved with outreach.

I want every scientist to communicate. To engage. To throw off the stigma and tradition and stereotype of the loner scientist locked away in the lab. To put themselves out there in public. I’ve heard over and over that not every scientist should be a communicator. I could not disagree more. Every scientist should be a communicator. Communication and outreach should be compulsory for a scientific career. I’ve dedicated myself to help every scientist to communicate. I work every day to help pave that way. I want the entire world to see who scientists are and what they do.

In two months, we are all going to march for science. Are we going to start deciding who can attend that event, who is allowed to speak for science? Or are we going to use this opportunity, this incredible platform, to engage with everyone we can, gain support and show what science is and how it’s used?

Let’s stop the pointless bickering and online yelling and start facing the same direction. Because if we don’t all stand together, we’ll fall apart.