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Why Scientists Cannot Afford to Ignore Outreach

You’re busy, and I understand. What with all the grant writing, teaching, supervising students and post-docs, as well as trying to fit in all the responsibilities that come with a position in academia. . . you rarely have time to surface for air. But there’s one crucial thing that you’re going to have to give a little more attention — outreach.

Luckily, outreach is way easier than getting grant funding!

Outreach is the process of promoting public awareness (and understanding) of science by making informal contributions to science education. In the past, this used to be as simple as holding public lectures, speaking with and inspiring students, and getting our youth interested about your research and science by performing impressive (and sometimes explosive!) demonstrations at schools and events.

Outreach is incredibly important for the following reasons and more:

  1. It excites the general public about your research

  2. It inspires the next generation of scientists to take up careers in STEM

  3. It skyrockets the impact of your research

  4. It promotes your profile in your own field

  5. It amplifies the voice of scientists in important debates — countering the rise of so-called “alternative facts”

Funding agencies want to see evidence of outreach activities

More than an altruistic endeavour.

However, outreach today looks a little different than it did in the past. It isn’t just an altruistic activity designed to make you feel all warm and fuzzy. Taking outreach seriously can help you bring your career to the next level. In fact, it could be the difference between making tenure, securing a grant, or missing opportunities altogether.

Today, funding bodies from around the world want to see that you’ve given outreach and dissemination more thought.

Recently, the main U.S. funding body, The National Science Foundation, introduced a “broader Impacts” criterion that is designed to promote the education and outreach of any research funded by the organisation. Meanwhile the European Union also introduced outreach components as part of its grant application system. And hot on heels of these initiatives is the Australian Research Council’s 2017 pilot program of impact and engagement.

New ways of doing outreach and tracking it.

The arrival of the internet, and specifically social media, has changed science communication. . . for the better. New technologies and media are making science outreach a much more diverse activity, while providing plenty of opportunities to increase the impact factor of your research. Just to name a few, researchers today can create animated videos, graphical abstracts, podcasts or blogs to help disseminate the results of their latest paper.

The good news is that all of your hard work won’t go unnoticed. Tools like Altmetric offer a quantifiable way to measure the impact of your research by tracking mentions and shares on social media and beyond. Impactstory is another tool to leverage — it provides a new way for individual scientists to assess their broader impact.

Investing in the skills required to amplify your outreach activities will ensure that you’re not left behind as the scientific community moves to a funding system that rewards interfacing with the general public.

While taking outreach seriously has the potential to help fund your research activities and further your own career, there’s also the benefit to society too. As outreach activities become part of the normal research landscape, they’ll help the general public to regain trust in the idea that science can make a great contribution in solving the world’s biggest problems.

So. . . what are you waiting for?

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