7 minute read

This past month I’ve been thinking a bit about public outreach in science.  Several things have spurred this on:

  • Two papers in PLoS ONE; one about scientists perceptions of outreach and the other on the citation value of science blogs.
  • The DinoZoo exhibition coming to Bristol Zoo Gardens, featuring several large animatronic models of dinosaurs.
  • Recently visiting a school with the Bristol Dinosaur Project to teach about local science and work that the University does.

So what is this outreach thing and what do people think of it?

Outreach in science

We scientists spend a lot of our time researching, and from this we find out a lot of stuff.  Some of this can be quite technical or need lateral (or occasionally nonsensical) thinking that most scientists wouldn’t easily comprehend, let alone non-scientists.  The thing is, much of this research is done using money from research councils, which themselves get money from public taxes.  Thus, something is owed to the public that funded the research.

This can come in many forms:

  • The research papers that officially announces the results and implications of the research.  This is where much of the interpretation of the data and its potential uses ends up.  Recently this has been criticised as the paper often ends up behind a paywall that many people can’t get through without dishing out more money.
  • Internet/intranet databases hold much of the raw data, especially if there’s too much to go into a published article and requires a certain filetype.  Again, access will be restricted.  the purpose of this is to prevent stealing or meddling with sensitive data, but also to keep whoever holds it at the forefront of its use.  This and the first point will need a decent amount of specialist knowledge to use.
  • Public outreach programs are hosted by various institutions.  Their purpose is to go into schools, shopping centres, parks etc and show the work done by that institution in a way that is both comprehendible and memorable.  The outreach format varies: talks, workshops, field trips and so on.  At the University of Bristol, there are several projects, in particular I am involved with the Bristol Dinosaur Project.

What do scientists think?

On 30 April 2012, PLoS ONE published an article ‘How academic biologists and physicists view science outreach’ (Ecklund, James and Lincoln 2012).  The premise is simple: ask several academics what they think of outreach and then analyse the results.  Out of this come many statistics, such as the ratio of women to men who are involved in outreach (72% women to 43% men) and the number of graduate students (54%) compared to postdoctoral fellows (33%).

More interesting is the perceived problems associated with outreach:

Seventy-four percent of respondents list one or more significant impediments to their ability to do science outreach, yet less than half have concrete ideas for how science outreach could be improved (Ecklund, James and Lincoln 2012, pg. 3).

Those who want to spend their life working specifically in science outreach have often faced disapproval whilst in academic training.  The article splits the problems into three categories:

  • Scientists: poor interpersonal and communication skills; 5% say some do not see it as part of their role as a scientist; 15% think non-scientists should organise scientists’ outreach efforts.
  • The Academy: universities value research above all else; lack of outreach infrastructure; lack of recognition for outreach activities.
  • The Public: potentially disinterested, mistrustful or ignorant; perception of scientists as snobby; lack of interest in science.

Some of these problems can be solved simply, although not necessarily easily: give scientists the ability to broadcast their research in a way that is both comprehendible and exciting to the non-scientific community.  This must work both ways: the public need have enough of the required knowledge and interest instilled in them.  For obvious reasons, this does not mean that the entirety of the public must know everything about the whole of science, in the same way that researchers focus on one area only.

Spreading the understanding

An easy, and one of the most popular way to spread the knowledge one accrues, whether through research, travel or life generally, is the personal, or group blog.  These have become vastly popular: WordPress.com reports 460 015 bloggers today, as I write this. Shema, Bar-Ilan and Thelwall (2012) looked at the perception of research blogs and the bloggers’ demographics, similar to the study above on outreach.  They found that most of the research blogs they sampled (limited to less than two authors with over 20 posts within a year) were written by men (67%), most (72%) were linked to twitter and about one-third were written by PhD students — all of which are where I fall.

So, how good are these blogs?  As a way of spreading information, they are pretty darn good; written word and all that.  Blogs are available when and wherever you have an internet connection; they are regularly indexed by various search engines; there is some store somewhere, digital and/or physical, where are this data is being stored for posterity.  Written explanations also allow people to take a break and resume later, which can’t happen in a presentation or workshop.  You can offer in-text links, pictures, videos, music and all other manner of wonderful stuff.  At the end of a blog, you’ll frequently see a comments section, which is great for discussions on the posted topic (assuming you aren’t continuously trolled).  Please do use the comment field at the bottom of articles to spread your thoughts and have discussion.

I find myself reading blogs often; I have a few set up in my RSS reader so I automatically get the newest posts as they come up.  Speaking from my own experience, it’s always good when you see the counter on the right going up and up from views (most of these may be from me checking how many people have looked).  These blogs are even catalogued for the papers that they mention, thus counting for various metrics that measure influence.

The smelly side of publicity

They do say that all publicity is good publicity, although I don’t know who ‘they’ are exactly.  This is not true.  In the case of a particular paper it put a bit of a stink on things; I’m talking particularly about ‘Could methane produced by sauropod dinosaurs have helped drive Mesozoic climate warmth?’ (Wilkinson, Nisbet and Ruxton 2012).  In a lab group, we pulled it apart and found a lot to question about the methods, much has been summed up by David Button at EvoPalaeo and John Tennant over at Green Tea and Velociraptors.  However, rather than just being a proof of concept in showing the calculation could be done (and could be done more respectably in more than two pages), it caused a bit of a flurry in the media.  Unfortunately from my point of view, these newspapers decided to go with the title ‘Dinosaur farts led to global warming’, or something along those lines.

Now, we all enjoy a good fart now and then, but to have many international news networks spring alive to take this story for a ride doesn’t really paint dinosaurologists in the best of lights.  I do not blame the authors of the article for this; dinosaur farts have been discussed before and how would they know the article would receive the attention that it did.  The problem mainly stems from the media who reported this took the plausible, if not fully justified, conclusion of the paper — the sauropods added much methane to the atmosphere during the ‘Mesozoic’ (although extrapolated from the Kimmeridgian–Tithonian Morrison Formation) — and went through ‘sauropod farts caused global warming’ to ‘dinosaurs farted their way to extinction’.  This is a part of the ignorance that scientists see when dealing with the public.  Fortunately, the case of the dinosaur farts is a rare occurrence in the world of outreach: people are intelligent and skeptical enough to take such things with a pinch of salt.  Yet, it is not good if the infrequent appearances of dinosaurs in the news comes as toilet humour.

For those of you who come here looking for ichthyosaurs, don’t worry there’s something special coming along soon!


ECKLUND, E. H., JAMES, S. A. and LINCOLN, A. E. 2012. How academic biologists and physicists view science outreach. PLoS ONE, 7, e36240:5p.

SHEMA, H., BAR-ILAN, J. and THELWALL, M. 2012. Research blogs and the discussion of scholarly information. PLoS ONE, 7, e35869:8p.

WILKINSON, D. M., NISBET, E. G. and RUXTON, G. D. 2012. Could methane produced by sauropod dinosaurs have helped drive Mesozoic climate warmth? Current Biology, 22, R292–R293.

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