Science communication and academic brickbats

Tightening of the public purse strings is beginning to filter through to the world of academia, and it would seem that one particular consequence of anticipated spending cuts is a withdrawal of funding for the science communication initiatives known as the Partnerships for Public Engagement (PPE). Funded by the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, PPE have provided opportunities for researchers to undertake public outreach projects related to their work.

But no longer, according to the EPSRC, which has announced that it will cease operating the scheme with immediate effect. It has cancelled the PPE call planned for this autumn.

Why has the EPSRC done this? That is a good question, and one for which we do not yet have a credible answer. The council’s press office claims that an as yet undefined “new structure” will enable the EPSRC to build a “high quality portfolio that is more closely linked to the research we fund,…”, and promises a consultation exercise. Yet the very same statement refers to resource allocation and spending reviews.

Science communication specialists are divided in their response to the move, with some, after seeking clarification from the EPSRC press office, opting to give the council the benefit of the doubt. However, the clarification in question amounts to yet more PR spin, and other science communicators have responded with negative comments and pertinent questions.

Science and engineering public outreach is nothing if not “inherently linked with research”, to use the EPSRC’s words, so the original press release is meaningless unless one reads between the lines. I interpret the statement to mean that research councils could soon withdraw funding from professional science communicators. They will instead put more pressure on research scientists and engineers to engage in public outreach, and penalise them if they fail to do so.

Actually, that’s not such a bad idea, but it’s not nearly enough. You might say that researchers are already encouraged to engage in public outreach. That is indeed so, but, when it comes to bean-counting, public outreach plays little or no part in the formal assessment of grant applications and research programmes. This applies not only to the UK research councils, but also to the European Union through its Framework Programmes.

What I would like to see are some numbers detailing the financial savings to be made by the research councils in withdrawing support from public engagement programmes. Relying on academics to do the outreach work is unlikely to achieve the desired results. A few notable academics may be outstanding communicators, but most are not particularly good at public outreach, and many object to activities they see as a distraction from research.

My worry is that money earmarked for public engagement will be increasingly diverted toward impact-evaluation consultancy fees. One thing you can be sure of in any public spending cuts exercise is that management consultants will continue to thrive. That is the way of the world.

And what of the brickbats mentioned in the title? As I’ve said, some academics do not approve of wasting precious research time and resources with public outreach activities, and this sad fact has come out in recent discussions surrounding the EPSRC’s decision to terminate the PPE scheme.

Public outreach efforts are expected of academic research scientists and engineers, and the importance of communication is stressed in various invitations to tender for research funding. The problem is that, when left to their own devices, academics will often attempt to fulfil their outreach obligations by promising no more than to set up a website, based on an “If we build it they will come” rationale. And that, apparently, is good enough for many of those whose job it is to evaluate research grant applications. Here I speak from personal experience, as an occasional consultant commissioned to evaluate research grant applications.

When the inadequacy of a website-only public outreach strategy is pointed out to the academics responsible, back comes the reply that, if there is a choice between keeping contract research staff and technicians in their jobs, “or” keeping public outreach websites up-to-date, it is perfectly acceptable to neglect communications work.

But there is no such choice to be made. In presenting science communication as a chore to be set aside when there are more pressing needs, these shortsighted academics prove the point made by science communication professionals. The arguments made by such academics are brickbats, and most offensive ones at that. There is no “or” involved in professional project management. Either you do the job or you don’t.

Clearly we have a way to go in convincing academic scientists of the need to look beyond their ivory towers and peer groups.

Democracy 101…

  1. Research Councils are controlled by the Government.
  2. The Government is accountable to Parliament.
  3. Parliament is elected by the People.
  4. The People are a collection of individuals with views on this, that and the other.
  5. Ergo, the Research Councils are accountable to the public.

I’ve been attacked for this “condescending lesson in democracy”, but make no apology for using such a deliberately provocative form of words.

Science communication matters when public opinion (and prejudice) can have a significant influence on research priorities. Forget political party election manifestos; pressure on politicians from civil society through single issue campaigns is what’s important, and it often filters through quickly to the policymaking process. For good or ill.

Public engagement is essential in science and engineering research. It should be integrated closely with the research itself, and must not be seen as a side issue. What we should be discussing is how best to communicate science with the public, and who is best qualified to do it.

In light of the EPSRC’s decision to kill off the PPE scheme, maybe it’s time to formulate some very specific questions for our political leaders and their executive agents in the research councils. Questions that cannot be answered with meaningless PR spin.