Getting started with scientific outreach

2018/09/02

Audience

This post is aimed at researchers at colleges and universities who have received federal grant money to support their and their student’s work. This includes the National Science Foundation (NSF), Dept. of Energy (DOE), and DARPA.

Overview

I’m hoping to convince you that you should spend about a day per year engaging in direct public outreach on your federally-funded research work. It’s really easy, a little bit fun, and extremely important!

What is scientific outreach?

Scientific outreach is simply educating the public on what you’re working on and why it is important. In fact, if you’re received federal research money, you’re already doing this (a little bit). Each year, you need to write an annual report, which goes to the NSF. At the end of a multi-year grant, you then have to write a final project report, which also goes to NSF, as well as to the public at large (they are available from nsf.gov). NSF (and DOE, NIH, DARPA, etc) have their own channels to the public including reports on major advancements and research outcomes.

Further, your university might post announcements about grants or major findings as well. For these types of outreach, it is not necessary to convey your work in complete detail, but rather to explain what the stakes are, why what you’re doing matters, and what could be gained if you’re successful. You’ve already likely thought through some of these arguments as part of the grantwriting process.

Why is scientific outreach important?

At least in the Computer Science field, much of our research depends on funding from the government. It might feel good to believe that this funding is guaranteed forever, but it isn’t. Scientific funding will only be forthcoming from Congress if they believe it is vital and important to their voters and the country as a whole. Those pragmatic reasons aside, the money we receive comes from taxpayers, and we owe them an explanation of how we’re using their money and how it will make the world a better place. In short, it is a critical part of having our work supported by our fellow Americans.

Why me? Shouldn’t I be focusing on my research instead?

Your college or university might have some PR folks who manage various social media and press release distribution sites. You might think it is their job to handle “PR stuff”, but this isn’t quite right. These methods usually involve other people trying to describe your research on your behalf. A lot can get lost in translation. Further, there is nobody in the world more passionate about your work than you (hopefully!) and so you’re uniquely in the position to advocate for your own work. By all means, please partner with these folks at your institution. Often they’re actively looking for something to promote/publish/release, and you could really help them out by offering to meet with them to do a half-hour interview on a new project, or providing a (human-readable) summary of a new paper you’ve published or grant that you’ve received.

It is often said that research isn’t “done” until it is published, and so consider extending this idea to the idea that your research isn’t done until it is communicated back to the public. Think of public outreach and education as part of your research, not something unrelated to or in addition.

Getting started

OK, I’m convinced. But how do I get started? A step-by-step guide is going to the be focus of a follow-on post, so stay tuned.