On social media and the need for effective broader impacts

health science social network

image from: http://joannapenabickley.typepad.com/on/2010/11/on-social-media-icons.html

The first post by the new upwithclimate team member, Tim Perez:

If you are remotely in tune with current scientific buzz-words or lingo, you’ve probably come across this catchy binomial: broader impacts. Broader impacts are one of two ways the U.S.’s National Science Foundation critically judges a grant for merit. You can read all about it here and here. In sum, broader impacts are the effect your research will have on your scientific discipline and in society.  One way for scientists to have broader impacts is to increase engagement with the public, and social media provides easy access to large public audiences. This blog is a case in point. Of course, social media isn’t the only way for scientists get their message ‘out there’, but like the term broader impacts, it sure is popular.

Social media is at the disposal of everyone so it may not be surprising that it contains a lot of trash, and science media is no exception. One popular website, I F***ing Love Science (IFLS), with admittedly cool information, is just that: a website with cool information. IFLS is a hardly resource for new or pertinent scientific research. (Here is a hilarious tirade about why ‘liking’ IFLS does not mean you actually like science (disclaimer: lots of f-words))

I can’t help but wonder if websites like IFLS may actually detract from important research. The benefit of such websites is that they may ignite interest scientific research, which may trickle back to scientists in the form of more researchers, greater public support, funding, ideally all of the above. However, it is apparent that this scientific trickle-down effect is still not effective given the public’s stance on many important issues. Cough-climate change-Cough. This article from The Plant Press blog, discussing understaffed and underfunded herbariums, is yet another reminder of the academia-public disconnect. Maybe, social media promotes a superficial interest in science – Or maybe there is a time lag and science has yet to its benefits.

I’d wager on the latter being true. It seems unlikely that increased exposure to pseudo or pop-science would somehow decrease public interest. I would argue a superficial interest in science is better than none: Even armchair activists can still send an influential letter to administrators and politicians from the comfort of  their seats. A quick Google search turned up results that support the idea of social media improving the public scientific literacy, but I’m not aware of more convincing evidence.

Unfortunately, I think these videos are further evidence of the public’s lack of scientific exposure. Don’t get me wrong, I love the videos and I appreciate what they are trying to accomplish. I’m sure a lot of hard work went into them, and maybe a scientist or two was consulted during their production. Yet the videos explain the consequences of climate change and resource extraction in terms I would expect in a children’s book. If the American Public (to whom I assume these videos are targeted) need famous actors and actresses to tell them they are in deep doo-doo unless they change their ways, then it is obvious that there is still a large gap in scientific outreach and public interest. They should be listening to scientists, instead of being scolded by Hollywood!

This post does not suggest effective strategies to bridge this gap – perhaps in a following post – rather it aims to acknowledge the gap, and recognizes that the bridge building needs to occur faster. The urgency of such building should be clear, lest more closures in scientific institutions are needed, and the burden  of building falls on the shoulders of scientists. After all, it is in scientists’ best interest to promote their work and increase the trickle of support to science. Hopefully, our collective refocused efforts will trickle down to a constant stream of public support and funding.

When I think about it, it’s clear why broader impacts are heavily weighted in NSF grant proposals: The future of research may depend on it. Social media is a start, but scientists need to be on the lookout for new ways to not just to broaden their impacts, but to make them effectual.


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