A Paradigm Shift: How universities can support effective outreach

This post is written by Chris Buddle, Associate Professor at McGill University. Click here for contact information, or follow on twitter.

    On Wednesday,  COMPASS published a commentary in PLOS Biology on the journey from science outreach to meaningful engagement. This post is part of a series of reactions, reflections, and personal experiences we hope will expand the conversation. Read the summary post here, or track the conversation by searching for #reachingoutsci

I really enjoyed the article by Smith et al. – it presents a clear rationale for why effective science communication is so important, and it discusses some of the key issues, including the need for the right kind of training and right kind of institutional support.  This quote from the article really struck me, and I think it gets to the heart of the issue:

“Academic institutions and tenure committees must measure and reward time and effort devoted to outreach. And that, we’re keenly aware, will require dedicated leadership and collective effort to change the culture of science”

Good, but how?  Without answering the ‘how’ we will struggle to get further ahead.  I realize that individuals must lead the charge in doing and valuing outreach activities, but in addition to this bottom-up movement, there must be top-down support, training and direction from Universities. This is especially relevant for the Academics who may be keen to do outreach, but whose institutions don’t support this endeavor in a direct manner. So, to achieve a broad, more global acceptance of outreach activities, Academic institutions have some important things to do, and in this post I will explore these.

I will also expand the discussion beyond ‘scientific communication’ to ‘outreach‘ more broadly defined. Outreach is a term that includes the type of effective communication discussed by Smith et al., but also includes other outreach activities that I see among my colleagues –  it could be sharing knowledge with local elementary schools, writing blogs or articles in the local newspaper, to organizing nature walks and delivering public lectures.

Outreach just doesn’t fit easily into the typical and traditional parts of an Academic’s job. Academics are incentive-driven, and the currency of Academia remains the peer-reviewed publications, effective teaching and some form of service. The latter category is a catch-all for various committees, involvement with scholarly societies, editorial work, and anything else that doesn’t fit into teaching and research. What about outreach? Is it service?  Outreach is certainly at the intersection of research and service, but can also be part of teaching (e.g., social media as a way to take the classroom beyond the walls of the institution…).  A while ago I tracked my own work hours, I didn’t include writing my blog as part of the hours – I just wasn’t sure how to categorize outreach activities, nor did I feel that my institution would necessarily see outreach as a core duty. And that is the crux of the problem.

How can Academic institutions incentivize and value outreach activities?

1) Academics who do high quality outreach activities should get paid more. Promotion and salary increases should be tied to the level, but more importantly, the quality of outreach activities done by Academics.  Those who do not engage with a broader audience about their work would not be eligible for full pay raises. Extreme?  Perhaps so… but I suspect it would work.  This does not mean the quality of the research will decrease, nor does this imply any kind of shot-gun approach to outreach will work.  In fact, a measured and careful strategy with outreach is required, as Simon Donner argues in his excellent post.  And, of course, the research upon which the outreach is built must be strong and high quality – we cannot give up research excellence for outreach – they must go hand in hand. If outreach is tied to pay raises, this raises the question of evaluating these kinds of activities. How do you measure amount and quality of outreach?  This is incredibly difficult (“hey, I got 500 hits on my blog – I guess I’ll get promotion to full professor now!”). A reasonable Chair or Dean may be able to judge effective outreach, and the onus would certainly be on the Academics to make their case about their outreach activities; after all, we do this already, all the time. We need to justify journal choice, our level of funding, why we may or may not have a certain number of graduate students, etc. Adding commentary about how much outreach we do could be included in the mix.  There could be a system by which an Academic is only considered for a certain level of a raise if s/he can provide evidence of high quality outreach activities. Judging this quality will be difficult, and will certainly require some deep conversations about what kinds of outreach activities are valuable, and why.

2) Institutions need to make effective outreach activities a part of their institutional culture. Home Depot, for example, includes ‘giving back to the community‘ as one of its core value, and people working at Home Depot go out, as a community, to help build homes for people in need.  Almost all Universities have mission statements that include words about ‘service to communities’ (not convinced? Check out a few – here’s the one for McGill) but by in large, Academics don’t do this on a regular basis, and in most cases it’s certainly not a requirement of the job! Institutions must work to build outreach directly into their culture and this must include active and direct participation by Academics – the people who are doing the research need to be in the community giving mini-workshops, talking to the general public, writing articles for the local press, and writing blogs that explain their work in a manner that is accessible to a broad audience. Universities can help facilitate this with effective marketing about outreach activities, highlight the ways their researchers are engaging with the public, and making it clear how Academic staff are really working with the mission statement in mind. I do recognize that some of this is already done, but I am arguing that it could be done more broadly and better integrated into all facets of the institution. As mentioned above, this could be a reality if pay raises were linked to outreach activities…

3) Coordination:  Academics cannot do outreach in isolation. The article by Smith et al. does point to the incredible value of COMPASS and how that framework can bring people together, and can be a true collaboration in all the rights ways. However, this also has to happen at a more local level, and I find that outreach activities tend to be done in a haphazard manner at Universities.  There is often a lack of co-ordination between media offices from different parts of the University, among researchers, and between researchers and media offices.  Most Academics don’t do any outreach. Of those that do, a few might be in regular communication with a media office, but many ‘go it alone’ and independently engage some outside organization, journalist, or write their own blog and publicize work without support or without much attention to the subtleties or nuances of the process. This is certainly what I do, and although it’s been fun, validating and a positive experience, I don’t have the training, nor do I really know if what I’m doing is correct ! Media office, despite their best intentions, may not always get the story right and/or may not get the required materials from the researchers.  Despite a willingness and interest for effective outreach from different arms of institutions, a lack of coordination means work is being duplicated, and stories are missed. A solution? Media relations offices at Universities should spend as much time with ‘internal’ media and communication as with ‘external communication’ with journalists or other news media. There must be an easy and clear process by which Academics can communicate laterally within their institutions. Media offices must effectively aggregate the various blogs, research findings, big grant winners and Academics must have a willingness to engage with these media offices, provide them content and access. One way to make this process much, much easier is through the use of plain language summaries.

4) Write and speak in plain language. Institutions, publishers, and peers need to demand plain language summaries for all research papers. We are used to writing abstracts; we also need to write plain language summaries. I’ve written about this before, and I am trying to write plain language summaries of my papers (e.g., see here and here for examples).  This has been a very interesting process, and what has been especially useful about these summaries is that they have provide me an easy way to talk to my media office, students, my family, and peers about my work. These summaries have forced me to think about the broader meaning and impact of my research.  It’s forced me to think beyond ‘I’m doing this research because little is known on the topic‘ and clarify the meaning behind the work – the broader framework. I think this is the start of effective outreach. I have worked with a few other authors on plain language summaries, and what has become clear is that these are not easy to write, and require a different set of writing skills.  Training is required to help Academics write in plain language.

5) Institutions must require communication workshops for all Academics. When I first started my job, I attended a lot of workshops, and the topics included things like ‘how to prepare a course outline’, ‘research ethics’, ‘the tenure process’, etc.  Communication courses must be part of this mix, and a requirement of the job should be training in communication and outreach. As Smith et al. point out, we lack training – some of us can write in a jargon-free way, and are happy to put together a talk for a local naturalist club, and are willing to speak to journalists: many of us don’t know how to do this, don’t know where to start, are afraid to take the leap, or have done things badly and are perhaps nervous about outreach activities. We’ve been trained to write research papers; we’ve not been trained to write in other ways, or in language that is more accessible to a broader audience.  We’ve been trained to give specialized talks at conferences, or to speak to undergraduate students in a familiar lecture hall.  Many of us don’t know how to put together a presentation to a room full of school kids. We need help, and our institutions need to provide quality training opportunities, and ensure Academics take advantage of the opportunities.

A key issue, and one that is pointed out by Smith et al., is that Academics don’t have the time to do outreach activities. We are pushed and pulled in various directions, and it’s hard to juggle the regular and required part of our jobs, so how can anyone rightfully argue that we must also include communication of our research to a broader audience? Jessica Hellmann talks about this in her lovely post about science communication and outreach. There’s no denying that it’s a chronic problem, and there’s no easy solution. However, finding ways to dovetail the research with outreach can lead to efficiencies, new collaborations, and new ways of doing things. Smith et al. do discuss the value-added that can come from outreach.

The chronic time issue is exactly why outreach MUST be incentivized, and why institutional cultures must shift to require, accept, and reward effective outreach activities. This will have to happen from the top-down and the bottom-up. University Principals need to make it clear that their institutions are truly at the service of the larger community in which they reside and live. From a bottom-up perspective, individual Academics need to buy into the idea of effective outreach, and may need a nudge here and there to make it happen, and be fully supported in these endeavours.  But it can happen! Universities can change, over time, and they have the skills and the people to make it work.

It is also very timely to be thinking seriously about how Academic institutions re-think outreach activities – the place of Universities in today’s society is being questioned, and effective outreach is one way to help ensure that everyone sees what we do, and why. How our work relates to policy, government priorities, our environment; how we are working to understand climate change, fight against persecution of the poorest members of our society and how are working to understand global health issues. The list goes one. Donors will be more willing to give money if they really had a clear handle on what Academics do and why. Media offices could do a better job of promoting our Universities if they had access to a all Academics who are engaged with outreach Activities.

To finish: Smith et al.’s paper was optimistic, exciting, and a truly great contribution to the discussion about science communication.  What I worry about is that we must move beyond this article to some clear ways that institutions can properly incentivize and support outreach articles. I hope these ideas (and others) are discussed, debated and that institutions can move towards a new paradigm that includes effective outreach.

If we can figure this out, we’ll all win. 

A special thanks to Elena Bennett for reading over and helping me with an earlier draft of this post.


Smith B, Baron N, English C, Galindo H, Goldman E, et al. (2013) COMPASS: Navigating the Rules of Scientific Engagement. PLoS Biol 11(4): e1001552. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001552


7 thoughts on “A Paradigm Shift: How universities can support effective outreach

  1. This is superb! You’re spot on that this is a cultural issue – at my university (Imperial College London), I’ve been explicitly told that I can keep doing outreach activities (primarily blogging and podcasting) as long as it doesn’t eat into my (ill-defined) PhD research time. There are absolutely no incentives within the university for doing what I’m doing, and the internal recognition and support is entirely absent, in contrast to the feedback etc I receive from outside of university.

    Incentivising this kind of work would be great for all the reasons you say, but I think we have to be careful with some incentive structures (e.g., promotions) that it doesn’t mean we spend more time promoting ourselves than our science – I know many colleagues who already conflate the two with respect to other leading public figures in my field.

    Time is a major issue, and one I don’t have any solutions to. In my experience, academics already work some of the most ridiculous hours I know of (what are weekends again?) My response to questions about this, is that if you don’t see the value in science outreach, and don’t enjoy it, then don’t do it! This isn’t for everyone, but it’s our role as scientists who practise it already to communicate with our colleagues that it is worth spending a bit of extra time blogging (which does get faster with time), or a day out to give a public talk or whatever.

    But yeah, great post! I hope to see these thoughts developed in the public and academic forums in the future 🙂

  2. Thanks for the comments -much appreciated!

    I agree 100% that the self-promotion doesn’t become the outreach activity – in fact, there is (in some circles in Academia) a strong distaste for social media as a form of outreach because many people believe blogs, twitter etc are ONLY for self-promotion. That is wrong, of course, BUT this does need to be considered. Again, this is why training is critical, and why the approach to outreach needs to be done carefully.

    The point about timing is a good one – I blog, etc for mostly personal reasons – I love doing it, it brings much personal satisfaction, and I see it was a major bonus when it helps and connects to my teaching and research. I tend to write blogs at very unusual times, and times that I wouldn’t have normally committed to my normal work duties. So, for me, it’s not been a struggle to find the time, nor has it interfered with my productivity. However, if it did interfere with my teaching, training graduate students, research etc, that would be a serious and justified problem. Related to this (and you comment about how it gets faster with time), doing outreach really doesn’t take much time!!

  3. Great post Chris! Thanks for contributing to this conversation – I believe it will take people like you, and others within the academic system, sharing these ideas and championing them in your own institutions. We’ve heard too many times, what protohedgehog says above – that engaging in outreach is fine IF it doesn’t take away from existing responsibilities (getting grants, teaching, doing). We’ve also heard more extreme stories where folks were discouraged to engage in outreach because it takes away from existing responsibilities. Hopefully, the more we support each other, the faster we’ll get there.

    I love your idea about including communications trainings as part of the workshops one most take to get started at a new institution. Having access to a “how to engage with the public and media” workshop should be just as easy as taking one about “how to write a grant proposal”.

    I enjoyed your post, thanks for sharing.

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