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Professionalization of Outreach: Practical Considerations

By Jeanne Garbarino , SciOut18 Task Force

As science outreach continues to evolve into a formal discipline, there is a growing need to supply professional training, resources, and networking opportunities to those who work within the field. Furthermore, it is critical that we can build a professional community of science outreach practitioners, and set agreed upon standards of excellence to help move our field — and our careers — forward. The following represents a summary of SciOut18 discussions by meeting theme. These summaries are by no means entirely inclusive of all that was discussed, but represent key points that were consistently raised by meeting participants.

Understanding the Impact of Science Outreach

Understanding the efficacy and impact of science outreach programming is critical for sustaining and scaling, yet this seems like a universal black box for the science outreach community. It’s hard to capture our impact given the diversity of stakeholders, content, and approaches. Furthermore, there really is no standard tool in the field for measuring effectiveness, and many of us don’t have the expertise to design and/or carry out such evaluations. Yet, reporting these metrics is near essential for obtaining funding and/or institutional support, and has the potential to inform how changes in program design and execution should be implemented to achieve better outcomes.

A major challenge associated with metrics is that it is not always clear what the goals of science outreach programs and activities should be, making it difficult to ascertain, in advance, what strategies are most appropriate for measuring impact. There tends to be some focus on improving diversity in science fields through recruitment and retention, but is creating an army of scientists truly the sole goal of scientific engagement? Even if science outreach activities help to improve issues related to underrepresentation in science, there are still unresolved issues related to retention. Moreover, fostering a genuine connection with the process of science can be important for a democratic society as well as simply to appreciate the cultural role of scientific knowledge in our society . Where does that leave those who wish to engage with science, but not in their education or career?

Often, the desired outcomes of science outreach programming centers on human emotion and shifts in human behavior — few of us in the science outreach field are equipped to handle measuring what trained psychologists and social scientists are still working to understand. While learning the impact of science outreach on outward facing audiences will allow us to iterate and build better programs and initiatives, we mustn’t ignore the impact of science outreach on inward scientific communities and institutions. Perhaps the easier goal is to focus on shifting the culture within the scientific enterprise to value and promote science outreach. This has a lot to do with scaling and sustaining efforts, and does not necessarily address independent science outreach outside of an institution or established organization, but it can be a good start. At SciOut18, we worked on listing some general goals for science outreach, which are described in more detail in the Values of Outreach White Paper.

Geoff Hunt, National Academy of Sciences: The ideal outreach project is a sustained interaction that results in a significant impact on participants’ behavior and ways of thinking. This definition is so open-ended and includes so many loosely-defined terms that I’m not sure if there is one unifying tool or metric that could be used for precise, quantifiable evaluation across all programs and projects. There are even those who would argue that evaluation is irrelevant. If you as the organizer have identified a clear problem and a defined target audience affected by said problem, then your efforts will be impactful whether or not something quantifiable is able to be picked out. While nihilistic and partially facetious, this approach does have the benefit of obviating the time and effort spent on crafting evaluation tools that are often ineffective and limited to one-off applications.

Scaling and Sustaining Science Outreach Efforts

At SciOut18, there were legitimate concerns over our current ability to sustain and scale the many science outreach efforts taking place across the United States. This largely stems from the fact that many of the efforts falling within the science outreach framework are done by passionate individuals as an extracurricular activity, as opposed to being a formally supported endeavor. Often, science outreach efforts are spearheaded by early-career scientists, usually science trainees (undergraduate or graduate students, or postdocs), who are temporary members of inward stakeholder communities. As these trainees move to their next career stage, science outreach efforts often fizzle out, with no guarantee of resurrection — and if resurrection does occur, it is more often than not an inefficient reinvention of the wheel. Issues pertaining to succession are clear roadblocks to sustaining any science outreach framework.

Ben Wiehe, Science Festival Alliance, MIT Museum: Meaningful outreach is a product of genuine relationships, and genuine relationships require real people to be present. It isn’t just institutional memory or trained skills that are lost when some moves on, it is also their relationships.

Moreover, we must acknowledge that many inward stakeholders participating within the science outreach space are often members of underrepresented and/or historically marginalized communities. When members of these communities are not professionally incentivized (or in some cases are penalized) by their immediate supervisors and/or institutions for their participation in the science outreach framework, we run the risk of devaluing marginalized scientists institutions hope to recruit and support. In order to genuinely sustain a science outreach framework within institutions, we must make it worth the time and effort spent by these community members by incorporating incentivization and recognition into formal professional evaluation processes. This could mean adding some form of outreach portfolio to tenure applications and/or salary or position incentives, among other possibilities.

Christine Liu, University of California, Berkeley: Much outreach for marginalized communities are done by people who identify with those communities. So long as outreach labor is not valued, we are devaluing the marginalized scientists we work so hard to recruit and support. We must empower those who can instill the most trust in neglected communities in order to maximize the impact of our collective resources.

There exists a perception among some academics that science outreach is not a scholarly endeavor, and that participation takes away from research or other primary duties. However, mounting anecdata suggests that science outreach efforts not only compliment the research enterprise, but can also serve as a tool for faculty and graduate student recruitment, as well as for building and strengthening community relations. One of the SciOut goals moving forward is to better understand how these perceptions shape institutional support for the practice and profession of science outreach. We will start this process via a national survey, which is supported by the National Science Foundation.

Overall, members of the SciOut community are in favor of institutional centralization of science outreach as a means to sustain and scale these important efforts. By having a well-defined, institutionally-supported science outreach framework in place, it gives scientists the permission and time to genuinely participate in their community, and allows for consistency — this latter part is important for creating authentic and long-lasting relationships, both inside and outside of institutional settings. However, it completely defeats the purpose of centralization if the majority of efforts spent in this space go toward fundraising. In order for centralization to work, there must be a dedicated staff, space, and hard money to support this work.

Courtney Price, The Ohio State University: As a general rule, program sustainability comes through having multiple stakeholders genuinely invested in the development and implementation of a program. The knowledge of how the program runs — and who the partners are — cannot be held by a single individual. The more people that benefit from and are invested in a program, the more likely it is to be sustainable even in the face of staff turnover. From a funding standpoint, being able to demonstrate impact is very important to continued funding. Showing a connection to existing infrastructure (whether that be within the University or in the community) shows that the program is not reinventing the wheel. It is important to tell your story and share your successes. A great program that no one knows about except the people who are directly involved runs a greater risk of losing steam than one that external people are aware of and has been recognized for its successes.

Building and Nurturing a Community of Practice around Science Outreach

Given the incredible diversity of science outreach efforts — in terms of geography, stakeholder audiences, topic areas, goals, etc. — it is next to impossible to create a single set of best practices that can be broadly applied in all contexts. We recognize that the generation of knowledge is a social endeavor, and that knowledge is most useful when it can be reused and applied in novel contexts. By creating opportunities to share and iterate upon the knowledge held by each member of the SciOut community, a science outreach community of practice could support enormous collective capacity in the science outreach space. While those working in the science communication, engagement, and outreach spaces approach this work with tailored strategies and goals, we can all come together around the idea that engaging non-scientist audiences (outward stakeholders) is important and worthwhile, and as such, there are some aspects of shared identity. We hope that through the SciOut initiative, we can take note of who is participating, as well as who is not participating (but should be). Once we are able to come together more regularly, it will be easier for us to assess what we are doing together to cultivate both the generation and sharing of knowledge for the purposes of driving our field forward.

This is an excerpt from the SciOut18 White Paper: Recommendations for the Continued Professionalization of Science Outreach within the Scientific Enterprise which can be downloaded in its entirety in the Save & Share sidebar

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