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What We Learned Around Scaling and Sustaining Science Outreach

Science outreach is seen as a good thing, but organizing and executing outreach can be difficult, especially if support (financial, institutional, general-know-how…) is lacking. In many cases, an individual or group may support science outreach efforts, but this effort dwindles should the person or group move on from an institution. Issues also arise when working inside of the science outreach framework is not incentivized, or is actively discouraged. This can lead to challenges related to sustaining and scaling science outreach, and a requirement to continually reinvent the wheel. Ideas around scaling and sustaining outreach was a core theme at SciOut18. Below is a summary of our discussions.

Perspectives in Practice

To help kick off the conversation around scaling and sustaining science outreach, we heard from two scientists who shared their experiences bringing outreach into their institutions. In her Flash Talk, Allison Coffin described how she balances her work as a laboratory leader in neuroscience at Washington State, and her role as President of Science Talk, a national effort aimed at bringing together practitioners of science communication to exchange best practices, and to grow the community nationwide. Through this lens, she summarized 3 barriers to entry for scientists: lack of incentive, lack of encouragement, and lack of opportunity. Allison calls for academic institutions to think about centralization of outreach offices, and how this can add institutional value — for scientists, for trainees, and for community relations. 

Providing an example of how science outreach centralization can yield a variety of returns on the investment, Jeanne Garbarino described in her Flash Talk the story of RockEDU — the centralized science outreach program at The Rockefeller University. While it can sometimes be perceived among members of the scientific community that science outreach is just charity or service work, Jeanne argues that not only is centralization possible, it brings with it new opportunities that benefit the institution. By partnering with Rockefeller’s development team (specifically the Parents & Science initiative), Jeanne has demonstrated that the practice of science outreach is about reciprocity, with many benefits for all stakeholders. 

With these examples and perspectives in mind, our group took a deep dive to explore what key themes are important for sustaining and scaling science outreach in academia and beyond. 

Core Themes for Scaling and Sustaining Science Outreach

What does scaling and sustaining science outreach actually mean? While science outreach can take place in innumerable ways, and can involve a diverse spectrum of people and goals, the majority of the conversation revolved around institutions of science, and the ways in which science outreach should be recognized and valued. 

Engage in activities and push for policies that normalize (and recognize!) scientist participation in science outreach.

While not every scientist wants to participate in the science outreach framework, people who wish to engage in these activities should not be penalized. In fact, they should be celebrated. “Permission” and setting expectations for participating in science outreach should come from the top down. This might mean that PIs, department chairs, or perhaps even university presidents actively encourage and support science outreach among faculty and trainees. However, it is important to make it worth the time and effort by incorporating incentivization and recognition when scientists become involved in science outreach. We would all like to see science outreach have a place in tenure and promotion packages, salary, and/or other types of tangible incentives. 

By not recognizing participation in science outreach, it has the potential of widening the current gaps in diversity, equity, and inclusion as many of the people working in this space are often underrepresented in the sciences. 

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.
— Christine Liu, Graduate Student, UC Berkeley

Science outreach should be framed in terms of its benefit to science, scientists, and institutions (in addition to benefits for outward stakeholder communities).

The returns on investment for science outreach are many, and can be calculated at individual and community/institutional levels. For instance, practicing within the science outreach framework can help individual scientists develop transferable skills, and provide examples of service, teaching, communication, etc., for CVs. For institutions, science outreach can provide the opportunity to positively engage with the local community, providing paths to build relationships with policy makers, philanthropists and philanthropic organizations, and other types of outward stakeholders. 

Centralization of science outreach — including hard money — is key.

To ensure that science outreach can withstand the test of time, it is important to put into place a dedicated staff who can maintain an understanding of internal infrastructure, and ways to incorporate the goals of internal stakeholders. Furthermore, by providing a dedicated budget to a centralized science outreach program, it leaves space for actually doing the work, instead of a constant need to fundraise. By having a centralized science outreach program in place, it can take the pressure off of scientists who want to engage, allowing them plug and play. This, in turn, allows outreach to be consistent and evidence-based, with opportunities for iteration and reflection.

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.
— Courtney Price, Ohio State University

Science outreach is one of the most effective ways to establish a meaningful relationship with outward community stakeholders.

We often see a disconnect between institutions and the communities in which they are embedded. This has the potential to create tension and mistrust, which influences how some populations engage with science and medicine. Building community relations is a valid goal for institutions, and science outreach can help!

What can we do to encourage local and state level communities and policymakers to demand that their local universities adjust their research priorities so that they better serve the populations of the state or cities in which they are located? Flip the situation so that universities become more accountable to the communities in which they are located, and community engagement will necessarily rise in university-level priorities. As practitioners of science outreach, we must establish lines of connection between researchers and local and state-level policymakers, even outside of a state or city’s legislative session. If communities genuinely engage with their local universities and become stakeholders in the conversation about setting research priorities, when there are outcomes to that research that benefit the local community, cities can genuinely take pride in those connections and influence, and showcase these relationships to other cities.
— Amy Hawkins, University of Utah

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