26 February 2007

Page turns to science

Researchers of all ages continue to complain that anyone who gets involved in popularising science can end up on the receiving end of sniffy comments from colleagues who see such activities as at best a distraction from real work, and at worst dumbing down. The naysayers don't quite say the same thing about teaching, but that is probably only because to come out of that particular closet would be to court professional death. After all, education is in the job spec and is supposed to be as important as research.

So there isn't likely to be much support for an idea put forward by Larry Page, whose main claim to fame is that he set up Google. Page put forward his ideas at the recent annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The AAAS has put out a News Release on Page's ideas, along with a video of the presentation, some of them would cause fits among the opponents of public dissemination.

Take the suggestion, as reported in the release, of "tying tenure and grant money to the media impact of research". Can you imagine it? Along with details of what you have done over the years, you have to include newspaper clippings about your earlier projects.

They haven't gone that far, but in the UK at least, some of the public bodies that fund research require recipients to devote some of their efforts to Public Engagement with Science and Technology (PEST). This seems to be influencing at least some scientists.

I recently helped run a two hour session on dealing with the media for young and mid-career scientists at Sussex University. One of the people who attended said that she was reluctantly coming to the conclusion that she should join in the PEST game. As well as the growing pressure from research funders, she also thought that being more visible might get people to take her research more seriously, buried as it usually is in obscure journals.

It wasn't just potential the fame and glory, or even the need to keep the grant income flowing, that interested her. Working as she did on important issues for youngsters with a disability, she felt that the people who could pick up her ideas and use it needed to understand what she does.

This may be some way from Larry Page's arguments, but it is certainly a case worth considering, especially if you are of the view that most of the science writers who write for large audiences ignore this sort of thing in favour of the usual safe stories.

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