What do we know about our investment in science communication?

Posted by Lauren Hertel on Tuesday, May 10 2016


Editor's note: The following piece first appeared on our training partner COMPASS's website. It is by Brooke Smith, the Executive Director of COMPASS.

At this year’s AAAS annual meeting, the volume of sessions and workshops about science communications clearly reflected the community’s growing appetite and interest.  We’re notably moving past conversations about why scientists need to engage, and into conversations around how we can best support scientists to do soResearch shows that scientists do want to engage, but that they don’t have the time or resources to do it.

Well, time + resources = money. If we want more scientists engaging, and we want quality engagement, isn’t it time we invested in it?  That question was the main focus of  “Going Public: Investing in Science Communication for Scientists”, an all-star discussion panel that Keegan Sawyer (National Academy of Science), Russ Campbell (Burroughs Wellcome Fund) and I convened at this February’s AAAS meeting.  And we learned that we have a lot to learn about what we invest in science communications, but that we also may not invest enough. Note: This post reflects conversations among and contributions of our panelists Bruce AlbertsClare MattersonDietram ScheufeleKai LeeRick BorcheltRuss CampbellSusan Singer, and William Provine.

Last year, the United States invested$465 billion (from public and private sources) in scientific research.  Our panelists explored what percentage of this amount we invest in scientists communicating and engaging. But the truth is, no one knows. Turns out it’s a very hard thing to measure. Communications and engagement is not a line item in budgets that we can pull out and add up. Identifying what should and shouldn’t be part of the equation is a huge challenge. Science communications is referred to in a lot of different ways (professional development, engagement, convening, communications, broader impacts, science fairs…and where should science education fit in?). To complicate it further, there is a trend towards confusing, conflating or even misusing money intended for communicating science for institutional promotion – so even counting funds allocated for scientists to communicate is flawed, as they may not actually be used for that purpose.

Our AAAS panel had representatives from two philanthropic heavy hitters that support science communication: the Wellcome Trust and the David and Lucile Packard FoundationClare Matterson shared that the Wellcome Trust invests 5% of their research budget in engagement (the crowd cheered when she said that if she hears pushback that an additional post-doc could be covered, instead of investing in engagement, she responds “well, tough”).  Kai Lee shared that the Packard Foundation spends between 1% and 5% on science communication, to which he added “this puts the Foundation at the forefront of science communication philanthropy.  I say that with not much satisfaction.”

So even though we don’t know exactly what we invest in scientists communicating, we can speculate that it is a very small percentage of what we invest in science (possibly as low as .1%, more likely closer to 1%, unlikely to be over 5%).  Compare this to the standards other sectors use: it’s normal for business/industry to invest 10% of their budgets on communications.

In our discussions, we also identified another critical obstacle. We don’t define or measure our return on investment (ROI). For anyone who works in industry, business, or finance, the ROI is an essential part of making the case for why one would invest, and to measure the impact of that investment. We (those of us that work in science communication) haven’t articulated this very well yet.

So where does this leave us? We do not know what we invest in science communications, or what that return on our investment is.  We do know, though, that whatever investment we are making is small. We also know that science and technology are advancing quickly. We all want to live long, healthy lives, and want to have the food, energy and water needed to survive. We know science has a lot of insights and discoveries to help us with these grand challenges. So while we have a lot of work to do on articulating the return on investment of science communications, wouldn’t investing in science communications help us realize our return on investment in science? The stakes for ourselves, our communities and society feel too high to risk not investing.

For more details about the funding science communications conversation at AAAS, visit these great Storifies by session co-organizer Dr. Keegan Sawyer.


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