More than half of faculty members at U.S. land-grant universities believe engaging with the public about science is a high priority. But at the same time, fewer than a quarter think their peers prioritize science communication, according to a new report. That gap suggests that faculty who engage with the public feel isolated and could weaken outreach programs that meet university missions and the goals of the scientific community at large, researchers say.
The findings come from a team that includes UMass Amherst’s Ezra Markowitz, associate professor of environmental conservation, and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and Dartmouth College.
For years, many scientific societies have urged academic researchers to increase their engagement with the public. Their goals include boosting participation in science, increasing support for science-based programs — such as public vaccination campaigns — and helping society grapple with big changes brought by scientific advances.
Markowitz says the researchers believe they have identified an important aspect for promoting their work. “The results highlight how important it is that faculty members and their institutions celebrate and recognize the amazing engagement efforts already underway by so many people,” he says. “Public engagement and outreach are critical for many reasons, in no small part because they can and do deeply impact and improve the work produced by academics over time.”
The team sent surveys to more than 100,000 faculty at all 73 U.S. land-grant universities and colleges to gauge their attitudes toward public engagement. The final data featured more than 6,200 faculty members from 46 schools.
Nearly everyone who responded said they had participated in some science communication activity in the last year. Just over 53% of faculty reported that public engagement is very important to them and younger faculty members were even more likely to prioritize this engagement. Most faculty also thought that outreach is important to university leadership and the school at large. Yet they felt apart from their peers. Just 23% thought that public engagement was very important to their colleagues, despite the reality that a majority prioritize it.
“We don't have the luxury of avoiding public engagement,” says Dominique Brossard, a University of Wisconsin–Madison professor of life sciences communication and senior author of the report. “Science is moving very fast. We are talking about things such as gene drives to control pests, human gene editing, and artificial intelligence that are moving way faster than our ability to regulate them. We need citizens to be part of those conversations.”
The findings were published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”