AAAS Award Encourages Creative Outreach As Part of a Scientist’s “Job Description”

You could call it the “Carl Sagan Trap,” after the late Cornell astronomer who was chided by some of his colleagues for spending too much time as a science popularizer. Far too many scientists still see themselves in this trap, seemingly caught between being a top-notch researcher and a public communicator.

For Yale University neuroscientist Daniel Colón-Ramos, however, “it’s an artificial division.” He uses the same skills, he said in a recent interview, when he is training new scientists in his lab or preparing a new Spanish-language podcast about discoveries made by Puerto Rican scientists. “The truth of the matter is that most scientists realize that communication is an essential part of their work.”

Colón-Ramos is the 2011 winner of the AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science, a prize that recognizes early-career scientists and engineers who demonstrate excellence in their contribution to public engagement with science activities. Endowed with contributions from Bob and Margee Hazen and Alan and Agnes Leshner, along with gifts from other individuals and foundations, the prize is awarded annually to an individual who has excelled in opening up a “two-way conversation” between science experts and the public.

The deadline for applications for the 2012 award is 15 October. Applicants must be researchers who have been in

Researchers at AAAS Family Science Days offer advice on becoming involved in public engagement projects.

their current fields for less than seven years, at a pre-tenure or job equivalent level. Post-doctoral students are eligible for this award. An applicant’s public engagement activities might include informal science education; public policy outreach; or science communication activities through TV or radio, science cafés, science exhibits, science fairs, and social and online media.

“Each year, we receive many quality nominations of early-career scientists who are successfully blending public engagement activities with their research careers,” said Tiffany Lohwater, AAAS public engagement manager. “The increasing prevalence of online networks, blogs, and social media seems to be reflected in the activities of a subset of early-career scientists doing public outreach.”

The award winner receives $5000, a commemorative plaque, complimentary registration to the 2013 AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston, Massachusetts, and reimbursement for reasonable hotel and travel expenses to attend the AAAS Annual Meeting to receive the prize.

Colón-Ramos’ own outreach efforts include founding CienciaPR, a collaborative Web site of Puerto Rican researchers and their colleagues that has produced public-friendly podcasts, textbooks and a free news weekly distributed throughout the island.

He and his colleagues have attended several conferences to speak about the site’s success since receiving the AAAS award, emphasizing the importance of the Internet in public engagement. “One of the biggest barriers in reaching out to the public,” he said, “is that our universities and other structures of knowledge are often concentrated in areas that are geographically dispersed from the communities that are interested in that knowledge.”

Public engagement to reach those outside the scientific community helps all people appreciate and benefit from science, and “contributes to the extent of support for scientific research,” AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner wrote in an editorial in the 17 August issue of the journal Science.

Yet too many scientists are reluctant to reach out, said Leshner, who is also the executive publisher of the journal. “The reasons range from a belief that this responsibility lies outside a scientist’s ‘job description’ to an expressed ignorance about how to go about it.”

These reasons don’t apply to Colón-Ramos, who finds outreach personally rewarding but also important in pointing out new research questions to explore and in bringing him together with an ever-growing group of international collaborators.

One of the benefits of receiving the AAAS award, he said, “is the recognition that public outreach is not incompatible with high-quality research.”

Learn more about the AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement in Science.

Read more about the 2011 Early Career Award winner Daniel Colón-Ramos.

Learn more about supporting the Early Career Award for Public Engagement in Science.