The New"> York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof sparked ire among academics—including many scientists—when he started a recent column by saying, "Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don't matter in today's great debates." His premise was that academics are too cloistered in their ivory towers and fail to communicate their insights to the general public—especially when it has never been easier to do so thanks to the accessibility of social media. I don't think Kristof could have imagined the onslaught of responses that he received from academics, many, ironically, on social media.
There's no way I could summarize all of the responses to Kristof (you can see a compilation of the #EngagedAcademics conversation tweets here) but I will report on some themes.
First, while he acknowledges the publish-or-perish pressure on professors' time, he doesn't fully acknowledge that individual professors—particularly pre-tenure professors—really can't do anything about this system. They must play by the rules if they want to stay employed. These pressures are likely even more intense for science professors at research universities who, besides publishing and teaching, must also continuously write grants to support their research.
The unfortunate truth is that many tenure committees don't reward professors for their outreach activities. People in other professions usually aren't expected to do work outside of what they're paid to do, but Kristof seems to think academics are on another plane and have an imperative to educate the public and not just their students (He's not alone in this thinking.). If he has a problem with the fact that academic "rebels are too often crushed or driven away," he should direct the frustration towards university administrations rather than academicians as a whole.
Second, he ignores the educational and outreach work that professors do by teaching their classes (which is part of their job description). If a professor uses "turgid prose" as Kristof claims academics are wont to use in their scholarly work, they won't be very good at teaching. Indeed, there are many, many community college and adjunct professors whose job is solely to make their subjects accessible to countless students. This has a huge impact: A lone professor is likely to teach thousands of students over the course of a typical career.
Lastly, there are so many academics who do strive to do good outreach—in schools, in science cafes, in free online courses, on Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, and on blogs. There are whole blog networks devoted to science communication primarily by academics (like Scientopia and PLOS blogs). And it's not simply professors: Take a look at these graduate students who voluntarily answered questions on Reddit's Ask Me Anything webpage about their recent paper about a promising new technology for studying pain. These academics deserve some credit, Kristof!
In many ways I actually do agree with Kristof. In particular, I think the public does benefit when professors (and postdocs and grad students) work to make their research accessible, and it's definitely a minority of professors who are heavily committed to public outeach. But as professor and blogger Janet Stemwedel wisely puts it, "engagement requires active participation on both sides."
The truth is that many intellectually engaged and curious lay people will find the blogs and Twitter streams, they will attend the science cafes—to say nothing of reading all the good open-access science out there—but there are plenty of people who simply don't know these resources exist. Many simply can't separate good science from whackjobbery. Media assistance (from, say, a New York Times columnist!) might help, but with so much competition for eyeballs these days even that is unlikely to make much of a difference.
The general public could surely stand to learn more about scientists and their research given our country's staggering science illiteracy, but it's hard to motivate time-strapped scientists to reach out when people don't reach back.