As a planetary scientist, I go to scientific conferences on a regular basis, and one of those conferences is the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU). When I’m there, I’m usually stressing out about lots of things: my presentation, navigating the ridiculous number of sessions running in parallel, meeting up with everyone I want to talk to before the week is over, etc. To me, AGU means SCIENCE – an almost overwhelming amount of it – and (so far) it has had nothing to do with my forays into outreach and science communication. In fact, this conference (and all other conferences, really) has been a place and a time to put my other interests aside and act like a real scientist, a serious one that doesn’t spend her time on outreach (or history of science for that matter).
So when I heard about the AGU Student Video Contest a few weeks ago, I had to consider very carefully whether I wanted to enter. On the one hand, I’ve been trying to keep my amateur video- and animation-making out of my work life. True Anomalies and my other PHD TV projects have been an outlet for me, and I’ve learned a LOT in the last several months about communicating ideas to a broad, and sometimes not-so-broad, audience. I think these lessons I’ve learned are good for my academic life – I’m better at sorting through information for the important bits and more confident at speaking, for example – but by and large I don’t think the academic world agrees with me.
There are consequences for academics that engage in too much outreach. That’s just how it is. At least, that’s what I’ve gathered from the SciComm community since I got started with all of this, and it’s what I’ve been hearing from friends and colleagues since I entered grad school. I understand why outreach activities might affect hiring and tenure decisions – I mean, people are just making these decisions in a way that makes sense to them in the moment – but it makes me sad that giving back to the public (especially as publicly-funded scientists!) is seen as a lesser activity, or even a waste of time. What is it about engaging a broader audience that makes one less serious as a researcher? Why is ‘seriousness’ the metric of a good scientist at all?
These issues have been on my mind a lot lately, and that’s why, when I saw the announcement for AGU’s video contest, I paid attention. It’s not every day that a scientific professional organization actively encourages its members to embrace their creativity and reach out to the public. I’m pretty proud that mine does, and I think it deserves support. I don’t know if entering this contest will have any negative ramifications for me – I hope not, but I think it’s a possibility – but I’m glad I did it anyway. It just feels right.
[All three contest finalists can be viewed here. The winner is decided by YouTube ‘likes’, so vote for your favorite! (and it doesn’t have to be mine!) Voting closes August 4.]