What do we expect of scientists … and is it too much?

By Michael Edmonds 18/06/2014 1

Depending on your point of view there are many things that are expected of scientists

  • excellence in research
  • great teacher
  • effective administrator
  • skillful grant proposal writer
  • good mentor and research group co-ordinator
  • media savvy science communicator

All up this is quite a wide ranging and challenging list, so much so that I would suggest that there would be very few scientists who could tick off every aspect of this list. But then, it is not necessary for any scientist to achieve all of the above – it is often possible to find jobs where they can focus on their strongest skills – for example, passionate researchers may find positions with no teaching, while passionate teachers may choose positions where research is a small part of their day. And those with a bubbling enthusiasm for science communication may spend the majority of their time explaining the awesome world of science. Some of us even end up spending their time in management (with all of its’ more subtle rewards).

This can lead to various challenges. Sometimes the public can end up expecting too much of scientists, for example, expecting that every scientist should be able to explain their research like Carl Sagan or Brian Cox. Or worse still, you get scientists treating colleagues poorly because they choose to get involved in science communication, as Peter recently described. How ironic that in the long term it is those who engage in science communication who, through their dedication, are guaranteeing the support of the public in continuing to fund science.

As someone who now has a management role, I sometimes get the feeling that people wonder why I still engage in science communication, as if it requires being an “active” laboratory scientist to tell people about the awesome world of science. After 20 years experience in research, it is not easy to forget the scientific method; and talks on the intricacies of the latest science are seldom the sorts of topics that engage with the public – a good story usually works much better.

Science can lead scientists to a wide range of roles, and it think it is important that scientists respect and support those who choose to use their skills in different ways. If we all wanted to do the exactly the same thing the competition would be hideous and the other jobs just wouldn’t get done!

One Response to “What do we expect of scientists … and is it too much?”

  • This had concerned me for a while. Maybe it has got so bad that we are now in a such a (desperate) position that we NEED these science communicators. If our citizens were educated more in science then maybe the search for the good communicators wouldn’t be so necessary. The coolness of discoveries would then be understood even by the unwashed.