The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the vast divide that separates public opinion and policy from the advice of the scientific community. This isn’t surprising—debates around climate change and gun control and even direct polling data repeatedly tell us that a significant number of Americans don’t believe that scientists’ voices belong in policy making. Unfortunately, we cannot control the very real psychological, societal, and political roadblocks that stand between us and public trust. We can, however, control our voices. In 2012, the United States employed more than a million full time–equivalent researchers. We are well educated, reasonably well compensated, technologically savvy, and well positioned to be a force both nationally and locally in the development of evidence-based policy.
But we often aren’t, because it’s not our job.
We are not trained or incentivized to translate our work to a lay audience. While individuals and organizations specializing in science communication make outstanding efforts on our behalf, for most rank-and-file researchers, public engagement is an extracurricular activity. The articles we write, public lectures we give, and public advisory boards we sit on are usually relegated to the citizenship corners of our CVs. They will not help us graduate or influence our most prized metrics, and they rarely get us promoted. This lack of formal recognition for public-facing efforts leads to fewer qualified voices in the public realm. As a result, our society suffers.
As an outreach-oriented immunologist working on COVID-19 and a public policy and communications specialist, we believe that there is a solution: tweak the way we fund federal grants.
Public funding drives academic research, and conditions placed on that funding shape how information is delivered. While many institutions tie funding to a set of policies that encourage academic journal publications, and making those publications accessible, few require disseminating those results to a lay audience.
We envision a wave of new voices emerging in the public sphere, participating in an educated way in our most important national conversations.
This is a mistake. Outreach should be encouraged and rewarded through the implementation of what we call a “public engagement” scoring component for new federal grant applications. Currently, National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants are scored subjectively on five criteria (significance of the work, investigator reputation, etc.). Adding an additional public engagement criterion, tied to a half-page proposal for public engagement, would force investigators to consider how they plan to keep the public updated on and engaged in their scientific progress. This could include anything from public-facing articles explaining the lab’s work, to engagement with policy makers on a related subject, to general organizing and participation in the promotion of science literacy. Future iterations of these proposals could even include a self-reported history of public engagement, allowing reviewers to subjectively assess the commitment of the lab and its members to participating in public debate.
This change would likely ruffle the feathers of those who would view this additional requirement as a distraction, even a waste of time. However, we anticipate a cascading effect that benefits both the public and scientific community.
Most directly, it would support scientists who take the time to disseminate their work into the public sphere, making them more competitive in receiving grant funding. Universities would be forced to weigh public outreach as a valid component of scholarship when considering promotion and tenure. Scientists unwilling or unable to effectively engage the public on their own can turn to either existing outreach infrastructure at their universities (such as PR departments) or independent organizations that specialize in working with academics to disseminate complicated material to the public. As a result, communications collaborations would become commonplace—benefiting both the public, and ultimately, the researcher as well.
More broadly, universities willing to invest and develop science communications infrastructure would find their researchers more competitive and more lucrative. Institutions would be wise to train scientists in public engagement both for the researchers’ success, and because communications-trained graduate students would make faculty grants more competitive. Universities might even benefit from hiring faculty specializing in scientific communication to help support the dissemination infrastructure.
Most importantly, we envision a wave of new voices emerging in the public sphere, participating in an educated way in our most important national conversations. Increasing both the frequency of communication and the diversity of voices will build trust and interest in the public, providing renewed understanding and confidence in the work we do and its importance.
This proposal is straightforward and easy to enact. It requires only public support and a governmental decision that public engagement is worth prioritizing.
We will be working with the Scholars Strategy Network to promote this policy proposal, and look forward to defending its merits. Facing an ongoing pandemic, climate change, systemic racism, and a slew of other issues, scientists’ voices must clearly and consistently project evidence into the national debate. For all of our sakes, we must work to bridge the divide between scientists and the taxpayers who fund us.
Matthew Woodruff is an immunologist at Emory University’s Lowance Center for Human Immunology. Alexander Woodruff is a health science specialist at the Office of Veteran’s Affairs in Boston and tweets @aewoodru. They are cofounders of Jefferson’s Electorate.