Should science communicators be paid? | Day 275

There has been a discussion going on about how scientists should be rewarded for their efforts to communicate their research, and whether they should be rewarded at all. Biologist Michael Kasumovic, both an active researcher and an active communicator, recently advocated that scientists should not be rewarded professionally for spending their free time on social media, blogs, and unpaid articles.

I believe he was trying to draw a distinction between external motivation for doing work (pay cheque, looks good on resume, leads to promotion) and intrinsic motivation (feels good to contribute, is emotionally satisfying, feels like the right thing to do):

One takes the knowledge they’ve gained and disseminates it to the general public. It can make you can feel pretty darned good when you see that people are reading and commenting on something you’ve taken the time to think about and explain.

As Kasumovic points out, not everyone is good at communication and writing for the general public. I think what he’s trying to get at is that if you’re a brilliant researcher but not-so-good storyteller, your job satisfaction will suffer when you are forced to do something you’re simply not equipped to do – outreach and communication to the public.

I think. I got a bit confused by what his final point really was, so perhaps you can enlighten me.

Pay the writers

Meanwhile, Knigel Holmes over at Nodes of Science took this idea one step further, asking whether science communicators should get paid for their work:

Kasumovic might take a bold stance, but what do you all think? Should we pay those engaging the public in science? If we should, how would we go about it as to not undermine the creative forces that compel these social artists? How have we dealt with these issues for artists, musicians, and other creative workers?

Now, hold your horses right there. A scientist doing outreach in their own time is quite a different kettle of fish to what full-time science communicators do. For them, the very job is to communicate. They are not always researchers themselves but, unlike research scientists who may or may not know how to write for the public, science communicators are skilled at doing exactly that.

If we go back to the question about creative professions being paid, then the truth is that even professional writers and artists don’t get paid enough. Some do – the best, most successful, most famous, most lucky ones do – but when you go into a bookstore, you would be surprised to find how many of the published authors with names on shiny book covers also have a day job, or at least something non-creative to pay the bills. And it’s the same with musicians, of course. Creativity doesn’t pay as much as you might think, and, while we’re on the subject, neither does journalism. The answer to the question ‘how we dealt with these issues in the past is “we didn’t.”

So, going back to where I started before this rant, should science communication efforts be rewarded? I think that all work should be rewarded. That’s what #paythewriters is all about. But can scientists feel like they are rewarded intrinsically rather than extrinsically? I really don’t know. What do you think?

8 thoughts on “Should science communicators be paid? | Day 275”

  1. Very interesting.

    From an economic perspective it is difficult to work out who pays for what. However, the dissemination of scientific knowledge is an unmitigated good for society, so perhaps government should pay something towards that effort.

    PS of course public broadcasting of scientific issues may be all the public will entertain vis-a-vis these ideas

  2. Hey there, very cool of you to write a thorough response and think of the issue more deeply.

    I didn’t want to express my own view on my own website, but I’ll share my opinion here with you:

    We should not pat science communicators.

    Instead, we should make sure they have everything they need so that we can de-link external rewards from their important creative work. I don’t want to give creative writers less, I want to give them more. The work is immensely important, so I wish our society took an evidence-based approach to economics. The research seems to be consistent that while some types of work are improved my extrinsic rewards like money, creative work tends to be undermined. Therefore, I wish we could support science communicators, teachers, writers, and other creative workers by giving them space and time to explore and share their artistic talent.

    Perhaps there are science communicators who just like money, but if given the choice personally, I’d chose to remove the need for money so that I could spend as much time as possible on science communication.

    If we’re going to be stuck with an inferior method of rewarding our science communicators, then yes, give them money if that’s the least we can do. We’re silly if we can’t do more than that though.

    Again, thanks for your response!

    1. Jon, one of the first things I said was “we should make sure they have everything they need”

      My argument is that you should be given food and anything else you need so that you can focus on the creative work that benefits us all.

      Your next meal shouldn’t be tied to communicating science. Society should treat you better than that.

  3. Interesting point Knigel, although I’m not convinced it is the best approach.

    First, we need to draw a distinction between professional science communicators and researchers who engage in outreach.

    The former ought to be paid, at least to the extent that an organisation values the work they do. Many research institutions do employ science communicators, not to mention media outlets that employ science journalists.

    The latter is more complex. Researchers often value and desire outreach, but concede that there’s a substantial opportunity cost in doing so; every hour they spend writing in the popular press or giving a talk is an hour they’re not working on a peer-reviewed paper or polishing a grant application, not to mention doing research. And that hurts their career, so they’re dissuaded from doing so. I presume this is who you’re referring to as “science communicators”?

    The two approaches that have been proposed to deal with this problem are reforming the academic funding system to include credit for outreach, or having institutions give researchers credit internally for outreach, so there’s less pressure on securing funding through grants etc. There are pros and cons to both approaches.

    However, in this context, I’m not sure what your solution of giving researchers “everything they need” would mean. How do you give a researcher compensation for lost research time? How do you maintain their funding if they don’t get that grant? It seems to me the most parsimonious rendering of “everything they need” would need to include some money. Can you elaborate?

  4. My main argument is that we should do all we can, as a society, to nurture intrinsic motivation when it comes to creative workers. As of now, we don’t do nearly enough to support scientists, teachers, science communicators, etc. I’m drawing on the psychological research that suggests payment often undermines creative work. I’d prefer we work towards a different system that takes this into account.

    As I said above, if all we can do is pay them, then give them that pittance. I’d rather we actually provide real support. We aren’t really paying them if we’re turning around and putting their grants into jeopardy. That’s a messed up way to treat people who are improving our society.

    My answer to that would be “Well, don’t take away the grant money”.

    To shift discussion to something more tangible, what I’m arguing for is something closer to some of the ideas we have for supporting exploratory science. Instead of giving a direct target for research, researchers are able to work on whatever they want. Many companies do similar things as well. Not only that, but there’s several countries that aren’t so driven by capitalism. I know that at least a while ago, Cuba supported their scientists and doctors without the same system as North America. All I’m saying, however, is that there isn’t only one way to do things, and I’m sure we can support our scientists and science communicators better than flicking quarters at them or dangling money above them, only to pull it out of grasp at the last moment.

  5. Intrinsic motivation is great, but it doesn’t put food on the table, and it doesn’t compensate for a missed grant.

    But if a university can top up a researcher’s funding to allow them to continue their work *and* participate in science outreach, then shouldn’t that be considered “real support”?

    I’m also not sure what Cuba spends on funding science (I can’t find any public numbers), but it is likely to be a tiny fraction of what other nations “driven by capitalism” spend. So I’m not convinced Cuba is a good model for us to follow.

  6. “Intrinsic motivation is great, but it doesn’t put food on the table”

    Heh, there are so many people who love cooking for cooking sake, so yes, it does put food on the table. People even enjoy gardening.

    In any case, I believe we’re talking past each other, so I’m going to move on now. Thank you for the discussion.

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