There is a divide between the scientific community about involvement in popular science. I would define it as involvement in NatGeo/Discovery type documentaries, writing columns for newspapers/magazines, blogging about articles of popular nature (Like End of the World, Tsunami or whatever).

Does involvement in such issues harm one's reputation in academia?

I have frequently seen grad students shy away from such opportunities because they think they will be made fun of or won't be taken seriously when they go and speak about "actual" research.

(Although I am talking about grad students, the scenario isn't very different for faculty as well IMO)

Some people like Stephen Hawking or Richard Wiseman have actually authored best selling books. Whereas a majority of people in academia stay in the confines of the journals.

  • Is this "pop science" done instead of peer-reviewed research? Or taking time away from "real" research? If so, wait until after you are tenured! – GEdgar Apr 19 '15 at 13:15

If certain fields of academia do in fact frown upon "popularizing" science, then they are shooting themselves in the foot.

One of the most important ways of securing funding in different disciplines is through getting support by the federal governments in which they are working. Convincing politician X that you should fund research on doohickey X and widget Y to solve problem Z rather than funding their new shopping mall or football stadium requires convincing them that your research is important and worthwhile. The key to doing this is having a message to sell—something that the lobbyists and staff persons working for the government officials can take to them and say "this is what you need to know about why this is important."

An excellent way of doing this is to take part in writing columns, producing features for television, and other "popular" methods of outreach. You'll have to figure out how to distill your message in a way that's exciting for the viewer or reader, and that will help no only you but your peers as well.

  • @aeismall: Having a hard shell isn't the same as being strategic about your career. The toughest researcher can do nothing without funding. IMO once you reach a certain level of research competence, it stops being the deciding factor in who gets grants. – mac389 Feb 21 '12 at 15:31
  • @mac389: The comment was leftover from an earlier discussion. – aeismail Feb 21 '12 at 18:10

I think the answer is, if its done in balance, no. I've had experience as a graduate student with two projects that could be considered "popular science", and they've done...interesting things, career wise. Good as ice breakers ("Oh, you did that!?" - in a generally positive tone) and one yielded some interesting professional contacts.

I think there are two critical elements that need to be there:

  1. It needs to be popular science - it needs a rigorous scientific backing behind it. The popular, fun, Discovery Channel part of my work is backed by peer reviewed publications and conference talks to scientific audiences. That's a good way to reflect criticism of the work as being "soft".
  2. As a graduate student, you need to do other things as well. It's dangerously easy, I've found, to make that your "thing" - but if you're going to be a one trick pony in grad school, that pony probably needs to be serious research. "So what are you working on now?" probably needs to have a straight research answer, rather than another popular science project.

One situation I have come across in which it can potentially make the academic look negative would be when one is interviewed by a journalist, and the journalist is the one writing the article. Hence, one can be quoted out of context (twisting your words to mean something entirely different) or more frequently just being quoted in a silly way (since the journalist only has a fairly superficial understanding of what you are talking about). Especially if you are involved in something that is controversial (e.g. global warming, racial bias) one should be more aware of this potential.

Besides that I have seen slight negative sentiment towards when an author writes a piece that is sensationalist in some ways (which aren't seen as science, or unethical). Examples I have come across are the Freakonomics books (or one of the sub-stories from the initial book titled Gang leader for a day). I suspect the benifit of exposure outweighed any negative sentiment though in those examples. This probably isn't pertinent to many scholars though (how many people write whole books that could be possibly construed in such a negative light before they are well established?)

I have never encountered negative sentiment for smaller articles (like short peices in the newspaper or blogs). Most people I know are really happy to get an article/editorial in the paper (or other widely read magazine like NatGeo).

  • 5
    I tried hard but couldn't resist pasting this. So true, isn't it? – user107 Feb 20 '12 at 14:08
  • @Nunoxic, I've certainly seen confusion over much simpler topics than that! – Andy W Feb 20 '12 at 14:33

There is a field in which academics are paid to find "the Equation for the perfect X" so that the company that makes X can write a news story about it. I am not sure how academics generally feel about this, but it certainly gives off sellout vibes. On the other hand, if Stephen Hawking is allowed to do it then maybe it's OK?