Astronomers have an outsize passion for outreach

The vast majority of professional astronomers surveyed globally said they engage with the public about science — and few are motivated by prizes.
Aisling Irwin is a freelance journalist in Oxfordshire, UK.

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Malaysian school children pull faces while watching the eclipse through cardboard eclipse glasses

School children watch an eclipse.Credit: Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty

Astronomers’ passion for popularizing celestial wonders has been quantified — and it seems they are among the most vibrant communicators in the natural sciences, though knowledge about levels of popularization in other disciplines is limited.

Most of the astronomers who responded to a survey carried out by researchers at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) were doing an average of 18 public-outreach activities a year.

This appears to surpass the efforts of other disciplines that have been surveyed, in which only a minority engage with the public and manage just two or three activities a year, says Marta Entradas, a science-communication researcher at LSE.

For example, she says, a study of the outreach activity of 7,000 scientists working for the huge French government research agency CNRS, found that 36% of physicists, 27% of biologists and 23% of chemists had done an outreach activity in 2009. They averaged less than one activity a year.1

Entradas and Martin Bauer, a social psychologist at LSE, contacted around 9,000 individual members of the International Astronomical Union, the world’s largest body of professional astronomers2. They focused on astronomers because there was anecdotal evidence that they are keen popularizers, but no concrete evidence beyond local case studies.

Entradas thinks it is the first time a global scientific community has been surveyed about public communication.

Of the 2,587 (30%) who replied, some 87% said that they engage with the public, most commonly through lectures, but also through school visits, open days, exhibitions, locally organized events, festivals and media interviews. Fewer than 20% of communicators engaged through social media (see ‘Stellar engagement’).

Source: Entradas, M. & Bauer, M. W. Nature Astron. (2018).

Spreading the word

The most prolific communicators, mustering around 22 activities a year per person, were in Africa and South America, a finding that surprised Entradas because she thought that astronomers in more developed regions would have more infrastructure and funding to support popularization activities. She ascribes it, in part, to local scepticism about the construction of astronomical facilities in remote locations, which generates a need for public engagement.

Lucia Marchetti, an astronomer at the University of the Western Cape and the University of Cape Town in South Africa who has a dynamic record of public engagement, including giving public lectures, sitting on the IAU popularization committees and collaborating with artists on an exhibition on light, agrees. She adds that local astronomers may also be drawn into underfunded schools in remote regions to supplement science teaching through astronomy.

The study also probed astronomers’ motivations, uncovering a stellar joie de vivre rather than a desire for earthly rewards such as prizes or money — only 27% said awards would motivate them.

Entradas suggests that this “intrinsic” motivation is “driven by something that comes from inside you — enjoyment ... or a sense of responsibility or duty”.

A higher purpose

This, combined with the fact that — contrary to a view that scientists generally fear that outreach might threaten their reputation3,4— 96% of astronomers felt engagement caused no reputational damage in the eyes of their peers, has led the authors to conclude that outreach is “a core component of the professional role of the astronomer”.

And astronomers seemed to be ambivalent about support from professional science-communication staff. Although funding and support from such staff correlated with high activity, most engagers were untrained, unfunded and acted on their own, even if institutional help was available.

Instead, say the authors, institutions seeking to emulate these levels of engagement in other disciplines should strengthen resources and cultivate “intrinsic motivation” by stressing goals such as “a higher purpose and community building”.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07519-2
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  1. 1.

    Jensen, P. Public Underst. Sci. (2011).

  2. 2.

    Entradas, M. & Bauer, M. W. Nature Astron. (2018).

  3. 3.

    Johnson, D. R., Ecklund, E. H. & Lincoln, A. E. Sci. Commun. 36, 81–105 (2014).

  4. 4.

    Johnson, D. R., Ecklund, E. H. & Lincoln, A. E. Sci. Commun. (2013).

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