Bustling public communication by astronomers around the world driven by personal and contextual factors

Abstract

Astronomers have a long tradition of outreach to satisfy public enthusiasm about stars and the Universe. Anecdotal evidence shows that astronomers love to popularize1, and their efforts reach millions around the world2,3. Yet no systematic comparisons of these activities may be performed without robust evidence. The general literature on scientists’ outreach finds barriers that discourage outreach, such as lack of fun, time, skills or recognition, or the perception that it lies outside of the professional role4 and is a risk to reputation—the ‘Carl Sagan effect’. It also finds that outreach is generally more frequent among the most senior and academically productive male scientists5,6,7. Here, we present a study of n = 2,587 members of the International Astronomical Union with a 30% response rate. This is the largest systematic study of astronomers’ outreach activities beyond local case studies8,9,10, which reveals how these factors compare within this community and in different research systems and environments. We show regional variations of outreach activity, with higher activity among astronomers in South America and Africa, and find that personal factors are important, yet contextual factors matter too. Among astronomers, gender, rewards and fear of peer criticism do not matter. Future research should focus on explanatory factors inherent to the ecology of scientific work, to better understand what drives scientists within their specific cultural and research environments.

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Fig. 1: Frequency of participation in public events and news channels by astronomers.
Fig. 2: Frequency of participation in social media channels by astronomers.
Fig. 3: Intensity of participation in events and channels by astronomers across regions.
Fig. 4: Forest plot showing binary logistic regressions for communication activities.

Data availability

The data that support the plots within this paper and other findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.

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Acknowledgements

The authors thank the ESO, the Leiden Observatory and P. Russo, and the IAU for supporting the study. We also thank A. Suerdem and P. Yam (LSE) for fruitful discussions on the data analyses.

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M.E. and M.W.B. designed the instrument measurement. M.E. collected the data, performed the analysis, and wrote the manuscript and Supplementary Information. M.W.B. contributed to analysing and interpreting the results.

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Correspondence to Marta Entradas.

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Supplementary Tables 1–7, Supplementary Figures 1–9

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Entradas, M., Bauer, M.W. Bustling public communication by astronomers around the world driven by personal and contextual factors. Nat Astron 3, 183–187 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41550-018-0633-7

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