Operationalizing Science: A Wider Audience

Building on my post about how to reinvent academia, I want to focus a bit on the constraints that make scientific research limited in its usefulness. There is so much innovation coming out of academia, but the best of academic tend to bury it with their publishing habits.

For instance, consider the following numbers:

Up to 1.5 million peer-reviewed articles are published annually. However, many are ignored even within scientific communities – 82 per cent of articles published in humanities are not even cited once. No one ever refers to 32 per cent of the peer-reviewed articles in the social and 27 per cent in the natural sciences.

According to Savo Heleta, at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, there are three reasons for this unfortunate trend:

  1. Academics may feel it’s not part of their role to write for the public, and that this would somehow be beyond or against their intellectual mission. Crucially, academic research must be communicated clearly so it can be applied in real world settings. Fortunately, some wise professionals, like Thomas Hayden at Stanford, have dedicated their careers to science communication. This trend of preaching to the choir, then, is changing.
  2. There are no incentives for academics to share their research beyond peer-reviewed realms. This is an unfortunately true tendency, and binds professors, postdoctoral scholars and students alike to a hamster wheel of frenetic publication production.
  3. Academics may lack skills for writing for a lay audience. As Steve Schneider, my late mentor, used to teach, academics tend to bury their lead. Training programs, such as Professor Hayden’s, are critical in empowering scientists to communicate effectively in the media’s biased arenas.

Knowing these constraints, it is important to provide the appropriate moral framework, identity framing, skills, and incentives to encourage academics to share their work beyond their typical peer-reviewed journals, so that society can take action to safeguard humanity in a rapidly changing climate, with human health at peril due to epidemic lifestyle diseases.


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