Playing Tug-of-War


Do you recall playing a little game called tug-of-war as a child (or even as an adult)? If you were playing with one other person, you’d stand on one side, they’d stand on the other, with a rope held between you. You and your friend (or foe) would start tugging the rope and whomever pulled the other person over a line in the center would be declared the winner. Sometimes it’s muddy and sometimes it’s one group of friends versus another group of friends. Often the game is about a friendly rivalry, but here’s a thought: if you were the rope in the game that everyone was tugging, how would you feel?

For me this is a familiar feeling, perhaps it is for some of you also. Research and engagement are tugging me in two directions. What to do? This is an issue that’s come into prominence recently. Twenty to thirty years ago, early career scientists really only felt “tugged” toward research. However, in the last ten years, that has changed as climate science is starting to have prominence in policy discussions. For some scientists, it’s easy (or they make it appear so). Perhaps they feel a stronger tug in one direction, so they go into engagement or research. For me, and (I think) for many others, it’s not so easy. I love to do engagement, but I also love to do research. So what do I do when I feel strongly tugged in both directions?

I’m still trying to find a good answer to that question, but here are some of the insights I’ve gained so far. First, for as much as there is a desire for scientists to engage with the public, there is often little support for it in academia. This isn’t necessarily because there is no desire to support engagement and public outreach. The measure of success for scientists in academia and federal labs is the number of articles published / cited in top tier journals, and there’s high pressure for young scientists by these measures. There is no metric to measure performance or success in engagement. Therefore, engagement is meaningless to some, because it’s not “real science” (it’s not research). So for some scientists who want to do engagement, there is a desire for that interaction, but currently no reward from our academic institutions. There is a perceived risk to advancing your career, but there are also pressures and risks from research if those pressures lead to shoddy research.

Second, what does it mean to you to do engagement? Is it being active on social media, networking to chat with agencies and municipalities, writing blogs, giving public talks, publishing an online video series, or something else? All these things are examples of how to do engagement, but how do you engage? Interesting, there’s not a lot of guidance aside from acknowledging the ways to engage. As it turns out, the choice of how to do engagement is itself a deeply personal choice. For me, I am not comfortable doing public engagement on Twitter or Facebook. My way to engage is behind the scenes, giving public talks and meeting with people one on one, being hospitable to all that come my way. If you choose to do engagement, remember that you can choose how, and it may be more nuanced than being a vocal voice on social media.

Finally, there is the pressure to publish articles quickly in research, but for engagement to truly be effective and long-lasting it cannot be rushed. Stakeholder investment and trust in the researcher and research are crucial, but take time to build. In research projects that involve stakeholders, how can you possibly build effective engagement when you are rushing to finish a research project and move on to the next article? The possible answer to this is what leaves me very hopeful for future scientists. Recently there has been much discussion of actionable science, or the co-production of knowledge, and this is a core focus of the Climate Science Centers. To me, this is where research meets engagement, and there are now several articles (like this and this) that attempt to determine metrics of success. There will always be a need for research, but with the rising demand for engagement (and now actionable science), maybe the professional reward for engagement will also rise and lessen the pressures of research. It makes me hopeful, but that promise is waiting to be realized.

In the meantime, there’s only one current balancing approach I’ve found to work for me. That is time management, which I’m still pretty bad at. I do my best to make sure I have time available to meet with people and help them understand the implications of science within their daily lives. Still, I have to return to research, at least until the reward metrics change and the promise of future science is fulfilled. Perhaps then, that game of tug-of-war will end for all of us that strive to do both research and engagement.

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