The organization formerly known as the American Association for the Advancement of Science has established an award for pre-tenure researchers to recognize efforts in public engagement (H/T Framing Science). The prize is open to researchers in science and engineering, and consists of $5,000 and a free trip to the AAAS Annual Meeting to feed the organization’s PR machine and collect a plaque. By comparison, the NSF CAREER Award (which recognizes pre-tenure researchers for their community service and cutting-edge research) is at least $80,000 per year over four years. Granted, it’s connected to a specific research project, but I think the comparison is instructive as to the relative weights given to research and outreach by American science and technology policy institutions.
It’s great to have something to encourage public engagement with science and engineering, and also great to target researchers before they have reached tenure. Unfortunately, the size of the prize frankly isn’t worth the hassle of trying to demonstrate excellence in an area that is not likely to matter much in the calculation of tenure. A much more meaningful effort would involve several prizes, of much more than $5,000, from an organization that has sufficient clout to impress a university and its tenure committees. Otherwise, why would anyone who wasn’t already committed to these efforts decide that public engagement is a necessary and valued aspect of their work as a researcher? In other words, how will this encourage the desired activity in addition to acknowledging those who are already out there doing good work? Maybe this award needs to be set up like the CAREER Award, and tied to specific outreach projects. While this raises a challenge of how institutions would value project funding awarded to faculty for non-research activities, I think the resources and the attention would persuade schools that it’s a good thing. Which it is, it’s just that nobody gets tenure for it.
There’s are two additional, related concerns with how the award is set up: Who defines public engagement with science and how they define it.
At the moment, the award announcement offers only the vaguest of descriptions.
“For the purposes of this award, public engagement activities are defined as the individual’s active participation in efforts to engage with the public on science- and technology-related issues and promote meaningful dialogue between science and society.”
There’s a fair amount of interpretive flexibility here concerning what might be acceptable activities. But AAAS is not a disinterested party to any dialogue between science and society. It’s a membership society, and will pursue effort that support the interests of its members. So when an engagement between science and society (note the questionable assumption here – that science is separate from society) highlights problems in science, will the AAAS recognize the efforts that led to science looking bad? I have more faith in the National Science Foundation, which has a more established obligation to the public than AAAS, to acknowledge efforts that expose the warts as well as those that add to public understanding of what science is and who scientists and engineers are.
The deadline for the first award is October 15. I will be interested to see how many nominations are eventually submitted. I suspect it will top out somewhere in the double digits.