September/October 2003

Science Can Save Us: Outreach as Necessity and Strategy

In a classic essay, George Lundberg posed the provocative question "Can Science Save Us?", a question that he answered in the affirmative, with the caveat that developments in the physical sciences sometimes raise social issues that are best addressed by other disciplines. In short, a better understanding of the physical universe will often require attention from engineers, policy makers, planners, and others who can facilitate the process that leads from discovery to application. As a society, we demand that science provide us a better life, but we rarely pause to appreciate how scientific developments become useful products. This process of producing and raising awareness of the products of science, though crucial, often receives less than adequate attention and resources from the scientific community. Thus, it is the purpose of this editorial essay to make the case for outreach as a necessary part of science, including respect and legitimacy for those who conduct outreach and a plea for adequate resources to accomplish the transfer of technology from the laboratory to various user groups.

Although the broader societal implications of scientific research should always be considered, some areas of research are so basic in their attempts to discover, describe, and analyze that outreach, with the objective of developing useful products, is premature. The views expressed in this essay thus refer to those inquiries in which basic processes are reasonably well understood and further research is likely to produce results that have either manifest or latent potential to improve our lives or enhance our safety.

Outreach as Necessity

I once overheard a scientist say, "Why should we put scarce resources into outreach, let's just do good science and the users of our research will figure out how to utilize it." In the remainder of this section, I hope to convince those who question the value of outreach programs that outreach is worth doing, that it has tangible benefits, and that left to their own devices, potential users of scientific research will neither use it, nor in all likelihood even become aware of it.

Why do some scientists consider outreach to be of little value? From my experience, there are several reasons. They include the belief, as implied in the quote above, that outreach will take care of itself, that somehow end users will become aware of developments and adopt changes in their practices to accommodate these developments. In addition, scientists are primarily interested in advancing the knowledge base in their discipline, not necessarily in teasing out the practical implications of their work for potential users. For scientists who understand that outreach won't take care of itself, there is the realization that a time commitment is required to identify potential users, learn how they work and how scientific information may help them. Scientists may be unwilling to make this commitment, viewing it as a distraction from their primary scientific mission. There is also a cost factor. Outreach costs money, money that some scientists argue is more productively spent on research, training students, or purchasing scientific equipment. Lastly, some scientists see the benefit of outreach but are not rewarded or supported, and may even be penalized for pursuing outreach activities.

Let me attempt to address these issues beginning with the notion that potential users of scientific information will figure out how to apply it on their own. As with the various physical sciences, potential organizational users of scientific knowledge and products work in organizational cultures that are bounded and have their own distinctive languages, authority structures, procedures, and so on. Unless these potential users have scientifically oriented units, or frequently work with consultants, they are unlikely to keep abreast of new scientific developments through attending scientific meetings or reading scientific journals where new findings are published. Going back to disciplinary vocabulary, scientific meetings and journal articles are designed with colleagues in mind, so the language of these meetings and journal articles is not readily accessible to the scientifically uninitiated. In addition, the molding of basic scientific data into usable products can be a complex process that requires both knowledge of the science and considerable insight into the application at the receiver end.

A great majority of scientists, while viewing their primary mission as advancing the knowledge base within their disciplines, genuinely hope that their efforts will provide some societal benefit. Scientists are not generally rewarded, however, for pursuing applied research or conducting outreach, and the culture of science and the institutions that support it are heavily oriented toward basic research. Success in the sciences as measured by affiliation, tenure, publication in prestigious journals, and acknowledgement by colleagues is largely based on original contributions to the field. Thus, it may not be in the career interests of scientists to pursue outreach activities, at least not for those who have recently entered the field and have not established a record of accomplishment in more mainstream activities. Even for those scientists who are interested in outreach, the time commitment required to make an impact will be considerable, adding another layer of disincentive.

Outreach can be costly. Costs may include personnel, educational materials, workshops or conferences, equipment, consultants, travel, and many other expenses. Research budgets are rarely so generous that such costs would not be considered competitive with other more basic needs. After all, something must be produced before it can be transferred or applied. Until fairly recently, organizations that fund research, such as the National Science Foundation, were relatively undemanding of principal investigators in terms of strategies for disseminating the results of the studies supported. It was once adequate to indicate that an article would be published in a professional journal or that the results would be presented at a conference or workshop. Organizations that were potential users of the study results were rarely included as reviewers and seldom selected to participate in advisory committees that provided oversight for the research. Thus, until recently, funding agencies did not encourage expenditures for outreach other than for efforts to communicate results to one's immediate colleagues. Fortunately, this has changed and the expectation that more aggressive efforts to incorporate users and carry out programs of outreach is now the norm at NSF, and other funding agencies have followed suit.

We began this section by insisting that outreach is a necessary part of scientific research and have thus far only attempted to identify attitudes and organizational barriers to its realization. Successful knowledge and technology transfer requires ongoing contact between scientists and organizations that are targets of outreach; potential users of new scientific information and technologies are unlikely to discover and implement these ideas and technologies "on their own" in the absence of a well considered outreach program. Thus, a prerequisite for the communication and implementation of new technologies is a clear understanding of the specific organizational sectors that can best utilize these technologies and development of ongoing liaison with these sectors.

Ongoing contact implies at least two things-a time commitment and a thorough needs assessment of the target organization(s) for outreach. Let me say at this point that outreach need not, and perhaps should not, be done by scientists. Scientists should appreciate the need for outreach, be aware of potential applications, and be sensitive to the views and needs of users, but primarily be engaged in doing good science. Although it is difficult to identify an "ideal" background for those who conduct outreach, I view the social sciences as very good training for someone who must easily move between disciplines without being bogged down in any particular organizational culture. It is essential, however, that those engaged in scientific outreach have a basic understanding of the work being transferred, so some knowledge of science is mandatory.

One of the barriers to scientific acceptance of outreach mentioned above is that it diverts money from research, equipment, or the training of students. Indeed, grants from funding agencies are hardly extravagant, but they invariably require that some activity be devoted to dissemination of findings and promotion of applications. Thus, some resources must be spent in satisfying this requirement. Further, I would argue that it is money well spent and that a successful outreach program will assist investigators in future funding by creating a dedicated cadre of users, some politically powerful and influential, who become advocates for continued funding and support.

Outreach as Strategy

Assuming that we now accept outreach as necessity, I would next argue, side by side with Lundberg, that the social milieu beyond the laboratory is complex and heterogeneous, requiring some serious thought about how and to whom the products of science might be offered. In my view, outreach strategy should address several areas: scientific "products", target audiences, organizational cultures or the language of technology transfer, and the participation by users in research. There has also been a very significant shift in the role of funding agencies in promoting outreach that promises to institutionalize the need for research application and evaluate the results.

Scientific Products

Applicable science usually does not jump from the pages of disciplinary journals into the laps of potential users. Even relatively "user friendly" scientific applications like the TriNet ShakeMap (also see the TriNet article in this issue, page 516) must sometimes be molded to the needs of specific users (Wald, Quitoriano, Dengler, and Dewey, SRL 70, 680-697, 1999; Wald, Quitoriano, Heaton, Kanamori, Scrivner, and Worden, Earthquake Spectra 15, 537-556, 1999). Scientific data must be translated into meaningful information to be used by potential users, that is, they must become products. Trench logs, for example, are data that help in determining the recurrence interval of earthquakes on a particular fault. These data must be translated to become an information product that can be used by emergency operations planners to assess the risk of a large damaging earthquake impacting a populated area.

Selecting Target Audiences

While it makes sense to offer new ideas and technology to all institutional sectors that can effectively use them, the danger is that in defining the audiences for outreach too broadly, the program may fail to reach any of them effectively. In some cases, the target groups for outreach may be defined in the research proposal or circumscribed by the nature of the research. In situations where user groups are less straightforward, it is useful to hold one or more focus groups with representatives of potential target groups. Once the field has been narrowed, a needs assessment can provide greater detail for the final selection of groups as well as a fairly clear picture of user needs. The method for a needs assessment can vary from a few in-depth interviews with representatives of potential target audiences to large-scale surveys with hundreds of respondents.

Organizational Culture

The language of technology transfer, for most target audiences, is not the language of science. An important element of a scientific outreach program is to provide reports and products in formats and language that are accessible to nonscientists. This is not a process in which complex ideas and systems are "dummied down" but one in which care is taken to frame scientific information in a context in which it can be applied by specific groups of users.

Organizations have distinctive cultures and may vary considerably from the institutions of science. These differences between scientific and scientific product user organizations may include size, complexity, degree of hierarchy in the structure of authority, orientation to science and technology, and so on. A well considered outreach program must be aware of and sensitive to these differences, and mold products and appeals for application of these products in language, context, and formats that maximize the likelihood that they will achieve outreach objectives.

User Participation and Recognition

One of the best ways to assure that useful scientific products will be generated and applied to achieve outreach objectives is to include representatives of user groups in the research effort from the beginning. There are numerous methods of incorporating user input into research projects that vary from including users as co-investigators to representation on advisory boards or focus groups. In some cases, large research projects and research centers have hired outreach managers to administer programs as part of the overall research effort.

The virtue of incorporating representatives of user groups in research projects early is to better define potential scientific products and to allow users to integrate new scientific developments and technologies into existing systems and procedures. In this manner, feedback in both directions, from scientists to users and vice versa, will permit incremental, rather than major, changes in products. Presenting users with findings or research results at the end of a project is likely to increase the cost of incorporating innovative ideas and technologies and unnecessarily reduce acceptability among potential users.

Funding Agency Role

There was a time when the only concession among agencies that fund scientific research was a requirement that project managers provide a "dissemination plan" as part of the proposal. This requirement was typically addressed in a one- or two-sentence statement indicating that the results or findings of the funded project would be published in a professional journal or presented at a conference or professional meeting. This requirement and the response of most investigators virtually guaranteed that outreach, beyond the narrow confines of the discipline, would not occur.

During the 1990's, Congress increasingly demanded that research funded by public agencies produce results that contribute measurable societal benefits. Agencies such as the National Science Foundation began to emphasize the importance of outreach and instructed proposal reviewers to consider dissemination plans and strategies as important criteria in the evaluation of new proposals. While NSF's "Instructions for Proposal Preparation" have long included the requirement to "identify the potential benefits of the proposed activity to society at large", a more recent addition requires that investigator biographical sketches include "a list of up to five examples that demonstrate the broader impact of the individual's professional and scholarly activities that focus on the integration and transfer of knowledge as well as its creation" (National Science Foundation, Grant Proposal Guide: Instructions for Proposal Preparation, 1999; Important Notice to Presidents of Universities and Colleges and Heads of Other National Science Foundation Grantee Organizations (Notice No. 127), 2002).


Scientific outreach has a critical role to play in facilitating the transition from basic science to usable products. Outreach provides tangible advantages to scientists not only as a means of identifying practical applications for scientific research and shaping new technologies and products, but in securing allies in a world of intensely competitive claims on public funds. Potential users of scientific information benefit as well. Outreach programs provide them a role to play in scientific investigations as advisors and ultimately as beneficiaries of these investigations. This symbiotic relationship facilitated by well considered outreach programs has had and will continue to have an important impact on our ability to address major environmental challenges.

James D. Goltz
California Governor's Office of Emergency Services
Seismological Laboratory
California Institute of Technology
1200 East California Blvd. MC 252-21
Pasadena, CA 91125

To send a letter to the editor regarding this opinion or to write your own opinion, contact the SRL editor by e-mail.



Posted: 17 June 2005