Scientists Who Engage With Society Perform Better Academically

Jensen, P., Rouquier, J-B., Kreimer, P. and Coissant, Y. (2008). Scientists who engage with society perform better academically. Science and public policy 7, 35. 527-541.


Today, most scientific institutions acknowledge the importance of opening the so-called “ivory tower” of academic research through popularization, industrial innovation or teaching. However, little is known about the actual openness of scientific institutions and how their proclaimed priorities translate into concrete measures. This paper helps getting an idea on the actual practices [sic…English is not the first language of these authors] by studying three key points: the proportion of researchers who are active in dissemination, the academic productivity of these active scientists, and the institutional recognition of their activity in terms of careers. This paper answers these questions by analyzing extensive data about the academic production, career recognition and teaching or public/industrial outreach of several thousand CNRS scientists from many disciplines. We find that, contrary to what is often suggested, scientists active in dissemination are also more active academically. However their dissemination activities have almost no impact (positive or negative) on their career.

This paper seeks to dispel the assumption that public engagement by scientists is detrimental to their academic success. This paper presents an analysis of the annual reports of researchers on faculty with the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) and correlates public engagement with academic achievement. Public engagement is categorized by three different endeavours: teaching, commercialization & popularization. Popularization activities included giving lectures at schools, collaborating with agencies and associations and interviews with popular media and the press. Commercialization activities include research contracts with industry or other third party funders (81% of the time) as well as patenting (16.5% of the time) and technology licensing (2.5% of the time).

This is important to CNRS. As articulated by their multi-year action plan, “one of the six top priorities is ‘to transfer research results to industries’ and another ‘to strengthen the relations between science and society’“. This paper seeks to assess whether this priority competes with the priority of successful science. In 2005 the Director of CNRS released a letter to CNRS researchers saying “one must insist that they give equal importance to scientific work and to activities related to the popularization and dissemination of scientific culture: participations in “open doors” events, or the publication in magazines or other popularization works, in events organized for non-specialized audiences, newspaper articles or TV appearances, etc.”

The paper points out that while most scientists agree that popularization and work with the public and industry is important, it doesn’t often translate into action on the ground because of the perception that the real job of a researcher is science and that these ancillary actions can only occur after the “real work” is complete.

But really…is science ever complete?

The authors obtained the annual reports of over 11,000 scientists over three years and confirmed their academic productivity using Web of Science. They ended up with a sample size of 8750 scientists who filled out the CNRS report every year for three years. They say they excluded researchers in Social Sciences because their bibliographic record is not well documented in Web of Science so made it hard to verify their academic productivity. But then the authors include social scientists in some of the data tables…so not sure which statements are true.

Over the three year period about half of the scientists were inactive in either popularization or commercialization but that leaves about 4375 who were and provides a good basis for comparing the effects of these activities on the two groups (those who engaged in popularization/commercialization and those who didn’t). Interestingly 74% of engineers were active with industrial partners but also 46% were involved in popularization. Popularization was consistent over the ages of the scientists and over the career level of the scientists, although scientists occupying the most senior positions did report higher levels of popularization (57%) than the most junior scientists (44%).

They present their conclusion up front. They investigated “whether scientists engaged in dissemination are academically less active than average. To anticipate our conclusion, let us say that we find exactly the opposite correlation: scientists connected with society are more active than average.” The authors write, “This points to an “open” attitude, which makes a scientist practicing popularization more prone to teach or establish industrial collaborations. This high percentage is contrary to what one could expect from a “time consumption” argument, where each of these activities lowers the activity in the others.”

Interestingly, the most successful academically (as measured by their h factor) are also those most active in popularization, teaching and commercialization. Those scientists in the bottom 25% of academic achievement were also the least active in these activities.

This article dispels a couple of myths about public engagement in academic research: 1) that dissemination is done by “those who are not good enough for an academic career“; and, 2) that dissemination is done by people close to retirement. The article then ends with the following advice. “We have shown that these activities are carried out by academically active scientists that receive no reward for their engagement. We feel that institutions’ duty is now to invent ways of evaluating and rewarding the active scientists.”

Questions for brokers:

  1. The reports are researcher self-assessments. How do you think the data would change if you interviewed the researchers themselves or more importantly, interviewed research users? Apply this same thinking to Landry’s ladder of Knowledge Use as reported in Landry R., Amara N., Lamari M. (2001). Utilization of social science knowledge in Canada. Research Policy, 30, 333-349. This is also researcher self-disclosure.
  2. The authors excluded social scientists from the analysis. Do you think academic achievement in social sciences is similarly unencumbered by popularization and outreach activities? If so, what do you say to those who think that knowledge mobilization and engaged scholarship challenge traditional notions of tenure and promotion?
  3. The authors conclude that academic and popularization activities are not mutually exclusive. They are not a zero sum game; however, time is a zero sum game. Time spent popularizing is time not spent on traditional academic research. How do you reconcile these two positions?
  4. How would you evaluate and reward public engagement by academics?

ResearchImpact-RéseauImpactRecherche (RIR) is producing this journal club series as a way to make evidence on KMb more accessible to knowledge brokers and to create on line discussion about research on knowledge mobilization. It is designed for knowledge brokers and other knowledge mobilization stakeholders. Read this open access article. Then come back to this post and join the journal club by posting your comments.

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