The importance of academic service in research communities

Nature walk at Jennings Pond: scientists, graduate and undergraduate students get together a few times a year to learn about nature in the Finger Lakes.

By Lina Arcila Hernández and Katie Holmes

In recent conversations mulling over the history of science, we’ve talked about a shift in the social environment that scientists     experience. It seems that historically, scientific knowledge has been built by highly creative individuals driven by an acute desire to understand the world around them. And still today, scientists spend a big part of their time doing research independently; thinking, designing experiments, collecting and analyzing data, and writing. But the social environment in which research takes place has shifted. After all, we now work at universities and institutions where collaboration with other scientists is expected and is often an integral part of research. Even more, we are frequently funded by the public and hired to teach undergraduates and our local communities about science.

But despite this shift, we see a lack of formal training in skills related to education, outreach, collaborative research, and other types of academic service. From our experience as academic “scientists in training”, we rarely see those skills formally emphasized or rewarded for more established scientists. Our perception is supported by recent studies of academic “citizenship” (see sources 1, 2, 3 below). And particularly in basic science departments at R-1 universities, leadership in outreach and education efforts seems to be rarely highlighted in the hiring process.

In a break-out group for women in science at a recent conference, we both converged on a relevant question: why do we not place more value on contributions to the academic community?

The traditional focus in the academic sciences is on performing quality research and reporting it to the public in the form of scientific papers and books. From this perspective, significant time spent on education, outreach, and academic service can detract from time spent on publications. However, we both find that engaging in community-building activities actually enhances our research productivity. Discussion of our research with the public in outreach events helps us hone our communication skills; developing curricula tests our “big picture” understanding of the field; and hosting events through our graduate student association helps us keep in touch as a community, sharing ideas across labs and disciplines. Creativity and development of cutting edge research should be enhanced in service-oriented communities, since scientists can learn from each other through open conversation and rely on a support network to buffer issues in their lab or personal lives. Engaged academic communities should also be more likely to participate in collaborative research or with the public through citizen science or outreach, which is increasingly expected by funding agencies.

Some academics may be gifted researchers, but are less adept at contributing to academic service, education, or outreach. Many more simply see it as outside their profession, and as a burden to their research rather than an opportunity to develop healthier communities within and outside academia. Those interested in academic service might have a personal interest to focus on one or two main contributions to their academic community. But people interested in community building often get an unfair share of that work (either at the graduate, post-graduate, or professorship levels), while being expected to maintain the same level of output as their peers. The people who receive this unfair share are generally women or other underrepresented groups, compounding other gender and diversity-related issues in academia (4, 5).

Plant biologists explain pollination in a blooming Amorphophallus at an open house event

Of course in some departments, service, outreach, and leadership get noticed. Faculty service can include serving on student committees, acting as graduate student liaisons, developing new curricula and outreach opportunities, and taking on administrative positions; all essential roles in academic departments. From our perspective, however, there are not clear rewards for those that perform such services; and if the service is not directly relevant to the department, it might get overlooked without clear expectations and reporting guidelines.

 

In summary, we feel that:

a) There needs to be a fundamental shift in perspective so that work in service, education, and outreach efforts in academia is understood as integral to, not independent from research efforts.

b) If all researchers are not expected to contribute equally to academic service, education, and outreach, then those who do exceptional work in those areas while performing research of quality should be recognized as assets to any department. This recognition must occur in both the hiring process and throughout academic careers.

c) Given the growing demands for collaboration, science communication, and management, departments and institutions should provide graduate students with formal training in these skills. Such programs already exist in other fields and should be easily adaptable to the needs of the academic community.

 

Healthy, modern departments contain much more than independent researchers; they are networks of interacting individuals whose research depends on a stable community. We think Cornell’s EEB graduate program is an exceptional one because of the hard work that graduate students and faculty do to ensure a positive and collaborative environment. Atmosphere like that takes work; from faculty opening their doors to students from other labs, to graduate students organizing regular departmental and outreach events that build social cohesion and dialogue. The greater Ithaca community supports us because we come to their classrooms to teach young students about science, and we bring them to campus to show them our work. We believe that scientists who are energized by education, outreach and academic service should be recognized for the tangible benefits they provide to graduate programs, faculty departments, and the broader communities they are embedded in.

 

Other takes and some relevant citations:

  1. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/female-professors-pay-price-academic-citizenship
  2. Campbell, C. M. & O’Meara, K. A. 2014. Faculty Agency: Departmental Contexts that Matter in Faculty Careers. Res. High. Educ. 55, 49–74.
  3. O’Meara, K. & Jaeger, A. J. 2006. Preparing Future Faculty for Community Engagement: Barriers, Facilitators, Models, and Recommendations. J. High. Educ. Outreach Engagem. 11, 3–26.
  4. Menges, R., & Exum, W. 1983. Barriers to the Progress of Women and Minority Faculty. The Journal of Higher Education, 54(2), 123-144. doi:10.2307/1981567
  5. Burke, R.J. and Mattis, M.C. eds. 2007. Women and minorities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics: Upping the numbers. Edward Elgar Publishing.
  6. Fox, M.M. 2001. Women, science, and academia. Graduate Education and Careers 15: 654-666 doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/089124301015005002
  7. https://phys.org/news/2015-08-term-collaborations-result-productive-scientific.htmlorg blog on: Petersen, A. M. 2015. Quantifying the impact of weak, strong, and super ties in scientific careers. PNAS, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1501444112
  8. https://www.cam.ac.uk/news/call-for-academia-to-do-more-to-support-female-progression

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