PhD students should have scicomm committee members

This past December at the AGU Fall Meeting, I had a whopping couple hours of downtime. So, being the good recovering academic that I am, I decided to find a pub, grab a pint, and finish a manuscript review that I had been neglecting.* A guy pulled up a chair beside me and commented on the MS I’m reviewing, about how he was familiar with the journal (which was surprising as it was an aquatic ecology journal and we were at an Earth and space meeting). We started chatting and I learned that he was on rotation at NSF as a program officer in their Antarctic division. I told him about what I do and explained AGU’s Sharing Science Program. He asked for my card; when I looked confused, he laughed and said that he’d been toying with the idea of adding science communication/policy professionals to review panels since Broader Impacts and all and would maybe be in touch down the road to request me for a panel.** This got me thinking  – What if we added non-academic professionals to PhD and MS committees?

I’ve seen this idea floated before (here for example) but no one really takes it seriously. I’m not going to labor on about the academic bubble, ivory tower, xenophobia, blah blah blah, but instead make the case for including non-academics on committees, especially considering the current plight of recent PhD’s.

First, let’s address this from the perspective of someone who is certain that they want to stay in academia. Why would they be best-served having an external (in the career sense) committee member? From a straight funding standpoint, Broader Impacts. NSF proposals are divided into Intellectual Merit (IM) and Broader Impacts (BI). Years ago, simply stating “I plan to incorporate undergraduates into my research plan” was sufficient to placate reviewers in terms of BI. Not so anymore. BI composes (or at least is supposed to) roughly ~50% of grant proposals. While funding foci have changed to reflect the growing need for science communication, the training that students receive has not. That’s why I think that committees should include a scicomm professional.***

I bet that this is already happening in some areas, likely by happy accident. But what if it was a required aspect of committee formation? Many programs, mine included, require students to pick an “external” committee member. This usually refers to a member of the academic community outside of the student’s department or institution who is still within their discipline (e.g. biology, chemistry, etc.). However, I think that it should be extended to require that individual to be outside the normal research track. Ideally, of a five-member committee, three would be from the student’s institution, one from outside but in the same or similar field, and the final would be a non-research member of any sector. Will this ever happen? Likely not, but it should.

I benefited greatly from my outside committee member who was also a scientist within my field. I would be benefited even more from a member outside of my field and outside of the research spectrum. I took a huge leap of faith after obtaining my PhD to go out and pursue a career in science policy and communication without really knowing what that involved. Being able to talk to someone, someone who has been where I was and chose to pursue a career outside of research, would have been incredibly valuable.

Maybe there will be a sea change. Or a scicomm change. Unfortunately this is not something that can be changed from my end. Change has to come within. Academia needs to understand that communication is not just a fun thing to do. It’s a core part of science. Granting agencies recognize this, it’s time that institutions do as well.

*Even though I’m no longer in academia, I still do a fair amount of reviews. It keeps me current and gives the authors a fresh perspective on their writing.

**I honestly don’t think that this will happen but it would be pretty sweet.

***Or at least a professor with significant scicomm experience.


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