I once heard a colleague remark that even the best scientific ideas would be useless unless they are communicated. Where would we be today, he mused, if Galileo, Newton, Darwin, or Einstein had kept their discoveries to themselves? Part of what makes science so successful is a mode of communication based on a culture of openness and the free exchange of ideas. In scientific circles, the principal vehicles of dissemination are peer-reviewed publications and presentations at professional meetings. Through these venues, scientists communicate with other scientists. But should researchers also engage with the general public in an effort to popularize science? On this question, academic culture, for all its emphasis on openness and the value of knowledge, is mired in a curious kind of doublespeak.
On the one hand, academic institutions, professional societies, and funding agencies make it clear that engaging the general public is an important part of their mission, and they explicitly encourage researchers to do so. As neuroscientist Susana Martinez-Conde points out, in the United States, the National Science Foundation evaluates grant proposals not only on the basis of intellectual merit, but also on their potential to make a broader impact on society. One such impact is the dissemination of research findings to the public. In the United Kingdom, the Royal Society encourages researchers to engage more fully with the public. In France, the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) explains that one of its top priorities is to strengthen the relations between science and society.