Scholars and “outreach”

This summer, the American Mathematical Society released an article arguing for mathematicians to focus only on academics and research while in graduate school and post-doc programs.  Essentially, the idea is that outreach (defined in the article as increasing representation of women and minorities in math research or working to improve K12 math education) is a distraction from the real work of math research. The article doesn’t discourage outreach entirely, but rather argues that becoming an influential researcher can allow one to be more effective in the outreach areas you care about later on.

Interestingly, this line of reasoning seems to resemble an academic version of the monetary claim that earning tons of money and donating it carefully can have a larger impact on issues you care about than by working on those issues directly–your impact can be more potent if you don’t directly use your work to address important issues now, but rather focus on growing your income which, when donated, will have a greater impact.

While I always appreciate a careful and thoughtful examination of how to actually have the most impact in any context, I’m also skeptical of any argument that discourages (albeit temporarily) pursuing things one is passionate about.  If for no other reason, taking some time out of one’s “serious” work to spend time on something personally considered to be important may actually improve the quality and originality of the “serious work” and, in fact, lead to new and important insights.

Thoughts?

Unrelated: Thanks to the Science Refinery for the recent shout-out! It is always great to learn more about why people value the Having New Eyes blog! For my scientist/academic friends out there, I’d encourage you to check out the Science Refinery page and explore the services they provide to help you communicate your research most effectively (and least time-consumingly)–freeing up more of your time for research AND outreach! ; )

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3 Responses to Scholars and “outreach”

  1. 1. If you don’t do it pre-tenure, you probably won’t do it post-tenture (http://neurodojo.blogspot.com/2013/08/ill-be-brave-after-im-tenured.html).

    2. Scientists who engage with society perform better academically (http://arxiv.org/pdf/0810.4672v2.pdf).

    3. Thank YOU for the shout-out too 🙂

    Like

  2. Israel P. says:

    It doesn’t have to be ‘either or.” You can focus on building yourself while setting aside a certain amount of time for other things, while later changing hat emphasis.
    What is not at all clear is why mathematics is different from anything else. Can’t you make the same argument about any other field of study?

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    • zacksg1 says:

      Yes, I think the same argument to delay “outreach” could be made in any field….the original article was posted on the website of an organization focused only on math, however. That being said, I agree with you that this argument is probably wrong in the first place, regardless of the field of study!

      Like

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