Every year many PhD graduates in STEM fields around Europe enter the academic market hoping to pursue a scientific career that finally leads to a secure permanent position. However, most of them will not make it. The reality is that there are not many of those positions and every step of a research career leads to an even narrower bottleneck. During the past years, all around Europe, the employment security of researchers is threatened by cuts in national research budgets (1) as well as an unfair standardised recruitment system based on publications that often favours quantity over quality (2). The young researchers become casualties of the academic system and I am one of those victims.
Back in 2012, right after I finished my PhD in Astrophysics in Munich, and with an uncertain future in research ahead of myself, I decided to follow another path. I love science and I still wanted to be linked to it so I decided to pursue a career in science outreach. A road that was no less uncertain than the one I left behind.
At the time I was doing my PhD, the science outreach bug bit me. Since then I have been fortunate enough to be part of the GalileoMobile project, a voluntary science outreach programme that brings the wonders of astronomy to children in areas that lack this kind of initiative. This project has reached more than 10,000 students around the world in the past five years. The life-changing experience of sharing astronomy with children in South America was the spark I needed for deciding what I really wanted to do with my life.
However, this does not mean that I regret my experience as a researcher even a tiny bit. All the expertise I gathered on the importance of nitrogen for the study of the hottest stars in the Universe might not be that important in the end for my future but many things that I learned during that time will be. The transferrable skills such as team work, creativity, the ability for abstract thought, problem solving or networking skills are quite important whether you want to be a science journalist, work for industry or in many other jobs.
Among these skills, I find of utmost importance effective communication with the public. This is true for all scientists, not only for people like me who decide to leave research. ”All artists must go where the people are” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9S4d_SF8FkY), sings Brazilian singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento. And scientists should also have the moral obligation to share their craft with society. And many of them already do it but we all should work together to engage all scientists in that crusade. A good way to encourage communication is by favouring policies that acknowledge outreach initiatives undertaken by scientists – whether they are public lectures, science activities in schools or science-flavoured stand-up comedy – in the recruitment process to obtain positions funded by public budgets and not to have those evaluations depend mostly on publication history statistics.
The celebration of light highlighted by the upcoming International Year of Light in 2015 is the perfect catalyst for scientists around the world for finding that spark within them to be engaged in science outreach activities. It is also a major opportunity for creating projects and/or networks that could long outlive 2015 and help bring the wonders of science to each corner of the world.
I am delighted to be part of the organization of the activities around the world during the International Year of Light and I am really excited by what the outcomes will be.
Let’s light up 2015 with as many science outreach activities as possible!
Jorge Rivero González (@jorgegrivero)
EPS IYL2015 Outreach Officer