Building The Celebrity of Science

Building The Celebrity of Science

I’m sure you’ve read them. Perhaps you’ve discussed it. The various articles about how our sports stars are loved and adored. Worshiped even.

Posters on walls. Idolised. Dress up as a sports star days at school. Aspirations of being the world champion. The articles go on to say how the same is not true, or even close, for researchers. How, people who have made discoveries that have an impact on our daily lives – think wifi and Bluetooth – are not even known. How there are few, if any, Scientist Illustrated calendars. Or why there are state funerals for sports figures but rarely for researchers.

I’ve always thought of these articles as negative. I’m not against the idea that scientists should have greater public recognition. In fact, I strongly agree with it. I just feel like we should be promoting the value of science and research in and of itself – without comparing it to sport.

However, these articles have also got me thinking – why? Why do we like, admire or even worship sports people? Yet, struggle to do the same with researchers?

I believe the main reason is accessibility. To be more specific, perceived accessibility. To be a sports star, all you need to do is join a relevant club. Then just turn up each week or to training. Active participation is the key, underpinned by having fun and you get better. Clubs don’t teach the rules, they play the game. Then, through playing, the rules and tactics are learnt. Everyone feels like they have a chance at success. Talent and perseverance are sufficient for success. And for those of us who are not good enough to play at the elite level, we can continue as part of a club and watch our heroes on the TV, internet or live in a stadium.

Conversely, the only way to become a researcher is to study. Although there are countless people out there who like to study and learn from books, early participation can be a chore. Why do I need maths? Why do I need science? When will I ever apply fractional differentiation? What are the practical uses of this knowledge? Even if you are sufficiently motivated to learn, but decide not to do a PhD, you are automatically ruled out of becoming a researcher. Talent and perseverance are not sufficient. You also need further education and then a higher degree. Then, if you do love research but are not able to become a researcher, there are few opportunities to interact with researchers. The research equivalents of watching your sports heroes do not exist. There is no such thing as an amateur researcher.

Confirming this idea that participation is key think about why sports stars stop. It is often when sports tactics are separated from participation – usually at the elite level – and sport is taught as well as played, a common refrain from our sporting hero’s is “the fun disappeared”.

Thus, key to having our researchers treated like sports heroes is to allow participation. To encourage interaction. To give people access to the game, and to learn the rules as they play.

Of course, the barriers to participation in science and research in general are slowly being removed, such as through the use of citizen science projects. However, even these projects place the citizen at the edge of science. Projects are designed for their participation. Constrained by the researcher who designed the project. Citizen proposed projects are rarely taken seriously. Until recently, citizen funded science was not considered a real/legitimate/competitive funding option for Australian researchers. And expertise arising without a formal qualification, is rarely, if ever acknowledged.

Thus, if scientists want the recognition of sports stars, it is time to start behaving like them. Give budding scientists and science tragic access to the work. Allow citizens to participate in ways and means they choose. Do what it takes to open the gates. Join social media. Have open days. Meet patients. Join sub-cultures and niche groups on Facebook or reddit. Stop telling people what you do, and start asking them how they would like to be involved.


Raven Consulting Group specialises in delivering high quality strategic advice to the education, research and government sectors. Richard is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart. His strategic approach to collaboration and research translation has been making the impossible possible for more than seven years. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality. To find out more, call 0412 606 178, email (Richard.huysmans@ravencg.com.au) or subscribe to our newsletter.

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