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  • Writer's pictureBethann Garramon Merkle

Big awards are nice, sure. But they shouldn't drive our work.

Updated: May 2


I just won a major professional award that, by all measures of the academic prestige paradigm, I should NOT have won.


This award is a big deal, and I am thrilled to have been selected for it. It recognizes the past decade of my work to foster professionalization and a mature community of practice for science communication in ecology and related fields.


I am so grateful to the professional colleagues of mine (all outside UW) who initiated my nomination for this award. They believed in the impact of my work and rallied letters of support that brought me to tears when I read them. (You can get a sense of that in this press release). As much as I staunchly adhere to the maxim of working from affirmation, not for it, it is also deeply important to receive feedback that affirms the meaning I see in the work I do.


This award should mean a lot to my institution.

Science is vital to society’s ability to address environmental change, technology innovation, and inequality. However, segments of society doubt science can meet modern challenges and distrust science information. Worse, most scientists feel ill-equipped to share science effectively, and this issue is acute in the students we train today.


Through the programs I lead at UW, led in ESA, have more recently launched at global levels, and through my scholarship and teaching, I actively work to help people in scicomm overcome these barriers. The good news is that we're seeing substantial positive impacts after a decade of this work. Without the interventions I and many others lead, we can't shift the culture. The shift I'm helping to get us to on our campus and in ESA—a shift to actually valuing training in communication, collaboration, and related leadership skills—is essential to achieving UW's mission (and arguably, that of academia writ large). Without our efforts, we will continue to produce scientists and science professionals who care about helping Wyoming and the world but don't actually know how to use science to do so.


My work might only have been possible at my institution.

I am a somewhat self-taught academic and academia was never on my professional horizon [1]. My scholarship and the capacity-building programs I create feel uniquely possible at UW; we are a "goldilocks" institution—not too big, not too small. That means I've had the opportunity to meet and collaborate directly with people at all levels of UW's administration, as well as remarkable staff, students, and faculty. We've accomplished things like co-developing the campus phase of our most recent strategic planning effort, establishing an annual proposal writing retreat for faculty and staff, and scoping out a campus-wide initiative to enhance mentoring.


As that list makes clear, the work I do is collaborative and transdisciplinary. And, I primarily use communication, strategic planning, or arts/humanities skillsets to enhance (a) the way we do, teach, and share science and (b) the way we train people to be/come leaders in and beyond UW.


To receive this award now is a big deal, personally, because I've been involved in leadership roles in ESA for the past decade, starting with co-founding and leading the Communication and Engagement Section. It's been remarkable to help spur ESA's growing in interest and support for public-facing science communication, though that growth and support didn't always feel like a given. With so many amazing collaborators, we've persevered, and the work we've done at ESA later helped provide a model for support programs at UW, including the UW Science Communication Initiative that I co-launched and now direct and the Graduate Student Scholarly Writing Practices program I co-created.


So, this award matters both as affirmation of the importance of this work in ESA and also as a nod to the importance of what I'm still trying to build at and for UW. It is also a high-five to UW for being flexible enough to make a position like mine possible.


But, I will say out loud that this work has been an uphill slog.

Virtually all of my career in scicommincluding the capacity-building I've done in the professional society that gave me the award, and even at my own universityhas been accomplished despite academic biases that reject, impede, and cannibalize these kinds of efforts.


Scientists' lack of capacity to effectively share science is predictable: academia systematically impedes and devalues the study and training of science communication (classifying such work as “service”), while preferentially rewarding papers and grants that rarely reach (or may even provoke) policy makers, civic leaders, and society at large.


Like teaching, scicomm/outreach-type work is too-often seen as less intellectually valuable than "real" research and getting research grants (not programmatic ones). And, academics reinforce a reward system perpetuating these biases. I was never deemed appropriate for a tenure-track position. I have a much lower salary than other faculty colleagues in my department. I never received any start-up funding, and I do not have any programmatic funding for the initiatives I run. This lack of support persists despite my research and programs making a serious difference for UW faculty, staff, and students; academics elsewhere; and practitioners well beyond academia.


You read that correctly. Everything I've accomplished has been without the types of research support faculty usually take for granted, and yet every year I exceed productivity expectations for tenure-track folks in my department. I also have to continue to persuade administrators and colleagues, every year, to see the value in my approach to scholarship and teaching. For example:

  • The first dean involved with me becoming a faculty member at UW once wrote an email saying I needed to “be assigned a co-instructor with appropriate expertise” to supervise my teaching. This was a complete slap in the face, as I have niche, unique expertise at UW. There isn’t anyone who can teach what I teach.

  • I’ve been introduced by faculty colleagues as “the person who edits my press releases” or “the person here to take notes,” when I’m actually there as a co-PI on a federal research grant.

  • I asked some colleagues to nominate me for an internal award a while back—people I thought valued my work. Let's just say...they didn't.

 

Similarly, getting ESA to value and support scicomm has been a long slog. It’s great they are recognizing my work, but as a professional society putting their money where their mouth is, they still have a long way to go. [2]


Spoiler alert: Biases get in the way.

The perpetuation of these biases means my efforts are typically sidelined as "service" when my work is evaluated. Similarly, the research I do to inform and support this work is devalued compared to "real science" efforts. This bias persists even though scicomm is what makes science degrees transferable and research applicable and accessible to society. 


Beyond the reality that scicomm is both vital and undervalued, I’m also not any of the things people typically are when they get this award.

 

I offer expertise, scholarship, teaching, and service to UW that are unique on our campus and across the state. And yet, I wager a lot of scientists on campus and in ESA will be floored that I was selected for this award. That's partially because of how they are used to thinking of expertise in academia.


As I mentioned, I'm a non-tenure-track faculty member. This means all the work I do is tenuous, because my position is. I've also had to negotiate repeatedly since 2017 to secure a position that acknowledges what I can bring to UW thanks to my alternative, atypical path to becoming an academic. (I’m currently working something like the 8th job description of roughly 15-18 job descriptions I’ve had to negotiate here.) A lot of the resistance I've had to overcome at UW has come from administrators who could only see:

  • that I didn't have a PhD,

  • I wasn't initially an obvious academic,

  • I don't have formal science degrees, even though my entire career has been in science.


Fortunately, given I like my work, the award I just received is evidence that not all scientists and administrators see scicomm and related scholarship and teaching as unnecessary, less prestigious, etc. And, I do have phenomenal colleagues and collaborators at UW. Some of my administrators have been vital to the success of programs I’ve launched. I also have collaborators across the country and the world who are deeply committed to and appreciative of this work we do together.


This award is tremendously important because the support and collective action occurs inside a broader system that sees scicomm as “less than.” This award puts all that bogus bias on notice.


Awards like this aren't meant for people like me/work like mine.

It’s almost impossible to say how big of a deal it is that I’ve been elected an Early Career Fellow in a scientific society. It's not that I'm a big deal. I'm not saying that, and probably even my nominators didn't. It's not that this work I do is more "anything" than the work of other people who were nominated. It's a darn big deal because I’m categorically not supposed to have a job like this, do work like this, get awards like this.


People who sustain the prestige paradigm in academia construct a system that assumes people like me don't exist. Assumes I won't even join a scientific society like ESA, let alone stick around for 10 years and try to affect change to help other members. These systems assume people like me aren't on faculty and don't run independent programs that warrant institutional support. The system isn't ready for us [3], especially when we work together to make the world a better place!


The upshot is that we can do this work together & make a difference.

My position today (as a Professor of Practice) is a perfect example of what's possible when administrators and colleagues are willing to think outside the box. While I have a lot to say about how this position could be appropriately compensated and resourced, I'm also really well-suited for this work and appreciate this job exists. 


I really hope that this award will help people who scoff at the value of scicomm practice, training/teaching, and scholarship to rethink their distain. Same for collaborative and transdisciplinary work, which is the roots of this work. The only way to work against a system, or to successfully transform even a small corner of it, is to work together over the long haul. This award has my name on it, but it wouldn't have been possible without a host of very specific people who I've had the great pleasure and honor of reimagining academia with for the past decade. I'm so grateful to them for their time, wisdom, and persistence.


We can't wait for awards to validate our work.

While this award is meaningful, and I really appreciate receiving it, I want to be very clear. This award is both important and actually changes nothing. I still have a contingent, underpaid job in a system that doesn't value what I do.


If I had waited for someone to tell me that what I do matters, or that I was allowed to do it, none of this good work would have ever happened. We can't wait for folks to catch up with how much scicomm matters to the future of our students, the places we live and work, and the world. But, because academics are conditioned to devalue it, no one can sustainably work for positive change around scicomm in the hopes or assumption of getting an award like this. That road leads to disappointment and burnout.


If I've learned anything from getting this award (and having my work many times considered uncompetitive for other awards), it's that we can't let prestige biases get in our way. My work in scicomm (and beyond!) matters whether folks perpetuating inequitable and exclusionary systems agree or notice or not. I’m going to use this award as jet fuel to keep doing what I and my collaborators do best: keep making a difference through scicomm.


 

NOTES

[1] As a first-gen student and academic, I didn't consider academia or know it was a career option until doing a creative writing MFA at UW. I earned this terminal degree a decade after being the first person in my direct lineage to ever complete a college degree. I didn't even know it was a professional option for me until I was able to tap into the opportunities and resources offered at UW. 


[2] When I say ESA still has a long way to go, I don't mean to knock the efforts of society staff—they don't call the shots.


[3] A clear indicator of how un-ready these systems are for us? This award doesn't come with any funding. (It's fairly obvious that's because the assumption is people who receive this award already have sufficient funding.) But, that means when the award is given to someone like me, who doesn't have funding for travel, things get complicated. To go the annual ESA conference to receive my award in person, I'll likely have to pay out of pocket, which is why I stopped going to ESA's annual meeting several years ago. I'm still not sure how it's going to work out this summer.


 

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