The importance of celebrity scientists

Last week, I was honoured to have been able to join Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson on stage during his New Zealand cosmic perspective tour.

As the only American to have been awarded the Stephen Hawking medal for science communication, Dr Tyson has been called the American face of science.

I was astounded and inspired at the ability of a scientist to fill stadiums and arenas as thousands of members of the public came to learn more about astrophysics.

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It made me think about how, after leaving formal education the public rely on the media, social media and search engines as their science information source.  Science communicators like Dr Tyson are crucial for helping to empower people to connect with the ever-changing world of science.

Yet, traditionally scientists strive towards a conventional pathway to earning scientific and public attention which goes something like this:

  1. Gain recognition from published research that is validated by peers.
  2. Grow research, which grows scientific reputation, which grows scientists status in science.
  3. Earn ultimate accolade of Nobel Prize, the one public symbol of scientific excellence for those deemed to have produced the world’s best science.

However, if I were to ask you to name one Nobel Prize winner and state their discovery I doubt you would be able to do so.

That is the challenge that scientists and engineers like myself have managing both public and research profiles. There is a constant battle between working on engagement and communication programs tied to public issues while also trying to dive deep into research projects while managing labs and writing peer reviewed papers for our scientific career paths.

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The media celebrity culture that we live in has huge influence, and the need for evidence based science communicators is crucial to help battle an endless stream of non-scientist celebrities that are paid to endorse products and opinions about scientific concepts.

Celebrity scientists have taken a pathway that bypasses the traditional closed door meetings between government and policymakers and instead go directly to the public making sure that science is firmly on the public agenda.

Dr Tyson and other celebrity science communicators like Professor Brian Cox and Bill Nye are changing the landscape of how science is accessed and asking the public to join them on their journey through supporting their endeavors.

Importantly, as the gender and ethnicity of these celebrity scientists diversifies, the stereotypes around what scientists and engineers can look like are broken and the doors into these fields feel more open to all.

Our world is filled with information and creating new pathways for scientists to gain celebrity status while still being recognised in their field is a challenging task, yet one that will have an influential role in shaping how our citizens encounter and make sense of the science around them.

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