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Escape from the ivory tower: why sharing your knowledge with the surrounding society is more than a mission, it’s a necessity


Quite recently I had the privilege of attending the 6th international conference on Preventing Overdiagnosis in Copenhagen. Since this subject is what I devoted my thesis to, this was my home turf. Everyone present was engaged and agreed upon what needed to be done. This is not unusual at conferences created by people wanting to discuss certain issues and often with a special cause, in this case to raise concern to prevent overdiagnosis and overtreatment within healthcare.

It was Dr. Allen Frances who put the limelight on the importance to reach outside the conference venue. Frances is an America psychiatrist best known for chairing the task force that produced the fourth revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV, that was published in 1994 and for his critique of the current version, DSM-5).  He raised the issue of transparency simply by asking why the press was not there. The problem, he said, with these kinds of issue-focused conferences is that all present agree on everything, since that is why we are there in the first place and that the real struggle lies in getting the discussion out on the streets and actually doing something about it. We do not simply change anything by discussing this between us once a year.Dr. Frances then compared this to David and Goliath since in this case, there are powerful forces that are opposed when framing overdiagnosis as an important question. His suggestion was that we ought to write for the New York Times in order to get this evidence on what we discuss into the open, to the public.

I totally agree with Dr. Frances and was glad that he, being a respected and well-established person raised this question. We have the evidence and therefore in a way it’s time to escape from the Ivory Tower and accept our responsibility to engage with society. As academics, we are supposed to take our third mission seriously, the first two being research and education. The third mission is sometimes also called public outreach or third-stream activities and the overall aim is to get researchers to share their knowledge with the public. This is not strange if you think of it, since a great part of the research that is taking place within academia is publicly funded with taxpayer money. Sharing one’s knowledge could be to give public lectures, write articles for the press, engage in media, take part in radio and television shows, talk to politicians, write course books and popularized books on science, being interviewed in relation to these books.

However, most scientists and researchers are not always prepared to talk to the press or to policymakers—or to deal with backlash. Being aware of this, NancyBaron in her book Escape from the Ivory Tower describe the risks and rewards of “speaking up,” how to deal with criticism, and the link between communications and leadership. What is clear, according to Baron, is that scientists, journalists and public policymakers come from different cultures, meaning that they follow different sets of rules, pursue different goals, and speak their own language. Hence, in order to effectively reach journalists and public officials, scientists need to learn new skills and rules of engagement. No matter what your specialty, the keys to success are clear thinking, knowing what you want to say, understanding your audience, and using everyday language to get your main points across.

This goes for all ECRs as well. Science blogging is another important aspect of the third mission, but as we wrote in a previous post, this is not always recognized within academia. Obviously, this needs to change. Here at PLOS we offer a platform to reach out with young researchers’ experience in a global perspective. As scientists, we need to share our stories with others and not just discuss these matters behind closed doors at conferences.

If you’re interested in writing with us specifically, you can reach us at

Featured image: 6th international conference on Preventing Overdiagnosis, Copenhagen August 20 to 22, 2018. Photo by author.



Andreas Vilhelmsson & Meredith Whitaker (March 9, 2018). To Write or Not To Write? Pros and cons of blogging as an ECR. PLOS ECR Community

Nancy Baron.Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter. Island Press, 2010.

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