It can seem like the need to demonstrate the impact of research outside of academia is a relatively new one. In the UK, as part of The Research Excellence Framework (REF) exercise in 2014, Higher Education institutions had to demonstrate for the first time to funders not only the quality of their research outputs but also their impact beyond academia.
Whilst the UK became the first country to allocate funding based on the wider societal impact of research, having public support for an idea or for a research program can help to develop a positive brand for an institution or research group, or even an individual, which in turn can help them access the relationships—and funding—necessary to support the furtherance of research and ideas.
But the need to be able to demonstrate the impact of scientific research on wider society and communicate it to the wider public effectively is not as new as one might think. Perhaps one of the earliest is illustrated in the image below.
1577 comet observed by cosmologist Tycho Brahe, which remained visible from November 1577 to January 1578.
The image shows Tycho Brache bringing Emperor Frederick II and his court out to witness a comet’s passing with the hope that he might win the favor and support needed for the first custom-built observatory in modern Europe – and Tycho was right. The Emperor was suitably impressed by Tycho’s observations about the comet, and enthusiastic by having simply witnessed the event, the funding for Uraniborg Observatory (and alchemy lab) soon followed.
More recently, there are scientists who have been incredibly successful at reaching the wider, non-scientific community. Albert Einstein’s famous “tongue out” portrait showed the human and humorous side of his nature (he was tired of smiling for the AP photographer who took the photo). Viktor Tesla held light shows to display his inventions—and captivate his patrons. And another astronomer, Carl Sagan was massively popular with his show Cosmos, at one point reaching 8.5M viewers across 10 networks.
Each of these scientists and personalities has helped in some way to advance awareness and understanding of the value of the sciences among the public.
Similarly, the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS), one of Wiley Digital Archives’ (WDA) inaugural partners, has a long history of disseminating scientific information to the public for general consumption and education. In fact, the importance of an informed public in matters relating to science and medicine was a founding principle of NYAS’ origins as the Lyceum of Natural History in 1817.
But their methods of doing so have changed over time to suit the technologies of the day.
Today, activities include international forums and events, awards programs, and conferences many of which are geared to children, junior scientists, and emerging talents across a range of scientific studies. Whilst in the early 20th century, their Puerto Rico Survey, the “most complete multidisciplinary scientific descriptions of any tropical area ever made” was made available in print to NYAS subscribers.
With NYAS an inaugural partner of Wiley Digital Archives, their illuminating archives, previously available only in print, (now available digitally, and fully searchable) provide findings and outputs that can be searched, reviewed and discovered online by researchers across the world.
Revealed in the WDA: NYAS archives is a fascinating case study of the evolving communication of scientific discovery as Dr. John W. Kelly, shares his proposal with colleagues to promote science through Jonny Carson’s Tonight Show, and references Johnny Carson’s own stamp of approval (below, undated).
In this appeal to NYAS colleagues, Dr. Kelly points out that the impact of television on the public is strong (noting that there are 14-20M viewers every time the Tonight Show airs) and that the proposal is “a way in which the American scientific community can utilize this power.”
Also of note, is Dr. Kelly’s assertion that the “United States is surprisingly antagonistic to pure science—even though science is, paradoxically, responsible for much of our modern wealth and strength.” Dr. Kelly goes on to note that “all new funds for government research grants have been frozen indefinitely.” Dr. Kelly’s proposal and observations are interesting, because in many ways the circumstances which prompted Dr. Kelly’s actions, are mirrored in the present.
NYAS has of course weathered the negative environment Dr. Kelly felt was hindering progress when he devised his proposal, and remains committed to the dissemination of scientific information beyond academia.
The story of Dr. Kelly’s proposal is just one of the many now available to researchers through the digitization of the NYAS archive. Researchers now have opportunities to uncover further historical information and insights into the activities and resources behind-the-scenes of published research.
Discover your own insights with Wiley Digital Archives.
Download the eBook, Making Historical Collections Accessible, to learn more about the digitization of primary sources.