What kind of scientist are you – introvert or extrovert? Academia of 30 years ago was a bit of an ‘Ivory Tower’, a state of privileged seclusion. For an introvert this was a great place for getting ‘scientific kicks’ from doing science in a considered and reflective way. Then, there was real scope to enjoy the life of an introvert scientist. Now in 2018, the science landscape has changed, a lot, for every scientist. Now, it is all about real world practicalities. Public engagement is a requirement made of many grant holders. Now we must translate biomedical science into the clinic, engage beneficiaries, distill the scientific detail into exciting, digestible soundbites, and we must enthuse about the very smallest nugget of evidence. We do this also as a part of writing scientific papers and grant applications. Of course this is perfect for the extrovert scientist. It feeds their desire for positive social attention – they will thrive, but what about the rest of us?
“People who score low in Extraversion … may also find levels of stimulation that are rewarding and energizing for someone high in Extraversion merely annoying or tiring (or even overwhelming, depending on their level of Neuroticism)”. Scott Barry Kaufman, June 9, 2014
The need for engagement of beneficiaries in science is real. Public engagement isn’t all about science grandstanding. It is a 2-way process … reaching out to and responding to the public. We show people what is being done with their money, work which may have a real and timely bearing on their lives. The public give us their opinion and this will enrich the research and education we do and will keep us in-tune with the aspirations and concerns of the people. So we’ve got to enthuse and to listen. The charisma of the extrovert scientist might seduce the crowd, but will the extrovert be good at listening to what the crowd thinks? On the other hand, the introvert scientist already enjoys considered and reflective scientific research, and is likely to be the better listener. In reality, most of us are a subtle and varied mixture of introvert-extrovert. What kind of mix are you*?
“Take a good look at what’s inside your own suitcase and why you put it there. So extroverts, maybe your suitcases are …full of champagne glasses or sky-diving equipment. Whatever it is I hope you take these things out at every chance you get and grace us with your energy and joy. But introverts, you … probably have the impulse to guard very closely what’s inside your suitcase and that’s OK, but occasionally, just occasionally, I hope you will open up your suitcases for other people to see – because the world needs you and it needs the things you carry”. Susan Cain, 2012
The scientist that scores low in extraversion should still let other people see what they are up to. One way is for the introvert scientist to force themselves to engage in ways that are out of their ‘comfort zone’. But what or whose ‘comfort zone’ are they then in? If scientists vary in their mix of introvert-extrovert qualities, won’t the public too? What does the public make of all the joyous and energy-filled efforts to grab their attention? Some people might not want to talk, or worse still join a focus group. The introvert beneficiary may want to engage, but not right now or in other ways. The ‘good-listener’ and reflective traits of the introvert scientist might really suit some of the more introverted beneficiaries of the knowledge.
Actually, I took the test*. It transpires I am neither one thing nor the other – I am an ‘Ambivert’ and, as it happens, a scientist. So that makes me perfect for the 2-way (enthuse and listen) process of public engagement then … doesn’t it? Hmm…
Dr Lucy Green
Read more from the ‘Developing Healthy Lives’ blog here.