Yesterday I found myself in an interesting conversation with a biologist regarding climate change. We were talking about how the loss of permafrost will be particularly devastating given the positive feedback loop that will lead to warmer temperatures. The subject was carbon emissions…
And that’s exactly where I was focused when I started seriously studying climate change. I was a graduate student at the University of Maine in the School of Marine Science interested in ocean acidification – the way all of our excess carbon is changing ocean pH and the marine environment in ways we cannot yet predict. (A topic that has yet to make a dent in the mainstream media, but soon we won’t be able to ignore as easily).
From there I moved into the political realm, working for Senator Bill Nelson on oceans, environment, and energy. It was the year of An Inconvenient Truth and emphasis was on whether cap and trade might pass. On the Hill, climate was inextricably linked to policy discussions that would ultimately fail, setting us back at least 10 years.
Next came Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment where climate is on everyone’s mind. I was part of The Pimm Group, which is interested in the conservation of biodiversity by saving forests. And since deforestation contributes tremendously to our GHG problem, reforestation would not only trap carbon, but also protect hotspots for threatened species.
Four years later I moved to UT’s Austin’s School of Engineering. Same topic, different language. Climate, after all, is really an energy conversation. Engineers are a more optimistic generally, but very practical as well. At The Webber Energy Group, we were focused on finding solutions through new technologies and more efficient practices.
Now I work at the McCombs School of Business as Director of UT’s Project on Energy Communication. It’s an initiative to understand public attitudes and perceptions of energy topics like hydraulic fracturing, the Keystone Pipeline, renewables, and more–which in turn, will be extremely useful in related policy discussions.
I don’t expect many people spend time in as many academic silos as I have–and with each step I’ve come to appreciate a different way of thinking about the same problem. The language, expertise, interests, and motivations change along the way, but they are all players in a much larger symphony that tells the story of, perhaps, the greatest global challenge we face: A changing planet.
I still have much to learn. But that’s just the point. We all do. So while it’s easy to barricade ourselves off from other compartmentalized departments by presuming we’re the ones who truly understand the arduous road ahead, that’s a losing strategy.
Instead, keep an open mind and talk to colleagues in other fields. You might begin to perceive your own questions in a myriad of new ways. And if we work hard at understanding each other – we might actually make progress.
Even as climate science advances, it will be just as important to invest in research on how best to communicate environmental risks. Otherwise scientific knowledge will not have the role that it should in the shaping of public policy.
Exactly. And Chris makes this important point as well:
And when I came out (with Sheril Kirshenbaum) with the book Unscientific America in 2009, scientists repeatedly asked why they should be the ones to step up and communicate–wasn’t it somebody else’s job? Why give the poor scientist an added task, on top of research, teaching, and grant writing?
That fewer and fewer people say these things now–that the importance of framing, and outreach, and avoiding jargon, and going to your local science communication training, are increasingly taken as obvious–really says something. It says something about how thankfully willing the scientific community is to accept change; and how passe it now is to object to the very things that were frequently denounced just half a decade earlier.
“The first guy through the wall is always the one who gets bloody,” says a character in the recent film Moneyball (which I caught on the plane). But the wall has now been fully breached. And science communicators, and science communication advocates, and science communication researchers, and science communication trainers are pouring through it.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t much more to achieve. But sometimes, it doesn’t hurt to glance back over the ground that has already been conquered.
Science Magazine is hosting a series of weekly live chats and yesterday’s conversation was of particular interest to me because it dealt with the way partisan politics impedes scientific progress:
Last year, Republicans took control of the House of Representatives by promising to slash federal spending. Science, especially funding for climate change studies and applied energy technologies, was expected to be a prime target. Yet 1 year later, the budgets of most research agencies are largely intact. What’s more, science has done better than most of the rest of the federal budget.
This week, we’ll look at why that happened. Our panelists will be two veterans of the federal science policy wars. We’ll also talk about what’s in store for next year, when a budget agreement struck last summer is supposed to take a $900-billion bite out of both civilian and military spending. And we’ll gaze into our crystal ball for signs of any improvements to the current tortured system of annual appropriations that might make it more responsive to the needs of the country.
Panelists included Joel Widder, of The Oldaker Group, and Mike Stephens, of the Association of Schools of Public Health. They covered a wide spectrum of topics from monitoring the weather to STEM education to energy. At 3:50 there’s an important point about advocacy among early career scientists:
Joel Widder: It is vitally important for graduate students and post-docs to become comfortable and active in the science advocacy process. In my experience — grad students and post docs can be among the best ambassadors for science because their passion and enthusiasm comes through in ways that Members of Congress and staff appreciate and remember. Working through AAAS or other science organizations can be a very effective way for students and post docs to get the support and help they need for helping to make the case.
Exactly. The entire chat is worth reading and now available at Science..
Over the past decade, I’ve seen, heard, and participated in the call for more scientists to reach out and communicate what we do beyond the ivory towers of academia in order to improve public understanding of science. I receive a great deal of correspondence from the science community asking how to engage broad audiences, what it looks like, and who to speak with. I’d like to briefly address the final question..
There are many excellent science journalists who inhabit the blogosphere and those mainstream news outlets that still feature science sections. These talented individuals want to share your story, your research, and they appreciate and value what you do.
However, there are also a lot of horrible journalists making the rest of us look bad.. Writers who care less about getting it right, and more about trumping up controversy. Journalists whose headlines are notoriously misleading or false. Some make up quotes without speaking to you. Others pair your story with pseudoscience, giving both so-called “sides” equal space. And so on..
The take home message is this: It’s not just the responsibility of scientists to reach out. It’s also on science journalists. And we need more skilled, credible, and honest storytellers doing their part to get the narrative right–particularly on topics like climate science, vaccination, and energy. Having a science background is an asset, not a hurdle for this trajectory.
Yes, I encourage scientists to speak to journalists – but do your homework first. Forge relationships with writers you trust. I also want to encourage science students passionate to make a difference to seriously consider pursuing science journalism. Not as an “alternative career” if your research doesn’t work out, but as a competitive and extremely challenging occupation.
Science is under siege. The pressure is mounting and we’re losing important battles in policy and the public arena. But it’s not too late. We need new soldiers–a resurgence of excellent science journalists.
How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun? (One year)
Electrons are smaller than atoms. (True)
It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl. (True)
Data source: NSF Science & Engineering Indicators 2010 (Correct answers from 2008 survey)
One of the most fascinating talks I saw at TEDGlobal was delivered by Harald Haas, who has developed a way for light to transmit far more data than radio waves. He demonstrated how it works (for the first time in public) using a desk lamp to transmit an HD video data stream:
D-Light, uses a mathematical trick called OFDM (orthogonal frequency division multiplexing), which allows it to vary the intensity of the LED’s output at a very fast rate, invisible to the human eye (for the eye, the bulb would simply be on and providing light). The signal can be picked up by simple receivers. As of now, Haas is reporting data rates of up to 10 MBit/s per second (faster than a typical broadband connection), and 100 MBit/s by the end of this year and possibly up to 1 GB in the future.
Sheril Kirshenbaum: How did you team up with Will.i.am?
Dean Kamen: I wish I could take credit for it, but I was sitting at my desk doing my day job in New Hampshire when I got a phone call from Will.i.am. I figured this conversation would go downhill fast because he would tell me that I’m not recognizing the value of entertainers. But that’s not what happened.
Instead he said, “I understand the problem and my heroes are those in science and technology. Our future depends on them. You’re one of my heroes. Way too many kids never get a chance to understand the opportunities out there, so I want to help!”
We discussed how even the ultimate poster child for a sport like football during the Superbowl still needs to bring in entertainers. So I suggested he might do a halftime show at our FIRST competition in April in St. Louis. By then end of that phone call, he agreed to get his friends in the Black Eyed Peas for the show.
But things didn’t end there. Will flew to New Hampshire in the middle of the winter to be at the FIRST kick off event in early January. As the finals got closer, he said, “we’re going to do this show and it’s going to be great – but if you really want this thing loud, it’s got to be like the Superbowl where it’s not just the people at the Superbowl it impacts. We need to get it on television – on a network. And not as a special “science event.” We need to wrap together the competition and a concert.”
I said, “Will if you can do that, you’re my hero.” He started putting it together and I called major sponsors asking them to put their name and credibility behind something we all believe in. General Motors, FedEx, Johnson & Johnson, and Xerox all signed on. The CEO of Coca-Cola got on board and J.C. Penny too, which promotes FIRST teams out of every location where they operate a store. Intel is a major sponsor. It doesn’t get better than that.
As if I needed another reason to love Will.i.am… More from my conversation with Dean coming soon.
Read Part I and Part III of our conversation and make sure to tune in to ABC with your family at 7pm to celebrate science and technology. Watch and get involved. To learn more about this incredible organization (driven almost entirely by volunteers), visit usfirst.org:
A beautiful rendering of evolution by the greatest science communicator of all time, Carl Sagan:
I always enjoy receiving email from readers and–with Matthew’s permission–I’m answering his question publicly because the subject matters tremendously:
I am a new Assistant Professor at [a large public university] studying Emerging Infectious Diseases. The lab is doing well now and I have a little time to think about other things now and again. I have always wanted to be involved with science policy in DC and wanted to know if you could point me in the right direction to get started? Any tips to getting involved on Capital Hill with providing information to Congressman or deciders on science funding, direction of research etc?
You’ve highlighted an enormous problem. In politics, science is treated as special interest group yet it’s central to every single major 21st century challenge: Energy, human health, climate change, ocean acidification, national security, and on and on. We critically need more scientists engaging in policy discussions, but the traditional academic system is set up to discourage it. As we train for careers in science as graduate students, politics doesn’t seem like a viable trajectory. Unfortunately, it comes with the label of “non-traditional alternative” which likely deters many. And early-career scientists don’t usually have the time to explore the possibility as they navigate through the perilous ‘publish or perish’ years.
But unless the science community gets more engaged telling our own stories both on and off Capitol Hill, special interest groups will do it for us–and we won’t like the result. Fortunately, there are a myriad of ways to stay active in policy and have influence and I sincerely hope that more scientists consider them. After all, there are very few tenure track jobs waiting for the ever-growing number of newly minted PhD’s who have the expertise make necessary contributions beyond the ivory towers. (You’ll find a much longer discussion of this in Chapter 10 of Unscientific America).
As for how to get involved, there are unlimited possibilities.. You can start at the local level where you live, whether it’s writing OpEds, blogging, or offering to serve as a science advisor to a local politician (you’d be surprised how much they need and appreciate this). You may also consider going over the extensive list of Policy Fellowships for Scientists and Engineers (updated regularly and linked in the sidebar) to see if any match your background and interests. You can get active in terrific groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists or the Scientists and Engineers for America who regularly make the rounds on Capitol Hill. Or join ScienceDebate.org, working to encourage candidates to discuss science issues along the campaign trail. And don’t forget that as a constituent, you can always call, email, or visit your member’s office to share insight or offer your perspective. They represent us, so they need to hear from us!
I hope that you dive in and join the effort to restore science to it’s rightful place* in politics.
* This is the mission statement of sciencedebate.org and a memorable line from Obama’s inaugural address.