The panel discussion at ESA 2014, organized by Liza Lester and myself, was well attended (~50 people) and fostered a dynamic conversation. When we put together the panel, Liza and I were conscious about making it more than an echo chamber for science communication people, and I think the diversity of the panelists–journalist, press officer, citizen science organizer, trainer of scientists in communications, scientist in advocacy, and scientist studying the social science of policymaking–meant that everyone brought different experiences and information to the table and everyone came away with new info.
The Importance of Connection and Considering Others’ Interests
I kicked off the event with a video of a guy on The Bachelorette completely boring his date when she asks why she should care about the environment. He talks about on-demand water heaters… and she dumps him on the spot. He seems totally clueless that her body language is saying she’s becoming progressively less and less interested in water heaters. Her reason for dumping a guy who seems to be her “dream guy,” is because she doesn’t “feel a connection” to him. My point here is that effective communication is most about developing a trusting relationship with a group, and connecting to that group’s values and interests.
What is Successful Science Communication, Anyway?
Liza Lester then asked the audience to guess which of the following press release titles would be the most effective or successful:
- The story of the fig and its wasp
- Poo pump: whales as ecosystem engineers
- Crocodile tears please butterflies and bees
- Yellowstone wolves take a blow to their rep
- Inaugural cross-disciplinary Public Participation in Scientific Research conference
- Landscape connectivity: corridors and more
Of course, everyone went for the poo pump and the crocodile tears, with a few loyal fans of fig wasps and wolves. Liza’s point ended up being more nuanced: Each of these articles was successful in its own way. Some are the most clicked on their website, the most retweeted, the most broadly distributed across popular sites, the highest longevity of interest, etc. And some, she noted, were just about timing. “Inaugural cross-disciplinary Public Participation in Scientific Research conference” was released at the time of the conference, and a lot of people wanted to know about it. Then, Liza posed her real question: Is this success? The overarching answer was… not necessarily.
Virginia Gewin noted that her idea of success as a freelance journalist is getting hired again by an editor. She said that she doesn’t think analytics and engagement mean much, and that it means a lot more to her if someone takes the time to write her and tell her how her work made an impression on them. Many others in the audience and panel agreed that online analytics and social media engagement are not accurate measures of success or effectiveness when it comes to science communication, yet they are often used in that context.
Once Scientific Results Are Published, Is the Scientist’s Job Done?
Virginia Gewin then talked about how most scientists think that their job is finished when they publish a scientific paper. As an example of the repercussions of this attitude, Virginia talked about a recent news feature she wrote for Nature on the relationship that developed between California governor Jerry Brown and two paleoecologists, Anthony Barnowsky of UC Berkeley and his wife Elizabeth Hadley of Stanford, after the latter two published a paper in Nature that concluded that the Earth had reached a global tipping point in loss of species and ecosystems and pollution because of human-caused climate change.
The most powerful part of the Nature news feature, Virginia thought, was a phone call between Brown and Bernowsky that basically came down to Brown wanting to know: If most or all scientists agree on this, why haven’t you been shouting it from the rooftops? And Hadley said, “We thought we were….”
From then on, Governor Brown worked with Bernowsky and Hadley to translate their science into a “consensus statement” from scientists to policymakers, which included 3,300 signatures from scientists. The document has been used in a variety of policymaking circles, and has ended up in powerful hands, including those of President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Hadley now calls this document “more valuable than anything else I’ve done in my career.”
In response to Virginia’s point about the attitude that a scientist’s job is done when they publish a paper, members of our audience made the point that even if they don’t think their job is done, they often do not have the time to work on effective dissemination of their results to the public and policymakers, and they may not know who can help them.
Virginia pointed out that editors look for strong characters in her writing, and this story was powerful because Bernowsky and Hadley were characters in a narrative.
“So What” is More Important than “What” or “How”
Heather Galindo, of COMPASS, emphasized that scientists often spend too much on the “what” and “how” of their work, when the public and media are more interested in the “so what.” That “so what” should come first, before any other nuances are communicated. She also emphasized that trust and relationships are a key metric of science communication success but are rarely used.
When Your Audience Can’t Ask Questions, They Struggle with Abstract Concepts
Holly Menninger of NC State University brought an activity to show how difficult it is to communicate abstract information when the audience cannot respond with questions: She assigned abstract line drawings to small groups. Only one person was allowed to see the drawing, and that person had to describe it while the others drew it but could not ask questions. The task demonstrated (1) how difficult science journalism and communications work is because your finished product is disseminated without feedback from the audience first, and (2) the importance of metaphor and analogies in describing an abstract image.
The Importance of Taking the Time to Communicate Well
Jensen Montambault of the Nature Conservancy talked about how communication and collaboration can lead to better and more widely used science. To that end, she noted, the Nature Conservancy is organizing social scientists who study science communication to come talk to scientists in their organization. Many scientists do not appreciate how much further their science can go until they make communication a priority. The public may resist listening to scientists because they do not trust them and may see them as narcissists.
Jonathan London of UC Davis, who researches decision-making and policymaking in environmental justice, focused on the issue of time. He emphasized that collaborative partnerships take time–You have to learn the language of other groups (policy, law, the public), build trust, and build capacity. It isn’t easy, and he noted that tenure committees do not always value time spent this way, despite the fact that such relationships are deeply meaningful to your work reaching beyond the Ivory Tower.
Should Scientists Be Impartial or Advocates for Issues They Care About?
Heather Galindo, Jensen Montambault, and Jonathan London all agreed on the answer: Scientists must work hard to be seen as honest brokers of information–as information advocates. Heather noted that studies show that if a scientist becomes associated with a polarized issue, he or she may not be able to shake that image and the stereotypes associated with it. Once the public has an association, it is very hard to change, said Heather. Jonathan talked about his experiences in policymaking, where he often helped bring empirical tools–such as demographic mapping–to an advocacy group or government agency. In doing so, he was giving them information they sought without needing to explicitly take sides. He noted that in some situations, solutions or policies were not ideal in his opinion, but his job was to help them fill knowledge gaps. It was their jobs to decide what to do with that knowledge. For him, keeping those boundaries was an important part of maintaining trust in him as an honest broker of information.
How Do You Successfully Reach a New Audience, Rather than Those Already Interested?
The response from the panel and audience was loud and clear: Listen. Communicating what is important to you is not about you and what you want them to understand. “Take yourself out of the equation,” one of the panelists advised. “Address the concerns of the audience you want to reach in a relevant way.”
Down with the Deficit Model!
Heather Galindo added that the problem usually is not that a new audience has not been exposed to enough information, but rather that they don’t think that information is important, nor do they value the sources of it. This idea that people don’t have enough information, called the deficit model, prevailed in early social science studies of science communication. Over time, the conversation shifted: The information is available; they just don’t care about it in the first place. So, step number one is understanding what your audience cares about, and what sources they value, so that you can make your ideas relevant to them and, even better, perhaps they can hear it from someone whose word they already trust.