December 15, 2016

The Case for Communication: Speaking vs. Being Heard

Posted by Timia Crisp

Today’s post is part of a series written by student bloggers from the AGU Fall Meeting.

By: Sarah Trimble, University of Mary Washington


General shots.

As a union of geophysical scientists, gathered in mass at our annual meeting of like minds, we presently face a tipping point in our mission of communication. All of the precision, accuracy, and controlled experiments in our world will amount to little if we do not also effectively communicate how these results can be applied by people working tirelessly in other fields. There were several sessions at AGU this year focused on that mission; I recently attended one of the oral session in this series titled PA33D: “Toward More Effective Decision Maker-Scientist Engagement.” These talks shared one common theme: how can scientists bridge the gap between our results and our clients, stakeholders, or policy makers? Various speakers had independently arrived at the same combination of solutions. These included (1) that collaboration amongst university researchers, stakeholder entities, and policy creators is critical, (2) that such efforts must include equal, mutual benefit to all parties involved, (3) that keeping “bridge” scientists on staff is vital, and (4) that increased communication benefits all participants.

In one case, a team of climate modelers in the Pacific Northwest released their hindcast regional temperature data early to a subset of their stakeholders, who recognized that the modeled values were too “spiky.” While this in itself wasn’t a scientific reason to throw out the dataset, the stakeholders’ comments did lead the academic research team to re-examine their data and discover an over-calibration in the model. Although they may not have known the cause, it was the stakeholders who noticed the effect of the error and their comments led to improved scientific modeling of climate data in the region.

In a separate talk, scientists from the multi-member team looking to improve water management for Denver emphasized the inclusion of legal teams in their efforts to model the impact of climate change on water availability to the growing Denver metropolitan area; not only is precipitation and evapotranspiration important in modeling Denver’s future water needs, but so is the effect of upstream water rights laws. Vulnerability is rarely based purely on geophysical data.

Similarly, J.R. Arnold gave a well-attended talk that made one unique point not covered by the other session speakers. It is possible that policy makers hear climate scientists obsessing with uncertainty and don’t realize that is the job of these scientists to understand and reduce uncertainty, but also that there is plenty we are certain about. We need to more frequently discuss uncertainty with stakeholders and we need to do it in a way that helps decisions makers understand what it means (statistically) and how that is markedly different from risk. It is shown, for example, that we are living in an increasingly carbon-filled atmosphere. We have also observed that increased carbon is linked with increased temperature, and that anthropogenic forcing has catalyzed increased carbon load. The risk, for a stakeholder, does not lie in scientists’ uncertainty about how many hundredths of a degree the average global temperature rise may be by 2100; the risk for policy makers lies in how well or how poorly prepared they are for their future in a certainly changing climate.

Perhaps most critically, one speaker in the session pointed out that he was the only person on the “other side” of these collaborations. As an employee within California Water Management, he identified with the stakeholders and policy makers. J.R. Arnold heavily drove home that an element critical to his team’s successful vulnerability assessment of the future California water supply was the establishment of his role as a “bridge” scientist; because he was so heavily involved with the academic research side of data and model development, he had a deep enough understanding of the dataset that he was able to fully explain all of its results, uses, and implications to his colleagues and bosses within the state agency. This was remarkably more effective than being given a report from the research team after experiments and results were complete. Because he had been heavily involved in the research throughout, he was more able to explain, disseminate, and apply the results of the analysis going forward. A researcher summed up J.R. Arnold’s talk well when he stated during the talk, “You can’t just give someone a dataset and expect them to understand it, […and] expect them to solve problems in that way.”

There are multiple avenues we can venture down to improve communication of results to stakeholders. Increased collaboration is certainly one of them. Improving our communication of broader impacts to stakeholders will be critical not only to improved application of results, but also to our own continued successes. If we do not continue to improve our ability to communicate highly technical results to people with educations in different fields than our own, we will remain insular, and our results will never fulfill their full potential.

To find more information about the speakers and talks during this session, please see the AGU 2016 Fall Meeting page.