December 11, 2017

Why we need scientists talking

Posted by Timia Crisp

Today’s post is part of a series written by student bloggers from the AGU Fall Meeting.
By: Victoria DiStefano, University of Tennessee

Like previous years, this year’s Fall Meeting was filled with engaging science presentations. From cutting edge technology to brand new discoveries about planets millions of miles away, I feel like a giddy 6-year-old skipping (or walking quickly) to the next presentation (which spans the mile-long conference center in New Orleans, no joke). But, besides the science, there are many other things topics that were discussed through talks, panels, and seminars. And this year, one theme shined though, the importance of communicating our science.

Dan Rather, veteran journalist, presenting the Presidential Forum: A Return to Reason at the 2017 American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting in New Orleans.

This theme was particularly evident in this year’s Presidential Forum: A Return to Reason, a talk from veteran journalist, Dan Rather. As a kind of formal kick off to this year’s conference, the Presidential Forum highlighted some of the important challenges we, as scientists, face. As kindred spirits to journalists like Dan Rather, we seek truth, and there are many obstacles we both must overcome, including superstition, ignorance, and propaganda. Some might feel doomed to despair, but Dan Rather had a powerful message to scientists, the best of science isn’t afraid— it identifies what we want to change and how we go about doing it.

An important thing scientists want to change is how the public perceives science. And as Dan Rather pointed out, the story of science is being lost in pop culture. But how do we change that? How do we change the perception of “educated elites” and show the public how interesting our work is? Well, Dan Rather had some suggestions on that as well. We need new, innovative bridges to understanding focused on storytelling. We need to highlight the joy and awe of discovery. We need to show what we are passionate about in our own research. I, for one, love shales. They just look like a lump of gray rock, but they are so complex, with tiny holes, lots of crystal grains, and matter that used to be dead organisms millions of years ago!

Others were also influenced by Dan Rather’s talk. When asked what she thought of the forum Lexi Shultz, Vice President of Public Affairs at AGU, said, “Dan Rather was one of the most inspiring speakers I have ever heard. I hope everyone in the audience takes him up on his challenge to share their science through stories and AGU president Eric Davidson’s call to join the AGU Sharing Science Network.” Through this type of communication, we can teach children, educate policy makers, start interest groups, or any number of small actions that can lead to big changes.

One prime example of science communication and its important interaction with policy was exhibited in the session entitled, “Science in Policy: The Cross Section of Labs and Legislation in Louisiana”. The panel was composed of four individuals who discussed the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), a government organization focused on protecting Louisiana’s coast. The CPRA was founded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and they use science-based structured decision making to create a 5-year plan for a sustainable Louisiana coast. This master plan is a complex technical document that relies on state and federal funding, current legislation, continual assessment, and public comment. At the end of the panel, the audience was able to ask questions, and overwhelmingly, they focused on how to coordinate with stakeholders and the public, highlighting again, the key challenge scientists are focused on addressing.

 It is clear from these activities that science communication is imperative to understanding and we need scientists to continue talking to the public, to stakeholders, and to policy makers to encourage they’re engagement with and understanding of science.