Scientific research has long played a critical role in identifying and solving society’s problems. Scientists have helped forecast and prepare for acute risks from floods to wildfires, and provided vital information to guide solutions to chronic challenges ranging from stabilizing food supplies to managing finite marine fisheries.
But research alone is not enough. The ability to navigate complex environmental and social challenges depends more on the use of scientific knowledge than on the publication of new research. Even the most relevant research, if left locked in obscurity in peer-reviewed journals, might as well be entombed in the pyramids. Without publicly airing their evidence, scientists have little hope of being heard in noisy debates about climate change and other politicized issues. Yet learning how to enter the fray is not typically part of a scientist’s education.
To address this lack, and on the heels of her now classic Science paper, A New Social Contract for Science, marine ecologist Jane Lubchenco and other leading environmental scientists created a new program called COMPASS to help academics communicate their science and make it matter. In the beginning, this effort was often about convincing scientists why they should engage beyond academia. But in today’s social and political environment, that has vastly changed. The following insights have emerged from direct experience working with thousands of environmental scientists who want to effectively bring science to today’s critical environmental decisions.
First Scientists Must Overcome Their Fears
Compelled by a sense of urgency, many environmental scientists are eager to communicate their research, inform policy, and be a part of solutions. Still, they face many barriers such as past negative experiences with journalists, not knowing how to connect with policymakers, or lack of institutional support or incentives for engagement outside of academia.
They also may not feel they have the competence or confidence to talk with journalists or navigate the corridors of power in Congress, state legislatures, and federal agencies. Often they don’t know how to begin.
One way to help scientists overcome these kinds of obstacles is to invite journalists to participate in communication workshops with them. Many journalists appreciate the chance to meet scientists doing interesting research and help them figure out what is most important to communicate. Journalists often struggle to interview scientists who have a hard time explaining their work. A common refrain is, “Boy, do they need help.”
Journalists are professional question-askers. They can provide an outside perspective, and feedback that helps scientists cut to the chase of the relevance of their work and avoid jargon, so that a non-scientist audience understands why it matters.
Scientists need to be encouraged to reach out to journalists when they have relevant research or expertise to bring to bear on an issue in the news. This can come as a shocker: “They want to hear from us?” Often, journalists who participate in workshops find that the scientists are useful sources of expertise. Thus, as a result of carefully designed opportunities to interact, both the scientists and journalists expand their networks—and come to appreciate why the cultures of science and journalism sometimes don’t align, but can be bridged.
As scientists gain confidence in their communication chops, they become more eager to use them and more ready to set up meetings on timely policy issues. Convening scientists, legal experts, managers, and policymakers on topics such as ocean acidification, fisheries, fires, or drought can lead to thoughtful evaluations of policy scenarios through a scientific lens. Scientists can lead joint exploration of which solutions are likely to work, which are not, and why, and they can expand the range of options available to policymakers.
By talking with decision makers, scientists learn what they want to know, and can pursue directly relevant research questions that “contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes.”
Scientists also benefit from guidance in understanding policy processes and identifying opportunities to engage with policymakers. Sometimes when a scientist effectively communicates their research, it gets wide media play. Then policymakers may take note and reach out to the scientist to learn more. This can be unfamiliar terrain as scientists find themselves launched into new spheres of influence.
Scientists in New Orbits
Jenna Jambeck studies waste management engineering at the University of Georgia. She and a team of researchers at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis published a review paper in Science in 2015 synthesizing international data on how much plastic debris enters the ocean each year.. She whittled down a massive amount of data to a few compelling points. For example, humans dump 8 million tons of plastics into the oceans each year—that’s five grocery bags for every foot of coastline in the world. She wrote a press release, reached out to the media, and made herself available, no matter how much time it took.
A media tsunami, from The New York Times to The Onion, followed publication catalyzing new political conversations about plastic waste. Jambeck then received support from policy savvy NGOs who could help set up meetings with congressional staffers. She was also invited to testify before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. At first Jambeck wanted to flee from this sudden attention but she decided she could make a difference and pressed on.
In 2017, Jambeck coauthored a review on what’s known about how marine plastics work their way into the food web in the Annual Review of Environment and Resources. She argued for a “Global Convention on Plastic Pollution,” similar to other international conventions that tackle persistent organic pollutants such as DDT and PCBs. Today Jambeck advises policymakers around the globe to advance waste management solutions for plastics as an informational speaker for the U.S. State Department. And based on the data Jambeck and her colleagues gathered, the U.S. Agency for International Development has created a new program funding solid waste reduction programs around the world.
The Importance of Communities of Support
The research world can be isolated, especially across disciplines. Communication workshops and leadership development programs can help researchers break out of their silos, forming a peer network of like-minded supporters.
Longer leadership programs can foster these interdisciplinary networks and embolden scientists helping them sustain their efforts over the long haul. Along with time and space to focus on techniques for engaging with journalists and policymakers, scientists benefit from peer support as they focus on why they want to engage. When they set goals for the change they want to see in the world and support each other in taking risks, reaching out, and providing knowledge and solutions toward that change it can lead to lasting impact.
Motivated by communication leadership workshops and programs—which can be from one day to a week in length—scientists continue to connect with each other long after the program ends. Regular peer coaching calls (fondly monikered “BAT calls” for Becoming Awesome Together) allow participants to share their successes and failures. When Jon Moore at Simon Fraser University in Canada learned that a Liquefied Natural Gas terminal was approved for development in the Skeena River estuary—despite years of collaborative science with First Nations and others showing that it was a critical salmon nursery—his scientist colleagues from the Wilburforce Fellowship in Conservation Science rallied around him. They provided him with the moral support to persist. The application to build the LNG terminal was later withdrawn, and in January 2019 the marine area was officially protected from industrial development in order to support salmon habitat.
Scientists’ insights can create other kinds of challenges. Those who study the effects of climate change, for example, can grapple with depression as they witness impacts to species and the places they love. The moral support they get and give to each other helps them move from despair to action. During a rough week in climate news last fall, Meade Krosby, a Senior Scientist with the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington, wrote an opinion piece from her perspective as a climate adaptation scientist after learning and practicing this skill in a science communication workshop. She shared her Op-Ed with her network of fellows and asserted that despite what can seem like relentlessly bad news, “My brave, smart, hard-working colleagues are a huge source of hope and comfort for me.”
Writing opinion pieces can also make a scientist visible and a “go-to person’ for further comment.
Recently, a Washington Post reporter emailed Krosby to respond to President Trump’s decision to call a committee to review the science of climate change. She responded immediately and said she would call the reporter in 10 minutes. Meanwhile, she collected her thoughts using a tool called the message box from her communications training. She decided “not to mince words.”
“Meade Krosby, a senior scientist at the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group, said the initiative showed a disconnect with reality. The world has already warmed more than 1 degree Celsius since pre-industrial levels, and a recent U.N. scientific report concluded the world will have to cut its carbon output 45 percent by 2030 to avert some of the most catastrophic consequences of climate change. ‘The idea that what we really need is to revisit the basic science of climate change when we are already feeling its impacts is absurd,’ she said. ‘There is no meaningful scientific disagreement on the facts.’ ”
Propelled by the data, a growing number of scientists are eager to speak out on what the scientific evidence shows.
Another aspect of bridging science and policy focuses on “who can do what, and when.” Scientists can more effectively impact policy if they think strategically about who they need to connect with in order to achieve their goals.
Who has authority or jurisdiction to make decisions relevant to the issue at hand? Who influences those decisions and who is impacted? What do these people care about and what are their concerns?
By mapping a constellation of key people, scientists can draw on their networks and see a role for themselves within their vision for change. They increase the odds of having impact if they identify and rely on navigators (people who help them understand the players, authorities, networks and relationships relevant to a particular policy issue) and champions (individuals who can advance ideas and motivate action).
When Jane Lubchenco, economist Steve Polasky and other scientists instigated ecosystem services—the valuation of the benefits that people receive from nature such as clean air and water—into government decision-making, it became clear that each federal agency had their own way of thinking and talking about these services. It was critical for the scientists to lean on navigators who could help develop a common vocabulary and find the levers of change.
It helped to work with partners to identify and support champions who were poised to carry the efforts forward within agencies and who could communicate across the federal family. The levers of change varied across groups such as the Forest Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, or the U.S. Geological Survey. Thinking strategically about “who can do what” enables scientists to both identify and create pathways for change. The value of developing and tapping into networks has been a key ingredient for scientists to effectively engage with the right people at the right time.
Another key ingredient involves communicating across different professional cultures. For example, “uncertainty” in academic research settings often means something different in regulatory policymaking settings. While uncertainty is an inherent part of scientific research, in policy settings it can be conflated with doubt in order to justify inaction on environmental topics. When scientists lead with what they know, then add the caveats, all in straightforward language they can frame the dialogue in terms of what is known based on scientific evidence and provide greater clarity and understanding.
The Value of Bridging Science and Society
These examples shed light on how to design programs, provide support, and create policy engagement opportunities to help scientists achieve “lift off.” But the deeper, more nuanced aspects of facilitating relationships among people from the science, policymaking, and journalism communities is creating conditions for ongoing exchange, where scientists can be heard as trusted sources of accurate information. Ultimately we need a more central role for scientific evidence in decision making, to help guide us towards a sustainable future. As scientists know, never has it been more urgent.
Stephen Posner, Ph.D. is Assistant Director of Policy Engagement at COMPASS, where he leads programs, develops strategies, and creates opportunities for science to impact policy. He has published research in journals such as Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Environmental Science & Policy, Nature Communications, and Ecological Economics. He earned a Ph.D. in natural resources at the University of Vermont, a B.S. in astronomy and physics at Haverford College, and completed graduate study in science education at Stanford University.
For almost two decades, Nancy Baron has worked with environmental scientists as the Director of Science Outreach for COMPASS. She leads communication workshops and designs leadership programs for academic, government, and NGO scientists around the world. She has won numerous writing awards including the Canadian Science Writers Science in Society and National Magazine awards. Her popular “how to” communications book for scientists titled Escape from the Ivory Tower: A guide to making your science matter, is widely used to teach communication to scientists (Island Press). She is based at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara.
The opinions expressed here do not represent those of Bloomberg Environment, which welcomes other points of view.