Erudite ecologists

by Stephanie Chasteen on August 6, 2007

This past weekend I was invited to speak at the Ecological Society of America for a workshop on communicating science. A bunch of ecologists wanted to know how to talk about their research to a broader audience. This is a huge issue nowadays, in part because of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) new “Broader Impacts” portion of their grants, which stipulates that researchers have to indicate how they will bring their work to the public. There are currently no reward systems in place for academics to talk to the public about their work (they get kudos for publications, not public lectures), and they’re not trained to explain their work in short, simple sentences.

I spoke about my own career path (which I’ll post on later), and one student mentioned this was useful because it shows you don’t have to walk the straight and narrow path (boy, I’ll say). I also talked a lot about blogging, even though I’m not the world’s expert, and about podcasting too and how to get your message across by talking clearly and using examples that are familiar to your listeners.

One thing I was struck by was that the ecologists were concerned that it was difficult to explain their science because it was esoteric and not directly related to people’s lives. And then they talked about waterways running dry, endangered species and the disruption of ecosystems, and trees. What the heck are you complaining about!? In physics we’re trying to talk about neutrinos, dark matter, and superconductors. And they’re worried about talking about trees? Give me a break. 🙂 However, it is true that all science faces many of the same challenges in communication. In physics and chemistry, though, we’re often discussing things people have no direct experience with at all, and their only relationship to these things is through curiosity.

Now, that said, many people say you have to show how science is directly related to someone’s life in order to draw them in. I disagree. It certainly helps if you can answer the question “how does this relate to me?” but people do also have a natural curiosity about the world and how it works. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have all the popular stuff like Bill Nye, NOVA, and Mythbusters.

The other challenges that ecologists faced, that we physicists often don’t, were that the relationships and correlations they discuss are often indirect, and changes happen slowly over time, and many of the findings are nuanced or depend on context. This is a huge challenge, especially in trying to alert the public to climate change or endangered species. The public wants simple, quick, and dire messages, which the complexities of ecosystems do not lend themselves to. Al Gore spoke to the American Geophysical Union last year and urged the scientists there to find a few messages and stick to them — repeat them over and over until they become part of the public consciousness (that’s what the administration does after all). I think the same could be said of ecologists. What a massive undertaking, but necessary.

Here is a link to my talk on my website: http://www.exo.net/~drsteph/conference.html

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